Photography enthusiasts! Help me select a new camera and lens.

I am, or at least am trying to be, a theatre lighting and set designer. In order to be successful at this, I need to put together a good portfolio of my work, and to do this I need good photographs of my work. Theatre companies (at least, competent theatre companies) normally hire someone with good skills and equipment to take publicity photographs, but that doesn’t entirely cover my needs because such photographers are shooting to show off the actors, not my work specifically, so things that I was proud of and that were integral to the whole of the design weren’t shown at all. I used to own* a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera that I’d try to use to cover these flaws, but that didn’t work so well, because that cheap little camera either underexposed the photographs badly or else left the shutter open so long that the actors were blurred too badly to be useful. Only in extremely bright scenes did that little camera successfully get me shots that were useful, and even then it complained to me that things were underexposed. Obviously, using a flash entirely ruins the shot, because I’m very interested in recording what the stage lights are doing at the time. I know it’s possible to get good photographs under these circumstances because these semi-professional photographers with good camera equipment are doing it-- I want to know what I need to look for in a camera to get reasonable photographs myself.

What I’ve been able to understand is that the little point-and-shoot digital camera didn’t collect light quickly enough, and so it either tried to leave the shutter open longer, creating blurred photographs, or it closed the shutter quickly and the photographs were underexposed. I know that you can, in theory, adjust the aperture size to compensate, but either that little camera didn’t have the ability to do so or I just couldn’t figure it out. I also seem to get that buying a nice lens helps alleviate this problem because it allows more light to be gathered, so you don’t need a long exposure to get enough light for the shot.

So in summary, I need to be able to take relatively unblurred photographs of moving (not quickly moving, but still moving) people under stage lights. What do I need in terms of a camera and a lens to be able to do this? Thanks in advance!
*Stolen this summer, in an unrelated event.

Well, the first thing you need is a tripod, particularly to take pictures of sets. This would be useful, too, if you can take “staged” pictures, with the actors holding their positions for you, rather than moving as they would in a normal presentation.

However, the next thing you need to look at in a camera’s specs is how fast it can go, i.e., the ISO rating. The bigger the better, but bigger usually means more grain. That means using a digital SLR camera, because usually they are better in this dimension – and the better of those perform better at high ISO.

I’m going to need to ask a lot of technical questions here: ISO is the shutter speed, right? And I’ve seen this phrase, “digital SLR” thrown around, but what does it mean, and what is it? And, I suppose, what is it not-- what are the other options, if only so I can recognize something else?

And yes, a tripod is a good idea to take photos of sets, but often the thing I’ve worked so hard to achieve is the way the light looks on an actor’s face, and I usually can’t ask them to hold as frequently as I’d like to. So, point taken.

No. There are three components to an exposure: shutter speed, aperture, and the light sensitivity of the medium you are recording on (whether it be film or digital). The last one is the ISO. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the medium, but high ISOs come at a price of higher grain (film) or more noise (digital.)

An SLR is a single-lens reflex camera. This is a camera with a single lens that allows you to see in the viewfinder, via a mirror, through the lens you are shooting. This way you are able to accurately frame and focus your image. Here’s a more in-depth explanation. When you think of a 35mm camera with interchangeable lenses, you’re thinking of an SLR. A digital SLR is one which use a digital sensor to record light data instead of film.

ISO really refers to light sensitivity of the sensor. On a high ISO setting, the sensor will capture more light for a given shutter speed and lens aperture.

On cheaper cameras, high ISO settings result in lots of digital noise in the final image. Better cameras can operate at higher sensitivites without showing as much noise.

ISO is only one factor in usable low-light photography, however. Another way to improve low light performance is to use a lens that gathers more light in the first place. A typical point-and shoot has a tiny lens that doesn’t gather much light. An SLR camera can use interchangeable lenses, including lenses with big apertures that gather a lot of light.

The last way to get low-light shots is to use a slower shutter speed. If what you are shooting is stationary, you can use a tripod and get a decent low-light shot with most cameras that have a tripod mount. If you have to shoot hand-held, a camera that has automatic image stabilization can reduce motion blur and allow slower shutter speeds. But if your subject is moving, or there are moving shadows or other motion effects, you really need a faster lens and/or higher ISO settings.

Finally, you can light your set up and use a camera flash or studiio lights. Don’t bother with the little built-in flash -they rarely produce professional quality images. If you need a flash, you’ll want a camera with a hot shoe, and you’ll have to spend time learning proper flash photography to get good results.

n/m. While I was typing, the same things I was saying were already said (and probably better)!

Keep in mind that many cameras have very high ISO settings, but still produce awful photos when set like that. You’re going to want a DSLR that has good performance at high ISO, and a fast lens. This is the only way you’re going to capture clear, clean shots of actors on a stage.

How will I know if a camera has the ability to operate well at high ISO? Other than the price tag, I mean.

It should be in the specifications. In addition, reviews of the camera will say how well it performs at high ISO.

Since you mention price tag here, let me ask: What is your budget?

I could recommend an ideal camera and lens, but you’d have to be willing to spend a couple of thousand.

I don’t mean the above to be snarky, because I’ve done theater photography, and you’re going to want fast lenses over high ISO for accurate color and quality images.

Also a flash, used as a fill light, will still show the effects of the stage lighting, while eliminating the sickly orange tungsten cast on your actors faces, letting the make-up show through.

I know the results you want, but I don’t think you could get away with it for less than a grand.

I could maybe spend a grand on this. It’s at least partly a combined Christmas/birthday present.

