Always shoot in manual.
Use aperture priority to get the general gist of where you’re shooting, but then switch to manual. Why? Aperture Priority mode blows out the highlights every time. Try exposure compensation if you want (and I did, to the tune of two stops), but it will still blow out pixels where the spotlights hit the performers square in the face and chests.
Shooting in manual and playing with shutter speeds helps. I could choose a shutter speed twice as fast and get a much better picture. With less light being let in, the dark background would go black, helping to isolate the Wiggle, and those highlights wouldn’t blow out. They’d look more like plain old studio lights.
I went from shooting 1/60th of a second in some cases to 1/320th and 1/200th. And the pictures were sharper and better exposed. The Image Stabilization of the lens helped a bunch, too. I could never have pulled off those shots without it. At 300mm, the image looks very shaky through your viewfinder if you don’t have IS turned on.
The astute photographic minds amongst you realize I’m breaking a cardinal rule of photography already, the reciprocal rule — that your shutter speed should be one over the focal length of your lens. On my 1.6x crop sensor camera, a 300mm lens extends out to 480mm. So I should be at 1/500th of a second speed to guarantee sharp images. That wasn’t at all possible. I kept my elbows propped up on my knees and the camera pressed hard against my face to help steady it, but that’s the best I could do. Also, don’t breathe while shooting.
Take this picture, for example:
It’s shot in aperture priority, which only gave me 1/60th of a second. That gives you the motion blur. Even in “Rock-a-Bye Bear,” you need something faster. Perhaps even worse, check out Sam’s shirt or Jeff’s face. They’ve gone completely white. The highlights are blown out completely. That data is not recoverable. Trust me, I tried.
On the other hand, I went manual for the next shot:
It’s 1/320th of a second at 160mm. So it passes the reciprocal rule, keeping everything sharp, despite a fair amount of movement in the scene. And since I was controlling the shutter speed and aperture, both, I kept the highlights from blowing out. I did have to nudge the “Recovery” slider in Lightroom to the right a little bit, but no big deal. I didn’t lose any date in the highlights. The shadows may be lost, but that’s the compromise I made when I took the picture. I made the decision to let them become inky blackness. I don’t need to see the empty seats behind the stage. They’re just clutter.
I chimped constantly. I know it’s not what you’re “supposed” to do, but the light was changing constantly and it’s not like I could ask the Wiggles to redo a song so I can get the exposure right on Dorothy the Dinosaur.
I also ignored the histogram. It’s pointless in this situation. I’m not trying to evenly light the scene. I recognize that what I’m photographing is going to pin to the left side — mostly black. And if it overexposes, I could see the blinkies on my display. So why bother with it?
For slightly larger versions of the pictures in this post, click on the images.