Question

Camera for Shooting Live Theatre

Jun 18, 2018 11:58PM PDT

What kind of camera do you recommend for shooting stage performances / live theatre? I'm a newbie to videography, and have been using my sony camcorders, but they have trouble with the changing and extreme lighting that happens during performances (losing focus, overexposing, inconsistent coloring, etc.) Because the manual controls are under menus, it takes too long to get to them during live performances.

I'm looking for a camera with a manual focus ring (and maybe quick auto-focus too), that is good in low-light, has a good amount of optical zoom since I have to shoot from the back of theaters, and allows for continual shooting over an hour (not a 30min. DSLR). Preferably under $1k and easy to use (for beginners like me).

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Answer
Choice?
Jun 19, 2018 1:05AM PDT

Most current camcorders will do what you want. Choose a camcorder that can be run from the mains or a power pack. This usually means a camcorder that is charged or will run from a USB source. Trust the auto settings for exposure and focus, they usually work better than manual intervention.
Well we all know our own cameras, that is why I am suggesting an upper end consumer cam, the Panasonic HC-V770 (I have its Dad the 750). It has a decent size chip and a reasonable Panasonic lens. I know from experience (Halloween train trips and a Ghost Train) that it will perform in almost no light. Its auto settings cope with the most difficult conditions. Optical zoom is 20x with an extension using "intelligent zoom" up to 50x (perfect quality pictures at this level) I suggest a SDXC 64Gb card to cover the problem of 4Gb file limits with SDHC cards, but the length of time the card will accept one file will depend on the quality of capture you use in the camera. (lower quality more time shooting for one file)
Now your major problem, sound. The on board mics will pick up all the ambient noise and echo in the theatre. There are some solutions, many people use audio recorders such as the Zoom or Tascam and then sync in post production. A shotgun mic on the camera may give you better sound pickup.
Cables between the mics and the camera may be possible but there are two problems there of tripping up the audience (not popular) and electric pickup with unshielded cables. My own solution (because I have the kit) would be a decent recorder and mics near the stage (condenser mics with XLR connectors) and a wireless connection to the camera for a sync track.
Hope this helps.

Post was last edited on June 19, 2018 3:22 AM PDT

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Answer
Lowest common denominator = poor light.
Jun 26, 2018 1:18PM PDT

You probably already know this and already understand that low light levels are what cause "losing focus, overexposing, inconsistent coloring". Generally speaking, to behave well under poor lighting conditions, the video capture device needs (1) LARGE diameter lenses (67mm diameter or larger) and (2) LARGE imaging sensors - preferably a 3CCD or 3CMOS sensor array (1/3 inch or larger). The combination of these two items help a LOT with the issues you describe. These two items increase the price of the camcorder: large glass for the large diameter lenses is expensive; large specialized (silicon) imaging chips are expensive.

We don't know which "Sony camcorders" you are currently using, but that "s" tells me multiple devices are being used. I find myself in multi-cam shoots regularly. For stage, one has the wide shot while the other is zoomed in on something specific.

As you have told us you are "a newbie to videography", I would like to set an expectation: Your request is not uncommon - and boils down to having a "video quality" requirement at "professional grade" with a budget that does not necessarily cover that kind of equipment. There is a lot to post on this specific topic, but we can put that on a shelf for now.

Identify the issues to be resolved:
1) "Losing focus": There are three reasons this can happen: (a) Under poor lighting conditions, the camcorder can't "see" (especially when it is at the back of the theater - far-away dark stuff is difficult to identify and focus on); (b) the camcorder is moving a lot (so there is nothing on which to focus), (c) the camcorder is really far away from that which is the subject (so use of manual focus can sometimes cause as many problems as it can solve).

In the less than $1,000 range, let's identify which have manual focus:

Sony:
AX-53
AX-33
Both are 4k. These have a single ring on the lens barrel that can do one thing... manual focus or manual zoom (or manual versions of exposure, IRIS, shutter speed, AE shift, or white balance shift mode). Use of the touch screen for focus or other manual controls will probably cause the camcorder to shake or move when touched so I don't recommend it's use under your use conditions.

Panasonic:
Focus ring (shared with iris and exposure manual functions - use only one at at time)
HC-WXF1 (currently pre-order only)
Shared knob
HC-VX981
HC-VX991
The above 3 Pannys all 4k
HC-V770 is 1080, not 4k, so is dropped from this discussion, but it does have a shared knob.

Canon:
Focus ring (shared with iris and exposure manual functions - use only one at at time). 1080 (not 4k):
HF-G20
HF-G21

JVC has nothing in the $1,000 price range with a manual focus ring or knob.

2) Lens diameter & imaging chip size & type (I limited to 4k camcorders - they will have a longer use-life than HD-only. You can capture at lower resolution if your editing environment does not allow for 4k video):
AX-53: 55mm lens filter diameter; Single 1/2.5 inch
AX-33: 55mm lens filter diameter; Single 1/2.3 inch
HC-WXF1: 62mm lens filter diameter; Single 1/2.5 inch
HCVX991 & HC-VX981: 49mm lens diameter; 1/2.3 inch (I used to have a Sony HDR-HC1 that had a shared knob - this is a bit cumbersome to use.)

