Actor and Professional Headshots: Urban vs Natural Light Studio

I offer two options for my actor and professional headshot clients: 1) natural light in urban location or 2) natural light studio.

Either way, I have spent my photography career learning to master natural light and am confident that how I use light will be flattering and natural in either location. The differences in the location types boil down to A) what is behind you and B) the experience you desire while on your photoshoot.

I thought I’d do a quick post sharing some examples of what is possible in the studio vs on location, along with a few words on the pros and cons of each.

1. OUTSIDE: URBAN, CONTEMPORARY, VIBRANT, APPROACHABLE, PROFESSIONAL HEADSHOTS

Sessions shot outdoors are a bit more improvisational than in the studio, as both you and I will be responding to the immediate conditions of that day, weather, light and location. People tell me often that they to appreciate the “depth” they see in my outdoor photos, which serves to push the focus to the connection they can feel in my subjects’ eyes. I always start in an area which is slightly removed from crowds, so you’ll feel comfortable, yet alive with the vibrance of the city. There’s a fun energy created on these sessions which is reflected in the style of the photos, and I believe reacting in the urban environment leads to part of the very "natural" expressions we get out there. These sessions are always vibrant and fresh.

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Urban Street Session BENEFITS:

vibrant, energetic, colorful, depth in backgrounds

eye-catching, memorable, unique

professional

Urban Street Session CHALLENGES:

weather can be an issue (mostly wind, but can also add element of fresh, natural movement)

must pack wardrobe to carry (rolling suitcase is best)


2. NATURAL LIGHT STUDIO: MODERN, CLEAN, CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT HEADSHOTS

My natural light studio is a shared co-op space, so does require advanced booking. In here, the light is consistent and beautiful. It is quiet and a controlled setting, which for some people can be preferable. I have a few different seamless backdrop options, so you won’t be getting the stiff, traditional yearbook background! These sessions are modern, comfortable and consistently beautiful.

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Natural Light Studio BENEFITS:

controlled, predictable, quiet

neutral, professional look

easy to change and keep wardrobe at studio

Natural Light Studio CHALLENGES:

shared studio space can be harder to book

not as much depth in photos (if that's important to you)

 

IN SUMMARY... Either way you go, even if you're not comfortable with the idea of getting in front of the camera, my promise to you is that you'll end up having a great experience!

LEARN MORE ABOUT ACTOR & PROFESSIONAL HEADSHOT SESSIONS WITH JENNIFER :

Troilus & Cressida | A Photographer's Appreciation of Staging for Theatre

I don’t typically create blog posts about photographing individual stage productions.

I’ve already written at length about how much I love photographing live theatre, and you'd be bored by now if I waxed poetic about how VERY much I love it after every show. There’s a whole world of arts critics and journalists whose job it is to write about the performances themselves -- the production quality, acting, direction, design, etc.

But really, everyone who knows me is aware that I’m -- how shall I say? -- easy to entertain and genuinely quick to love, so my effusive praise of a particular show, heart-felt as it may be, admittedly probably doesn’t carry a lot of weight.

All that being said... I was so moved by the aesthetic experience and technical challenges of photographing this particular production of this lesser known Shakespearean play that I felt inspired to share a few “photographer perspective” thoughts (and photos) from this production; this extraordinarily beautiful, intriguing and -- at least judging by this particular iteration -- perhaps too little produced play.

My first experience photographing Carolyn Howarth’s work was last season at Colorado Shakespeare Festival, when she directed HENRY V on the indoor stage at the University Theatre. Everything about that production was spectacular -- for me as a photographer AND to experience without a camera (and I say this having attended several times throughout the run, including closing night when I almost cried because I still wanted to go see it again… but I digress… )

Photographing a director’s work multiple times gives me a chance to learn how to “dance” with a director’s blocking. It allows me to move through space in anticipation of where actors will be to create the best photographic compositions. Carolyn’s work was so beautifully staged for Henry that I was giddy to see what she would do with the outdoor Mary Rippon stage on the campus of University of Colorado, Boulder.

And let me tell you…  this entire team of designers spectacularly delivered on a vision which somehow was at once both distopic and stunningly, viscerally beautiful.

The opening scene of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA immediately thrusts the audience into a visual (and acoustic) landscape of overwhelmingly powerful beauty. Symmetry of design, of stage direction and blocking, of light, and even somehow of sound -- which is difficult to capture in a photo, but somehow, it was so powerful that I actually hear the beating of Benaiah Anderson’s incredibly crafted swords and shields when I see the opening photos.

