Capturing the action at the Chinese Opera

The 7th lunar month of the Chinese calendar is regarded as the Ghost Month & on the 15th day of this month is called the Ghost Day. On the Ghost Day, the deceased are believed to visit the living.

During this time, a number of Chinese Opera Troupes will sprout around Penang as a popular form of entertainment for both the living & the dead! However in this article I will talk about how to photograph the action on the stage… they are of course, the living… lol!

What will you need?

Bring the longest telephoto lens that you have – If you have a VR/IS lens even better but it’s not really necessary. I used a 70-200mm f/4 lens without any image stabilizer. If you don’t have a telephoto lens, bring your 50mm. If you still don’t have a 50mm after reading my article, Why shoot with a 50mm?… then your life just isn’t worth living. Please propel yourself off the roof of a tall building… well… after you donate all your camera gear to me lol!

I do not recommend anything slower than an f/4 lens however it is still possible to catch some shots in between the action. If you have an 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR/IS & a 50mm f/1.8… go with the 50mm. Although you may think that the VR/IS is going enable you to hand hold the shots but remember that since you are shooting at the largest aperture setting of f/5.6, your shutter speeds are going to be slow & the movement on the stage is going to blur your subjects. Go with a 50mm. You can’t go wrong with it.

It is not necessary to use a flash unit or a tripod. But you can if you want to. Just be mindful if you are using the flash that the actors & actresses may be distracted & may not like it. Also the audience may boo you away if they get annoyed with you. So it’s best to avoid using a flash. I’ve tried using the flash actually, the results are warmer than normal colors & flat looking images that don’t stand out. Using the stage lights as your only light source creates a kind of effect that is both dramatic & adds to the feel of the performance. As for the tripod, you will be shooting at around 1/200sec anyway so no point mounting up one. Unless of course you shake like a chimpanzee after having 7 shots of espresso, then you might need the tripod… in fact if you really shake so much, you shouldn’t be photographer & you should really quit monkeying around & go to the doctors to check if you have Parkinson’s!

The settings on your camera

You will want to set your camera to aperture priority. Set the aperture to the largest possible aperture that your lens can handle. It is safe to shoot anywhere from f/1.8 to f/4. But remember that the larger the aperture, the narrower the depth-of-field. So slight movements towards or away from the camera will render your subjects out of focus. With a 50mm I normally shoot between f/2.8 & f/4.

I normally turn on my auto ISO setting on my 5Dmk2 because it works very well under this type of conditions. If you are shooting with a Nikon, set the auto ISO shutter speed to 1/200sec & maximum ISO at 3200.

For white balance, try leaving it on auto for the time being. At the same time watch what kind of lighting is illuminating the stage. Are they incandescent bulbs? Full spectrum daylight bulbs? Or simply fluorescent lighting? If you find that your color balance shift a lot in your photos, hard set it to the various WB settings that is on your camera. Experiment with the different WB settings looking for the one setting that gives you a slightly warm look but not so much that whites look too yellow. You will know you nailed the correct WB setting when the costumes have a colorful & vibrant look without the reds being too overblown. Watch your RGB meters for that.

As for the color settings, set it to standard will do. Do not turn up the color saturation on the camera, leave it at default. In low light & high ISO, the colors will automatically saturate a notch up so there is no need to overdo this. In fact at times if the lighting is too warm, you may need to dial your color saturation setting down a bit. The way to tell this is to look for a section of the costume, take red for example. Check your LCD after taking a shot… if you can’t see the folds on that section of the costume, then your saturation is too high. Dial it down until you can distinctly see the folds clearly. This could sometimes also mean that you have overexposed the shot, so you might want to dial down your exposure somewhat at the same time.

Set your focusing to enable all 9 points & enable AI SERVO. The focus points on the Canons are close together enough to get your shots in focus. In fact I shot all my Chinese Opera photos with this setting & never had a problem with an out of focus image. The photo featured in this article was taken with this setting, and I still nailed her eyes despite the other dudes spear which was in front of her.

Capturing the action

If you have a telephoto lens, stand about 3-4 metres from the stage either to the left or right. Please be respectful of the audience & not stand right smack in the middle. It’s ok if there are few members of the audience present but normally that is not the case. If you are using a 50mm, then move a little closer to the stage.

Shooting using a 50mm with your AI SERVO turned on may be a little tricky especially when you are up close near to the stage.  Be very careful when the subjects come to the front of the stage that you don’t mis-focus on the lower parts of their bodies. What would really be disastrous is if you posted a photo on facebook of the nai ma in a low down angle with her breasts in-focus at f/2.0!! lol!

If you are going for tight shots, find an angle that allows you to frame the subject in front of a dark background or one that has a consistent color or texture. If you are shooting at a wider angle, look for sections of the play that has two or more actors & actresses interacting. Watch for interesting expressions & gestures… avoid shooting the keh leh feh who is just standing there like a potato. Capturing the actor’s or actresses’ arms, hands & fingers can add to the dramatic feel of the performance.

The lighting on the stage will not be consistent. Generally the light will be brighter at the front of the stage & gradually dim towards the back. You will need to adjust your exposure compensation to match the lighting intensity when the subjects move from the back to the front of the stage.

The thing to look out for in the performance is the cliché pauses which is typical for the traditional Chinese opera. This is usually at the end of a phrase in the lyrics of the song & usually ends in an exaggerated pose. Watch for this & you will capture some amazing moments with your camera!

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