Summary - My opinion:
If I wanted to buy something today, then most likely the AX-53 as it is the largest lens diameter and imaging sensor available in the stated price range. If the HC-WXF1 were available today, the larger lens diameter would get my $... But it is not available today. If I wait and don't buy today, when the HC-WXF1 comes available, it would be worth looking at whatever the competition has and doing this comparison again.

(Disclaimer: I went through this a few years ago when I ended up with the Sony HDR-HC1; painfully learned about large lens diameter, large imaging chips and their relationship to poor light video quality capture, jumped to an HDR-FX1, had a NEX-EA50UH for a short time, currently use a Sony HDR-AX2000 and PXW-Z150 - saving to replace the 3-chip AX2000 with whatever the 3-chip version of the Z150 will be when I've saved enough... if I bought today, likely the PXW-Z190 because the Z280 is way too expensive... and yes, video is a hobby.)

Agree with Terfyn: Audio in your environment is a huge challenge - but you did not ask so we leave that for a different thread assuming it is something with which you need assistance... For all we know, you're getting a board feed and don't need to worry about audio.

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Theatre lighting
Jun 26, 2018 8:41PM PDT

I cannot accept your assumption that theatres suffer from poor lighting. Normally the stage is well lit and can be very bright. Why have you eliminated HD and the HC-V770? I know from experience that this camera will work well in the theatre environment.
I have used my 750 (which is the earlier version of the 770) in extremely dark conditions and AT NO TIME did it lose focus or hunt for focus. As I explained above I filmed in a Ghost Train (i.e. total black except for the lit figures) and on a couple of Halloween trains run by the Ffestiniog Railway, both times the light level was so low I did not expect to pick up a decent picture and both times the camera recorded perfect shots.
Theatre stages have kilowatts of light thrown at them and I see no problem with filming them.
Your assumption that the camera will get its audio from a board feed would presume a cable from the board to the camera. OK if there is no audience to trip over it and no electrical interference but often a potential disaster waiting to happen.

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It depends on the production
Jun 27, 2018 5:10PM PDT

Some productions are under good lighting for their entire duration. Any camcorder can provide decent video capture under good lighting conditions.

Most productions I've seen have well lit and not well lit scenes. It is this lowest common denominator (not well lit = "poor lighting conditions") for which one needs to prepare.

HD (1080p) was dropped from my list because it will be soon be out of date - and if the original poster so chooses, can adjust the mentioned 4k camcorders to capture 1080 resolution video. Once 1080 resolution video is captured, it cannot be magically turned into 4k video. 4k video can be downgraded to 1080p if needed.

As mentioned, I still use a 1080 resolution camcorder (HDR-AX2000). It has a 3-sensor array and 67mm diameter lens - and captures great video. It was purchased 3+ years ago and does a great job. I purchased a new camcorder. I *could* have gotten another 1080-resolution camcorder, but got the Z150 (to do 4k or 1080p as needed). The original poster did not tell us which camcorders are currently being used, but if they want to be current for at least a few years, then the new purchase - in my opinion - should be the highest resolution available for the stated budget.

Capturing video under "poor lighting conditions" is one thing. To me "poor lighting conditions" = *all* of the lighting is poor; no subject is lit. Capturing a subject that is lit with surrounding poor lighting (your words: "i.e. total black except for the lit figures") is not necessarily "poor lighting conditions". The subject is lit. There is a big difference - when the subject is lit, the camcorder can see it and auto focus/aperture/video gain have an easier time doing what they need to do. I don't know how else to put this: The camcorder lens is trained on the lit figures. The lighting level which is to the left, right, above, below or behind the camcorder can be 0 lux - but that does not mean "poor lighting conditions" until you point the camcorder lens at something other than the lit subject. You already know this - and I don't mean to be pedantic. Admittedly, I have not seen your Ghost Train video.

As for audio... It is still a different thread, but since you brought it up... the venues I've been in, the mixing board is usually at the back of the theater along with the lighting controls. The original poster stated they "shoot from the back of theaters". If the audio mixing board is in a booth, this could make the connection between the camcorder's audio-in and the mixing board challenging. If the "booth" has easy access (cable under a door or sliding window), then a cabled audio connection might not be so challenging. At no time was there any suggestion to run cables to impede walkways - *always* safety, first. Wireless audio connection is also possible - but expensive... and yet another reason for a different thread. Perhaps a small audio field recorder connected to the board is appropriate. In a small venue, it may be desirable to use on-camcorder mics - the ambient audio is great (when the walls and ceiling are not hard surfaces). Under certain conditions (typically, larger venues) a theater's audio characteristics can cause boominess and the ambient audio (crowd, echo, hard walls, etc.) is not desirable. Since we know nothing of the theaters the original poster is working, jumping to conclusions on the audio requirements is a bit premature. For all we know, someone else is already recording the audio and that is not a concern (which is why the original poster made no mention)... or maybe it is a problem and they decided not to ask or maybe it just is not a problem - we were neither briefed nor asked.

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