Ken Howard, Theater Photographer, on Covering the Stage
October 3, 2016
Joyce DiDonato in “The Enchanted Island” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2012. “I’ve been practically on stage at the Metropolitan Opera, and man is that exciting,” says Howard.
Kelly Kaduce as Angelica in Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Susan Graham as Iphigénie and Plácido Domingo as Oreste in Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” at The Met in 2007.
Specializing in theatrical performances since the 1970s, Ken Howard now photographs performances of major opera companies including The Met, the San Diego Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and others.
PDN: How did you get interested in theater photography?
Ken Howard: I was always interested in theater. My mother got me a season ticket to The National Theatre in Washington, DC, when I was a teenager. After college, I was in the Coast Guard, where I learned photography.
PDN: What were you shooting in the Coast Guard?
KH: I was in charge of a public information office. One of the photographers didn’t want to work on a Saturday, so I said, “Show me how to use that camera.” I was able to get tickets to events, and I saw these big black-and-white photographs in the lobby of the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.). They were startling, brilliant things by a guy named Hank Kranzler (1920-1999). I remember thinking: That’s what I want to be doing.
PDN: How did you make it happen?
KH: I was married to an actress, so I started shooting headshots of actors and actresses. When I got out of the Coast Guard, I contacted public relations people in theaters, and I ended up doing publicity shots for A.C.T., Magic Theatre, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
PDN: When did you start concentrating on opera?
KH: A woman with the San Francisco Opera asked me to photograph the first opera I ever saw. Later I was photographing [another performance] next to a stringer for Time magazine. The stringer put his film on a plane to New York, and the plane crashed into San Francisco Bay. I got a call from Time, asking if I had any pictures. I got my first picture in Time magazine, and thought: It’s time to move to New York. That was 1973, ’74.
PDN: How did you get established in New York?
KH: I went to see every Broadway PR person I could. A month after I came to New York, a press agent who looked at my portfolio said, “Come and shoot.”
PDN: How were they using the pictures?
KH: I was doing Off Broadway shows. My pictures would appear with reviews in the newspapers, which weren’t sending their photographers around much. Some theaters used my images for brochures and promotional things.
PDN: How has the business changed?
KH: Before everything went digital, you would shoot, send your film to a lab, come home for dinner, and go to a movie [while you were waiting to get the film back]. Now, you’re on 24-7. I’ll shoot a dress rehearsal that goes to midnight, and they want to see pictures at 9:30 in the morning, so I have to come home, download and edit 1,500 or 1,600 pictures. The work is much more relentless and time sensitive.
PDN: Are there a lot of young photographers trying to break in?
KH: I don’t feel pressure from young people fighting for the positions. My difficulty is young PR people who don’t know the difference between a good picture and a picture that’s good enough. Convincing people this is important work is a challenge. This isn’t a job for me. This is a mission.
PDN: What do you mean when you say it’s a “mission”?
KH: I want to be where actors are totally involved in what they’re doing. I want to be right there going, “Yeah! That’s it!” I’ve been practically on stage at the Metropolitan Opera, and man is that exciting.
PDN: What are you looking for in images? What are you trying to convey?
KH: I’m trying to tell the story of what’s going on onstage. You’re looking for the expressions of the actors, and the things they’re doing. My pictures become the history of the show.
PDN: Do you have a lot of competition from established photographers?
KH: There are maybe half a dozen of us who do nothing but opera photography, and a lot more who shoot theater, but only 12 or 15 of us in the country who make a living at it.
PDN: What are the barriers?
KH: Most theaters have very little money [to pay photographers].
PDN: How much money do you make?
KH: It varies: $2,500 to $3,000 is about average these days for a production.
PDN: That doesn’t sound so bad.
KH: To make a living, you have to shoot 30 or 40 shows a year. Any one show takes a whole lot of time. Not all photographers will shoot more than one performance, but I’ll shoot two, three, even five rehearsals. Also, the fee includes expenses. If I shoot at the Los Angeles Opera, it’s going to cost me $500 to $600 to get there, and if they pay $3,000, right off the top I make $2,500, not counting other expenses.
PDN: Why do you want to see a show before you shoot it?
KH: I want to go in having some idea what the story is, and to think about where to [position myself]. A lot of photographers put their camera on a tripod. I don’t believe theater can be covered that way, so I’m constantly moving about.
PDN: What cameras and lenses do you use?
KH: I have two Canon 5D Mark IIIs, and then I have the Canon 1Dx. It’s fast. I can shoot with the 1Dx at an ISO of 5000.
PDN: How did you manage to get pictures in such low light when you were shooting hand-held with film?
KH: I can shoot a sharp picture at 1/8 second at f/2.8. I do exercises with weights to help me hold cameras steady.
PDN: What kind of exercises?
KH: I will hold 10-pound weights in [camera] position, and lower them down to my chest, then raise them up over my head, and do that 50 times. Another exercise is holding the weights straight out from the sides of my body, until the muscles in my shoulders really hurt.
PDN: Why don’t you use a monopod?
KH: The way I move in a theater, it’s just too clunky. It had to be up and down, up and down. I’d rather just be able to hold the camera.
PDN: What kind of lenses do you use?
KH: I would say 80 percent of what I shoot goes through my 70-200. I also have a 24-70, and for some theaters, I have a 300mm f/2.8 and a 400mm f/2.8. Those I use on a tripod.
PDN: What’s your advice to photographers trying to get into this niche?
KH: The first thing I’d say is, If you can think of being anything else, you’d better do that, because this is too hard, too complicated, the money is not a lot, and at some point you’re going to say, why don’t I get a job? If you have a back-up plan, you’re in trouble. My second piece of advice would be to start [photographing in] a small theater where you know somebody [who will let you] practice. You’ve got to shoot and shoot and shoot. Get to know how things move on stage. Look for specific moments, think compositionally and line things up. You have to move! You can’t just sit there in the fourth row with a tripod and get the most exciting pictures.