The outdoor setting of the Mary Rippon Theatre provides a spectacular backdrop for the set design that changes throughout the evening. Wide photo of  Troilus & Cressida  at Colorado Shakespeare Festival, photographed by Gabe Koskinen for Merritt Portrait Studio

The outdoor setting of the Mary Rippon Theatre provides a spectacular backdrop for the set design that changes throughout the evening. Wide photo of Troilus & Cressida at Colorado Shakespeare Festival, photographed by Gabe Koskinen for Merritt Portrait Studio

Howarth’s stage aesthetic is simply divine. Her blocking of the actors -- how they move through and inhabit different parts of the outdoor stage -- so perfectly complements the depth of the incredible set design, the colors of the wardrobe, and the dramatic and compelling lighting design, that even for those who may not follow every twist of Shakespeare's story, there is always something beautiful, sexy and dramatic to absorb for eyes and ears.

How the wardrobe -- the colors of the designs of each scene as a whole worked so that everyone on stage at a given time complemented each other as an ensemble... I mean, just look at the palette of costumes and how they work together in this scene (the last set of photos above). It nearly took my breath away, even where the colors on each actor stood on the stage!

And yes, it IS my job while shooting a production to become almost “lost” in the visual. To celebrate the composition, color and light… but it is also my goal to capture the connection I see in actor’s eyes, with each other and to their character. The most satisfying productions to photograph are those which provide all of these things in concert with each other. When that happens, my job honestly feels like playing...

...until the light design becomes so brilliantly in line with the story that it envelopes the audience in near darkness as the stage fighting intensifies... and the photographer who wants to capture it all freaks out.

Luckily I had scouted this show the night before, so I knew this was coming, but still -- to capture the combination of extreme low light and extreme fast motion -- it pushes even the best photographer and equipment to the limits of what is possible. Even with a super high ISO and the widest aperture my lens could shoot, this is still a nearly impossible combination to capture, but I pushed myself and my equipment, tried a few new things and was actually able to capture more than I thought would be possible. Though I must say still… you really need to SEE these scenes to get a sense of how incredible they are. Geoffrey Kent’s stage fight choreography and his movement onstage during these scenes is jaw-droppingly good.

I'll add a few more photos of ending scenes AFTER the show closes so as not to give away any dramatic and incredibly aesthetically powerful spoilers...

The artful storytelling of this lesser known Shakespearean work, which contains both comedy and tragedy, in the hands of these incredibly talented actors is not to be missed!

CREDITS:

Direction by Carolyn Howarth | Scenic Design: Caitlin Ayer | Lighting Design: Shannon McKinney | Costume Design: Hugh Hanson | Sound Design: Jason Ducat | Fight Director: Geoffrey Kent | Photos: Jennifer Koskinen + Gabriel Koskinen for Merritt Portrait Studio

CAST: Christopher Joel Onken, Howard Swain, Lilli Hokama, Carolyn Holding, Naomy Ambroise, Kristofer Buxton, Kelsey Didion, Sam Sandoe, Mare Trevathan, Zach Stolz, Austin Terrell, Sean Scrutchins, Geoffrey Kent, Spencer Althoff, Coleman Zeigen, Steven Cole Hughes, Emelie O'Hara, Jihad Milhem, Benaiah Anderson, Lindsay Kyler, Coleman Zeigen, Jesse Wardak, Paige Olson

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, by William Shakespeare has 8 remaining performances at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 6, 2016. VISIT: CSF for tickets!

And a final sequence to appreciate, from my son's wide angle photos, how spectacular it is to feel twilight stretch into night, watching theatre under the stars on a summer night in Colorado is an experience everyone should have. How the trees surrounding the theatre space are included in the lighting and set design -- just breathtaking!

Tips for Impactful Actors Headshots | An Interview with Denver Casting Director Sylvia Gregory

Actor Headshots by Jennifer Koskinen | Merritt Portrait Studio. [ Click to enlarge ]

What makes a Killer Actor's Headshot… ?

You know what I'm talking about... the kind of photo that grabs the right kind of attention, communicates personality and makes a casting director curious to know more about an actor…

It takes a special blend of preparation (from the actor), technical skill (on the part of the photographer), timing and chemistry -- interpersonal chemistry, that is -- between an actor and a photographer to create that perfect headshot.

