Photographing "Mary Poppins" for Zach Theatre. Battle of the A7Rii versus the RX10iii. Sorry, no smackdown.

I was packing up my bag to go to Zach Theatre and photograph the dress rehearsal of Mary Poppins. I knew I'd want to have my Sony A7Rii handy because it has the cool, silent mode and the files are outrageously good, even at ISO 6400, but I was conflicted about the second camera. I'd take a back up, of course, but what did I really, really want to try out on this show that I hadn't used for theatre photography before? Oh yes, it was the RX10iii. I've learned to trust this camera in so many other situations I just had to give it a try in the theater. 

I shot part of the show with a Sony A7R2 because it's a known commodity for this kind of work. Equipped with the 70-200mm f4.0 G series lens, and set to "silent" mode, this camera is just about perfect for theater work. It's very clean and saturated at ISO 6400 and the focus, in conjunction with the 70/200, if fast and very sure. Add to that a hybrid image stabilization system that uses both the I.S. in the lens as well as the I.B.I.S. and you've got a pretty bulletproof system for handholding and quick shooting, even in low light situations.

So, why would I bring along a one inch sensor camera (the RX10iii) and proceed to shoot at least two thirds of the dress rehearsal with it? One reason is my continuing fascination that a "bridge" camera can do such a great job with so many kinds of photography but secondly it has to do with a certain practicality. Here's the deal: Since we built the new, state-of-the-art Topfer Theatre it's become more expensive to produce shows. We don't always have the luxury of getting a dedicated performance with full costumes and effects, just for marketing photography. We end up "sharing" the dress rehearsal with a full audience of "friends and families" as well as a video crew who record the performance on a wide camera and a follow camera. That limits where I can shoot from. I don't want to cross in front of the cameras and I don't want to interfere with our "test" audience's experience of the show.

This puts me in the middle of the theater, on the crossover aisle. So now I'm generally a lot further from the stage than I was when shooting dress rehearsals in the other two (smaller) theaters. That means I have to bridge the space by leaning on longer focal length lenses. I've pretty much ruled out single focal length lenses because the composition of actors, etc. is a constantly changing target and there is no time (in most shows) to keep changing lenses. A 70-200mm on a full frame camera works for a lot of stuff but there are many instances when we need a series of wide shots to show big scenes, mixed with a need to get even closer than the 200mm focal length will allow. I had been juggling two cameras and going back and forth from the 70-200mm to a 24-70mm but I'm always on the search for an easier and more gap free way to do this kind of work. 

That leads me to the RX10iii. I was scared of the smaller sensor but too fascinated by the 600mm equivalent focal length not to try it. Here's how I used the smaller sensor camera at Tuesday evening's shoot for Mary Poppins: I set the camera for super fine Jpegs in a 3:2 ratio at the full camera resolution of 20 megapixels. Standard profile. I used manual exposure and gauged the correct exposure by evaluating the EVF image and by employing "zebras" set to become visible in areas that exceeded 100% (255). I used the center AF point and used single AF. I set the aperture to f4.0 and, except for specific wide angle work I consider this an f4.0 camera and use f4.0 as my maximum aperture. In that way there is no exposure shift as I zoom through the focal length range. People who bitch about the variable aperture would do well to study more and just always default to the slowest of the maximum apertures if they don't want to see exposure changes during zooming. 

I have the zoom control set to "fast" and the tracking sensitivity set to "high." Working with the zoom ring was frustrating a few months ago but, like almost everything else, all it takes in order to become proficient with its operation is some solid practice. Used with a light touch the zoom-by-wire is actually quite good. I set my base white balance at 3800K and it worked well with the base lighting and the follow spots. The follow spots are LEDs and seem to be balance to hit about halfway between a tungsten and a daylight balance. 3800 might be just a tad blue but very workable if I need to do slight corrections in post. 

I've tested this camera quite a bit and have found that it's ISO range is usable to a real 3200 if a scene is well lit and can be exposed exactly right. I'm not a perfect technician so I know I am pretty safe if I go with 1600 instead. On Tues. I was adventurous and roamed around in the 2000 and 2500 ISO range. I was not bitten by my enthusiasm; the images turned out well...

The important thing to do with this camera is to let the AF and the I.S. settle before clicking the shutter button. The contrast AF is very good, even at the long focal lengths but you need to be patient and not hurry it. At this point some knucklehead will point out that his Nikon D4s or his Canon 1Dx mlxxx can nail focus in a microsecond and, as a former owner of both systems, I'll just say that might be so but I'd much prefer to have the locked in point actually in focus....

With the aperture pretty much locked at f4.0 and the ISO limited to 2500 the one variable that changes as we go through is shutter speed. I've gotten used to using my thumb with the back dial to change shutter speeds quickly, up or down. With the camera set up to shoot this way, and with high ISO noise reduction set to standard, I get the best results shooting tight. That's why I still grabbed the A7R2 from time to time during the show. As I get quicker though, I could drop the ISO to 800 for static group shots and come away with fine images from the RX10 as well.  Here's some of the work. 

before the start of the play, some last run throughs. A maximum focal length image of actor, Tyler Jones on stage. RX10iii

Medium shot which informs the tight shot below. RX10iii.

Actors Anderson Zoll and Scarlet Craig as Michael and Jane Banks.  Tight close up from 
mid-way up the audience using the maximum focal length on the RX10iii -- handheld.

Actor Jill Blackwood as Mary Poppins. 

Very happy with the focusing capabilities of the RX10iii under lower light levels. 

Another shot that shows a general part of the scene at a fairly long focal length setting complimented below by a shot from the same camera position but at the 600mm equivalent focal length. Again, handheld. (See just below).

This group shot and the one directly below are fro the A7R2. While pixel peeping immediately informs one that the quality of the bigger camera is much more impressive, the reality is that at most of the smaller sizes, including the full 27 inch screen slide show I just looked at, the differences are nearly invisible in most use scenarios. 

One more RX10iii sample---just for fun.

After examining over 1900 files on Tues. night I can say with some certainty that I'll definitely be pressing the RX10iii into service for more and more theater work in the large space. The reach is just too nice to pass up. And the ability to go from a wide shot of the full stage to a tight shot of a single face is just an amazing testament to the design and production of the lens and the low noise of the BSI sensor. I wouldn't care about the mechanics if I wasn't getting something new and different by using them. Thought you might be interested.