And please, if you’ve done work in theatres, do share that experience.

From what you have described it sounds like the solution is that you can take pictures of the set designs at any time other than the live performance and still capture the essence of your work. For pictures of the lighting take your pictures during an off period when no one is on stage, you have access/permission to use the lights and then take whatever shots you need. In both cases you will still need a tripod for the shutter speeds required but you may be able to get what you need with the P&S.

The point is, unless I am missing something from from your OP, that you don’t need the actors and/or a live performance to accomplish your objectives!

No, just the opposite; the rule of thumb is that you’re lighting the actors, not the set. I need to be able to show what the lighting on the actors is doing in contrast to the set, how they stand out from the set.

Read some reviews. If you are looking for cameras that do well at high ISO in your price range, the basic crop factor Canon and Nikon DSLRs will probably give you a great place to start. That would be a Canon T2i with a 50mm F1.4 lens or a Nikon D5000 with a similar lens. There are other offerings by Sony and Pentax that would also make for a good choice but I know less about them.

Specs, unfortunately, mean nothing. You have to read reviews and look at photo samples to really determine how cameras perform.

The most important factor is the size of the sensor, which is why a DSLR produces MUCH better low light images than a compact point & shoot.

A DSLR typically has a sensor area of about 400 mm2. A P&S might have 30. So, the DSLR collects a lot more photons in the same amount of time.
(There are also “full frame” DSLRs that have sensors twice as big as common DSLRs, but they cost lotsa bucks.)

It would be possible to do entirely acceptable work with an older used DSLR. I’d recommend staying with Canon or Nikon; there’s lots of used equipment out there and the quality is good.

With Nikon the D40 is widely available and cheap. Maybe $250 for a body.

With Canon the original Rebel is okay, but too slow to use for action shooting (there’s a big delay after you shoot off several quick pictures.) But a Rebel XT or later would be fine.

In good light almost any DSLR can make fine snapshots (or on-screen images) at 1600 ISO and good enlargements at 800 ISO.

And 6 megapixels is almost always adequate resolution (So, any DSLR made in the last 7 years is okay.)

If you want a new camera, the Nikon 5000 is good and has a “quiet mode.” Any Canon in your budget will be fine.

A “fast” lens will have a low “f” number, such as f1.8 or f2.8. You’ll want fast lenses for shooting in low light. However, fast lenses are often expensive and the bigger the aperture the less depth-of-field you get.

So, if you are shooting a group of people at f2.8, maybe only the first row will be sharp. Change the lens to f5.6 and the first and second row might both be in focus. (But f5.6 only lets in 1/4 the light as f2.8.)

The cheapest fast lenses are the 50mm f1.8 lenses from Nikon and Canon. They go for around $100. The faster f1.4 50mm lenses cost several times that. But 50mm lenses aren’t wide enough to be ideal for shooting groups of people on stage. (They’re fine for isolating a person or two.)

Nikon makes a good 30mm f1.8 that goes for $200.

Canon sells a 35mm f2.0 for $300.

Tamron offers 28-75mm f2.8 zoom for $450 or so that gets good reviews (although it’s said to be a little noisy.)

Generally your lenses will be more important than your camera. My favorite lens review resource is here.

Another lens to consider is the Tamron 17-50mm f2.8. Look it up on the link above. It runs in the $450 range (f2.8 zoom lenses from Nikon and Canon will likely focus faster and be quieter, but will be over $1000.) The 17-50mm range will be very useful for shooting a theater set up.

I recently got the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens. I’m still stuck with an old camera body*, but the lens is simply awesome. I just so happen to have some pictures of a concert a few weeks ago that shows off some stage lighting. (Be sure to click on the pictures -and then click on them again- to get them full-size. Stupid Photobucket.)
All those pictures were taken with an ISO setting of 800 with the aperture all the way open at f/1.4.

*: I have the original Digital Rebel. Its 6 megapixels is fine for most stuff, but I’m starting to want some big enlargements, so I’m saving up for an upgrade.

As you are well aware of, good glass is more important than the camera body, although in digital SLRs it’s not so cut and dry. Still, you can always use good lenses on any camera body and they will be capable of taking wonderful shots.

Here’s a picture that I took with a Canon EOS REBEL T1i at ISO 1600, using a zoom lens at 194 mm (310mm equivalent on a 35mm camera), exposure 1/60 second, and aperture f/5.6. There isn’t that much graininess considering the high ISO.

To expand on this point, it’s not so cut and dried because the rule comes from the film days, and the body didn’t really make any difference to the quality of the image hitting the film. (Autofocus, autoexposure, and such issues aside.) A Nikon F (old manual Nikon camera from the 60s), using the same glass and same film, will make exactly the same photo as a Nikon F5, given then same focus and same exposure.

However, with digital, sensors are constantly being improved upon. So, back when film emulsions became better and more sensitive, you were able to just use different films on your 35mm SLR. Now, you have to buy a new body, since you can’t just swap out sensors.

At any rate, the D5000 and T2i are the under-$1000 cameras with good low-light performance I would recommend. The new Nikon D7000 is supposed to be great, but the body only is above the OP’s price point.

The current generation consumer-level dSLRs I’ve seen produce acceptable results through ISO1600, which should be more enough for the OP’s needs. The lens choice may get a little tricky here. I’ve a feeling the 50mm f/1.4, especially on a crop sensor, is going to be too telephoto for the OP’s needs. But, that does depend on the space. If you can move back far enough and frame it properly without obstructions on a longer lens, I generally find that looks better than getting close and shooting with a wide lens.