As a service to my actor headshot clients, I thought it would be helpful to sit down with Denver Casting Director, Sylvia Gregory, of Sylvia Gregory Casting, (who works with these headshots every day, after all) to get her perspective regarding how headshots are ultimately received and used in the casting process, what elements are best (or worst) to have in your headshots, and other answers to questions I often hear from my clients.

I’m incredibly grateful to Sylvia, a former actor herself, for sharing both her valuable time and expertise so that we could present this information to you. Whether you are just starting your acting career, or if you're a seasoned actor looking to refresh your headshots after a few years, hopefully you’ll find Sylvia's insight and perspective to be helpful in preparing for a fantastic headshot experience! 

NOTE: All of Sylvia’s answers below are paraphrased from a candid conversation -- I’m a photographer, after all, and make no claim to being a journalist!!


A CASTING DIRECTOR's PERSPECTIVE on creating POWERFUL ACTOR HEADSHOTS :

Jennifer (photographer) Question : As a casting director, are there particular elements that stand out to you in a headshot that catches your attention, either positively or negatively?

Sylvia (casting director) Answer : YES! During the casting process we often have headshots spread out on the floor, so actors' names should be on the FRONT of their headshots. This little thing helps save our knees and backs during the casting process!

Focus should be on the Eyes... something should be happening in the eyes: they should be thoughtful, engaging, humorous. This photo is an introduction to what this actor is going to be like to work with, we want to know this person, not a caricature of the person.

It’s critical that your headshot look like you. You don’t want us to think, “This doesn’t look like person at all.” I tell actors that you should be photographed as you would look “on a good day,” because if you show up not looking like your headshot, it wastes your time and everyone else involved in that casting (you’d want that consideration from others as well, as this potentially takes a limited audition spot from someone else who might have been more appropriate for a role).

Jennifer : If an actor has diversity of styles, should they have different headshots for each kind of role they might go after, or one “brand” photo?

Sylvia : One brand photo which is about the ACTOR is most important. A client needs to know who will show up ON SET... we want to get an idea for who this PERSON is… not a caricature. That being said, an actor should have two great headshots -- one with teeth (expressive, i.e. smiling), and one more theatrical and serious.

There are special instances where an actor may want to show a more gritty, intense, or more hip (etc.) side of themselves for certain types of roles in which they are often cast, and if you have the means to do this, certainly go for it, just be cautious of appearing too “posey” or caricature-like. These are big NO’s.

Jennifer : As a photographer, I’ve been told that actors’ headshots should look “like they’d look when they walk into an audition.” Do you have thoughts on this regarding makeup/hair/wardrobe/retouching/ etc:

Sylvia : Regarding Makeup & Hair -- Again, think natural -- wear your hair how you would every day. Having options is good, so for women, if you have long hair, maybe start with it up, then try it down. Guys, it’s great to see beard and no beard, so consider coming in with a beard and shaving part way through a session.

Regarding Wardrobe -- No logos, no crazy patterns... NO JEWELRY... nothing that could make your headshots dated (so avoid trendy fashion choices). Solid colors are best, you should know your best colors for your coloring. If you have the means, consider investing in a meeting with an image consultant (they can advise you on the best neck and collar lines, best sleeve cuts, best colors, and other wardrobe choices that are best for your bone structure, body type and coloring).

Regarding Retouching - remember this is not a glamour shot! If there are a few blemishes it’s fine to retouch these, but if you have scars or if your skin is textured in any way that is going to be there during your audition and/or for a role, we need to see that. Be aware again of the importance that your headshot truly look like YOU... there’s a trickle-down of consequences for bringing in the wrong look when an actor walks in for the part

Jennifer : As a photographer, I direct a lot on a headshot session and often capture the space and movement between directions. Should actors be thinking of anything in particular or do you have tips from your perspective, having been an actor and as an audition coach and casting director?

Sylvia : Really, just be YOURSELF... a few tricks that can help:

If you’ll be in a studio, bring some of your favorite music. This can create natural moments of spontaneity, allow you to get into a groove. Moving photos are often the best ... moments of spark.

Bring a person you love to be on set to help create moments of authenticity.

Jennifer : For beginners, do you have any advice on preparing for headshots for those who may not have defined their brand yet?

