How to take a stunning circus photograph

August 3, 2012
Author: Guest

Paul Williams, staff photographer at the St Austell Voice, gives some technical background on how he captured this stunning shot of Sage Cushman of NoFit State Circus as part of the BIANCO show at Eden. Please note that Paul is a professional photographer and, unfortunately, members of the public are not permitted to take photos at the BIANCO show.

As a staff photographer on a small weekly newspaper I’m used to diverse and challenging jobs, but few can be more challenging than snapping a fast-moving theatrical circus indoors without flash, and with a huge crowd to contend with too. This was exactly the scenario that presented itself recently when I was invited to attend the opening night of NoFit State Circus’s latest production BIANCO, inside the Eden’s Stage structure.

The production is unpredictable, frenetic and all encompassing. Clearly light, or more accurately lack of it, is the first major obstacle to overcome. Secondly, the production itself involves fast-moving scene changing, which although visually stunning is a major problem to getting framing right. Then, of course, there’s the audience: they’ve paid good money to stake their place and letting a snapper block their view isn’t going to happen.

Now the techie stuff. Forget automation! Even the most sophisticated top-end digital SLR is useless on rapidly changing spotlighting. So with no flash available and little ambient light where do you go? It’s simple, you have to go manual!

My technique is to use fast lenses with a large constant aperture, usually F2.8 or wider. The downside is that they are prohibitively expensive for the amateur. Secondly, I use a full frame camera. The larger sensor simply grabs more available light than the smaller DX chips without so much digital ‘noise’.

The full frame sensors allow for the use of high ISO’s, whereas DX cameras usually run at 1600 ISO before the images degrade into digital mush. My cameras are Nikons and since the introduction of the D3 five years ago they have dominated the pro market with their fantastic ability to produce sharp clear images in dark, murky conditions.

I watched the unfolding action with a discerning eye and meter for the highlights. Shooting wide open I initially set the shutter speed to just enough to stop camera shake and with careful timing I kept the images sharp. I also switched off the auto focus: it’s a far better bet to pre-focus on a set position and allow the performer to arrive at it. It is hit and miss but quickly you start hitting winners, and more interestingly as the light source changes you start to instinctively alter the shutter speed/ISO to suit and without feeling the need to constantly monitor and check via the screen on the back of the camera.

In BIANCO, there’s a great ending that screams out to be snapped. It’s absolutely crucial to get a good position so I made my move early, long before the climax is reached. Once in position I decided to gamble on a long lens to get as close as possible, the downside is the risk of camera shake on slower shutter speeds.

As the artist swings to and fro it quickly became apparent that the shot is going to have to be during a static hold towards the end of the routine that lasts for just a few seconds. In reality the gamble is that you would ideally like the artist with some backlighting and facing the right way of course. It was my lucky night: the trapeze artist held the pose in the perfect spot, I managed to squeeze off four frames focussing on the handle of the trapeze itself.

An initial check showed that the photo gods had looked kindly on me: an almost perfect picture, sharp, great lighting and well exposed. Lucky? I don’t think so, just well planned and executed and I gave myself every chance to get the shot using my skill and experience.

The critically acclaimed NoFit State Circus perform their brand new BIANCO show to the Eden Project in Cornwall between 28 July and 2 September. This follows last year’s sell-out Labyrinth shows.


3 responses to How to take a stunning circus photograph

  1. Robin Cushman says:

    As a former newspaper photographer and photo editor, I appreciate Paul Williams’ clear description of the process of capturing action under theater lighting. As the subject’s mother, I am thrilled with the photos you’ve taken of Sage!!!!
    Many thanks for allowing family members from afar see her in Bianco.

  2. katie says:

    hi im katie and im doing gsce art and my subject is circus performer (silks, trapeze and hoops) but every place i have email says i cant take photos, is there any places in london that will allow me to take photos???

  3. Hannah says:

    That sounds really frustrating Katie. Unfortunately we don’t know what the rules are in circuses around London. Maybe you could look up a circus skills group/class that would be happy for you to go along and take photos. Good luck.

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