Sylvia : Use a professional headshot photographer if you can, or at the very least do NOT submit a blurry, iphone photo. Don’t get too posey: be natural, be yourself, show your personality... Natural light is best. I often spot amateur photos because they have worn too much makeup, or are too posed. Kids, please: NO CUTESY photos! They appear over-coached (and not in a good way).

Jennifer : I hear a lot of discussion from photographers that there's a big debate in the casting director community about Horizontal vs. Vertical headshots. Do you have a preference??

Sylvia : No preference at all - horizontal or vertical -- either is fine, a good headshot is what's important. And again, "I just want your NAME ON THE FRONT.” (that part in quotes... that's a direct quote... and take note, that's not the first time she said it! If you work with me, I'll make sure you get a file that will make Sylvia happy!)

Jennifer : Location -- do you have preference on indoor vs. outdoor headshots?

Sylvia : Natural light is best, so wherever the light is good works. Although if you’re easily distracted, working inside a natural light studio may be a better choice for you.

Jennifer : Are there any headshot trends that you like (or dislike) in the Denver headshot market at the moment?

Sylvia : No… but I do still see black and white on occasion and it comes across as NOT CURRENT. We want to see you in full color.

Jennifer : How much should an actor worry about the print quality of a submitted headshot (matte vs. gloss, press printed, stapled vs. taped resume, etc.)

Sylvia : Matte and glossy finishes are all fine... (although be aware that if you spend money to print your resume directly on the back, this tells CD you’re probably not working enough to update your resume often -- generally these are printed in bulk and ideally you want your resume to need updating before you run out of 50 headshots!)

I strongly prefer headshots and resumes to be stapled in all 4 corners to ensure that your photo stays attached to the back of your resume. And (this is a biggie!) your headshot and resume need to be stapled BEFORE you walk in!! Huge pet peeve to walk into an audition unprepared! There’s no need to spend a ton on your print, but your choice in the final quality does come across. And we see a lot of bad headshots in Denver...

Also, it's a good idea to make a cheap photocopy of your headshot just to see how it converts to black and white. Headshots will get photocopied in the process, and sometimes this reveals “floating head” syndrome, or too much texture in background -- the focus should always be on your eyes!

Jennifer : How often should an actor update his/her headshot? (does this keep actors fresh in front of agents and casting directors?)

Sylvia : Every 3-5 years for adults should be fine, every year for fast growing children. If you have a drastic hair change and don’t have funds to update your headshot yet, take an iPhone photo of your new look, print it small and staple it to the upper corner of your headshot. This will at least allow us to quickly know we're thinking of the right person (from an audition, for example).


And ... A Few TIPS from the PHOTOGRAPHER:

  • Please tell me about your brand prior to our session. Do you specialize in comedic or dramatic roles? Do you specialize in theatre, television or film? Are you known for any particular or unique physical features? Especially if we haven’t met, knowing these things will help me get a sense of who you are, and may have an influence on how and where I photograph you.

  • Know your face. If you have strong features you’d like to accentuate or decentuate, please communicate this. Practice your smile in the mirror to see how it affects the size of your eyes.

  • Discuss any specifics with your agent if you have representation. If you’re trying to get representation, look at headshots posted by that agency and compare to the work of any photographers you may be comparing.

  • Prepare for your headshots like you would for an audition: Drink plenty of water and get a good night’s sleep for bright, clear eyes. Exercising that day (if it’s your thing), does increase circulation for healthier skin color (especially if you are pale).

  • Prepare your wardrobe AHEAD of time (not the day of)! Double check that all necessary layers (including undershirts, bra straps, etc.) work together, fit, are clean, and that they all come with you!

  • Bring OPTIONS for clothing (solid colors are best, layers are great to have on hand to change up a look simply -- leather jackets, for example).

  • Bring your wardrobe items in a portable bag, preferably with wheels, in case we head out for sessions in the streets of downtown. Even if we’ve planned a studio session, sometimes we’ll head outside for a different look, and it’s great to be portable!

  • Keep your lips hydrated! This goes for guys, too! Bring lip balm/chapstick -- whatever you like. Dry, cracking or chapped lips do not look good in photos!

  • Kids -- pigtails & ponytails make younger look, straight hair often reads older.

  • I probably don't need to say this, but just in case... Do NOT think a glass of wine (or other substance of choice) will help relax you. Instead, you won’t be as alert or receptive to direction, and your eyes will be dull and/or bloodshot. You can trust me to direct you and believe me… this is going to actually be a positive experience for you.

  • When sharing your headshots online (social media), noting copyright / photographer credit helps boost all of us creatives. Share the love!

OK... so now it's your turn!

Are there other questions you have? Please feel free to contact me, or leave questions in the comments below and we can continue to update this actor headshot resource for you.

And of course I'd love to learn more about YOU! If you'd like to set up a time to talk about headshots, please drop me a line and let's set something up!

Break Legs!

- Jennifer

If you're looking for more info, THIS ARTICLE from Backstage is one of many resources available from them, and again stresses the importance of preparation and connecting with your photographer. Please let me know if you'd like to chat and see if we'd be a good fit!


ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Jennifer Koskinen | Merritt Portrait Studio specializes in Actor Headshots and Portraiture. She is also an internationally published Live Theatre and Stage Production Photographer based in Denver Colorado. In the summer of 2015 she was brought on as the production photographer for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival after multiple seasons photographing live theatre for the Denver Center for Performing Arts Theatre Company. She has also volunteered with the Denver School of the Arts Theatre Department, capturing actor headshots and staged productions for the past 4 years. Her photos have appeared in around the world, and in US publications such as the New York Times, American Theatre Magazine, Playbill.com, The Denver Post, and Broadway World, to name just a few.

For more about Jennifer, please visit our ABOUT page. For information on headshot packages, please take a look HERE!

 

ABOUT SYLVIA GREGORY CASTING: Sylvia Gregory cast the SAG Independent Feature Film “Fishing Naked” and the SAG Independent Short Films “Death of the Bar-T” and “Distance”. She has cast commercials, Web spots, print ads and projects for such Nationally established companies such as Sprint, Kellogg’s, Coors, Southwest Airlines, Honda, Duracell, Jenny Craig, Kroger/King Sooper, Bayer, HP, Spectrum Reach, Cabela’s, TGI Friday’s, Hunter Douglas, HP, Ameristar Casinos, Best Western, Allstate, AAA, The Bill Gates Foundation, Conoco, Kaiser Permanente, Delta Dental, BabyCenter.com, Reebok (NHL), Burger King, IBM, NFL Red Zone, Dish NetworkVerizon, SpeakEasy, Play Along!, Boston Market, and Bass Pro Shop.

Regionally, Sylvia has cast for Humana ParksCalifornia AlmondsColorado Department of Health EducationSmartypants VitaminsRocky Mountain Health Plans, Connect for Health Colorado, The Colorado Lottery, The New Hampshire Lottery, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Summit Automotive, Charter Media, Via Satellite,  Keen Shoes, The Rocky Mountain Cancer Center,  North Dakota Department of Transportation, Pinnacle Bank, LiveWell Colorado, CollegeInvest, Tri-State Energy, Banner Health, Del Real Foods, and Furniture Row.

The Colorado Heath Foundation episodic films “Encrucijada”,  for PBS and Univision, won the Heartland Regional Emmy Award for best PSA in 2015. Sylvia is also proud to be a part of The Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention’s “Man Therapy” PSA campaign, which was written up in an article in the Media & Advertising section of The New York Times.

Sylvia is currently the Casting Director for The Colorado Shakespeare Festival and LOCAL Theatre Company. She worked as the Casting Associate at The Denver Center Theater Company for three seasons.  She has also cast shows for Denver Center Attractions, Off Square Theatre, The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, The Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra, Bravo! Vail, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, Cleo Parker-Robinson Dance, Colorado Theatre Works, Senior Housing Options at The Barth Hotel, and Paragon Theatre Company.

Please visit SYLVIA GREGORY CASTING for more information.


Family! | Sisters Headshot Session in Aspen Colorado

Ok, yes, so this one is special…

This is, after all: Family.

My son and I were lucky to have a wonderful visit with my sister's family for a few days in Aspen Colorado this past summer. While we were there, since her daughters are a rather multi-talented bunch and needed refreshed headshots for talent and commercial use, we had an impromptu session before dinner one night. And of course, we made sure to grab a few casual family photos as well!

Actor, model and talent headshots, especially when your subjects are this stinking cute, are about so much more than just pictures -- ideally, I'm striving to capture personality in a still frame. That's no small task, and so my biggest work is to get people to forget they are in front of a camera at all. As a result, the sessions become quite entertaining, even for me behind my camera. I work hard with clients to get them to relax -- sometimes knowing them helps, sometimes it presents a different kind of challenge.

But in this case, this session didn’t ever feel like “work,” in that respect. First of all, this was quite casual -- really it had all the formality of “let’s take some photos before dinner.” We were in the mountains of Aspen, Colorado after all, and my awesome assistant (who happens to be my son) was with me, so, why not? And yes, the agenda was officially to get headshots to update with actor/talent agencies, but we were all on vacation, so it was also about having FUN and hopefully getting a few images for the walls!

And we sure did get some beautiful images of these beautiful young humans...

Since I do know these amazing girls personally, I’m always excited for the opportunity to even attempt to capture each of their OVERFLOWING personalities. Seriously. Always. You should see my cell phone camera roll after a few days with them. And it's extra fun to pull out the "real camera" for a session.

These young ladies are incredible -- each so unique from her sisters, but at the same time so clearly family. They are each blessed with extraordinary talent (already evident even so young!), copious amounts of charm, intelligence… and each of these amazing girls possesses her very own brand of stellar wit and inner joy. They are some pretty cool kids. We feel awfully lucky to call them family!

OK so let’s be honest: my job here was not hard; they are freaking adorable. Those last two frames above... those were her response to my asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Her answer, "FAMOUS!"

And then she heartily cracked herself up.

And here they are with their gorgeous mama... that's a whole lot of beautiful in one photo!

Outdoor family photos in Aspen, Colorado with Denver photographer Jennifer Koskinen

Love you guys!!

I’m a Denver based child actor headshot photographer specializing in bringing out connection, personality in my clients’ photos by giving them a highly personalized photo session experience. I would love to chat with you about your headshot and family portrait needs!

The Art of Live Theatre Performance Photography | Denver Stage Production Photographer

My love of theatre and stage was born in high school. Singing was my thing, so naturally, I loved musicals. Being on stage and belting out a musical number was heaven to me. But acting -- having lines to deliver -- let alone in character -- while trying to remember blocking, props, being aware of other actors and having new director’s notes to assimilate -- that was all rather terrifying to me.

Tony Award Nominee Beth Malone in The Unsinkable Molly Brown at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Photo by Jennifer Koskinen | Merritt Design Photo

Having spent just enough time ON stage to have even a tiny taste of what goes into it, I am completely, utterly, wholly in AWE of actors. The courage it takes to be unabashedly vulnerable combined with the intuitive ability to inhabit the lives of others to tell a story is profoundly inspiring to me.

Storytellers, in general, have my utmost respect -- the desire alone to tell a story that could make someone feel, think, or widen perspective -- it's a beautiful thing to me. But being able to tell a story while in character, and to do it with nuance, humanity and honesty… that is a gift that I find to be ridiculously amazing. RESPECT.

In recent years I’ve discovered that my own gifts with regards to the theatre may not have been given in the realm of any discernible acting talent -- but -- I DO feel blessed to have found a profession in which I'm able to capture live performances in all their ephemeral light and magic. Or at least I feel honored to be asked to TRY to capture some of that magic!

Theatre is, by nature, fleeting. It's alive with the particular conditions of the moment in which it is breathing. So to photograph a production -- to attempt to best capture a design team's work, as well as specific moments based on their theatrical, artistic, aesthetic and compositional quality -- is no small thing.

These moments, captured in still photographs, become part of the collective memory of a particular story, cast, design team and production company.

[ Note: click on photos to view larger and for actor and production credits ]

A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Denver Center Theatre Company

When I'm working with professional theaters, I shoot during the final dress, designated as a "photo call" rehearsal -- Ideally this is a full costume, full tech running performance with no audience. In an ideal world, I've been able to attend a rehearsal prior to shooting, but this isn't always possible, so sometimes I shoot never having seen the material, the light, the set or the staging, and I need to be able to react quickly to whatever conditions may present themselves during the run, viewing the performance in those cases, essentially through my lens alone. It's surreal and incredibly exhilarating (read: anxiety producing).

Technical expertise is a critical starting point. While the technology is improving, cameras aren't yet capable of seeing the dynamic range of shadows to highlights that a human eye can see, which means getting things as close as possible in camera, then extra editing time to get shadows and highlights to look natural in each photo. Oh, and that low light? It's constantly changing and often has colored gels on it! Colors and luminosity typically vary widely throughout a show, and the effects are amplified when falling on a variety of costumes, changing set design and texture, different skin tones and other elements of production design, requiring experience and comfort with the ability to constantly be adjusting one's camera settings throughout the show.

Set, costume and lighting design often feature low light, high contrast and varying color to help tell the story, pushing the limits of even the best equipment, and ALWAYS keeping a theatre photographer on his or her toes!

Once you get used to constantly changing technical conditions, the real art is in being in the right place at the right time to capture a human moment and an interesting composition. This, of course, is largely dependent on a not so perfect formula of experience, anticipation, and good timing!  It's a workout running non-stop for often over 2 hours, carrying heavy cameras and lenses the whole time. OH! And let's not forget that for final dress, there are still many obstacles in the house (lightboards, stage managers, directors, designers... all of their dinners, computers, electrical cords, etc.), and inevitably in your way as you run madly while watching action with your equipment through the theater. In the dark. Yes. I am often bruised the next day from running into chair arms with my thighs!

Ultimately, photographic composition in the theatre is part magic, and part math -- a dynamic and always changing formula based on where you are standing relative to where actors are moving within a space.

Getting to know work with the same theaters, actors, designers and directors more than once is always advantageous, and I love it when, ideally, there's time to scout a rehearsal prior to photographing a show. These things allow me to better anticipate blocking, staging, light, and the potential inherent in a particular production. I watch for appealing compositions as well -- I particularly love the opportunity to photograph a downstage (foreground) actor looking out over the camera, eyes to the light, another actor out of focus in the background, and I definitely need to be in the right place at the right time in order to catch this shot. Shakespearean soliloquies aside, it's often a very fleeting moment!

Capturing expression in an actor's EYES -- especially when he or she is facing the light is my absolute favorite! Lit eyes are critical to most any portrait as they convey so much expression, and here, capturing the soul of a character in a living, breathing moment is my ultimate goal.

[ Seriously... click on photos to view larger -- especially with these EYES -- and for actor and production credits ]

Of course, weave into all of this the fact that this is living, moving action -- actors are people, and people do blink… if someone blinks, they blink, and I move on to try to catch the next moment! Cards need to be changed and there's not always a convenient moment to change them. When the moment is gone, it’s gone forever. There are shots I've missed (some still haunt me)...

In many respects, live "running shoot" production photography is similar to wedding photography: it's not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the lazy. And like when I was shooting weddings, I still get nervous before every single shoot. Every. Single. One. It's unpredictable, constantly moving, and un-repeatable.

But… Oh my goodness when I GET THE SHOT... The one that captures the emotion of a scene… the shot that tells a piece of the story or hints with nuance at the essence of a character… or freezes a moment of soul, comedy or action …

Kathleen McCall in BENEDICTION at the Denver Center Theatre Company, photo by Jennifer Koskinen, Merritt Design Photo

One of my all time favorite photos! All credit for this amazing capture goes to my assistant, who was 14 years old at the time, and a former cast member of this production at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Allen Dorsey, above, captured mid-leap in the Fezziwig scene of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Photo by Gabe Koskinen, Merritt Design Photo

. . . there’s no more satisfying feeling than capturing that perfect moment. Patience, experience, stamina, passion, and no small amount of luck all factor into the photos that make the final cut. I often hear myself audibly gasp while sitting at my computer editing production photos. A fresh photo pops up on the screen and suddenly I'm reliving a moment that positively takes my breath away...

Ultimately, my gratitude circles back and is given wholly to the incredibly talented teams of storytellers and designers who create beautiful, performance art. From their passion and art I get to hopefully create another layer of art. A documentation of an experience that hopefully will, in some small way, get to live on long after the curtain has come down.

When I get it right, I help in some small way to tell the story of the storytellers.

And I love it to no end.

CHEERS!!  Leonard E Barret, Jr is the Ghost of Christmas Present in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Photo: Jennifer Koskinen | Merritt Design Photo

NOTE: Click any image to see Actor, Production and Company credits.

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ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Jennifer Koskinen is an internationally published theatre, dance and stage production photographer based in Denver Colorado. She recently was brought on as the production photographer for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival after multiple seasons photographing live theatre for the Denver Center for Performing Arts Theatre Company. She has also volunteered with the Denver School of the Arts Theatre Department, capturing actor headshots and staged productions for the past 4 years. Her photos have appeared in around the world, and in publications such as the New York Times, Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, The Denver Post, and Broadway World, to name just a few.