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How to shoot amazing indoor long exposure photography inside a theater - The Photography Express

How to shoot amazing indoor long exposure photography inside a theater

indoor long exposure photography inside a theater

To a lot of beginner photographers, indoor photography feels like it is a tough technique to master. Not only you need to watch out for the ISO, shutter speed and aperture, but if you want to use a lower ISO to avoid noise in your photograph you need to do long exposure photography. Essentially that means using a long shutter speed (usually more than 30 seconds), set up a tripod, use remote triggers, and position the camera angle before you take the shot. The thing is, indoor long exposure photography takes time. Since each shot requires some time you may only get to take 20 or so pictures in an hour (or less). So what is the “behind the scene” of indoor long exposure photography? What camera setting should you use in this situation? I recently attended a workshop inside a theater and I am going to tell just that so you can create the images you are about to see below.

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1) General steps for indoor long exposure photography

a. Use low ISO

The very first thing you should do is to set ISO as low as possible. I am talking about anything less than ISO 400 but preferably ISO 100.

In my other previous posts, I talked about full frame sensor cameras having a lot better low light performance. I also talked about even raising to ISO1000 is totally fine in most situation.

However, in this is the situation I encourage you to lower the ISO because in such a dark environment you will notice noise easily if you are not being careful with your ISO settings.

low iso

b. Use aperture of at least f16 minimum to maximize depth of field

In order to maximize depth of field, set the aperture to at least f16 and preferably f22. Doing this will allow your camera to get as much focus throughout the picture as possible. This aperture should put the front and back of your picture in sharpness and you should be able to see a ‘star burst’ effect on any light you captured in the photograph.

starburst example

c. Set shutter speed to 30 seconds to get correct exposure

Generally, if you use a 30 shutter speed with f16 you should be able to get a decent exposure inside a theater. Of course this depends on the lighting environment you are in so if your picture came out underexposed, raised the shutter speed to more than 30 seconds. I like to increase it by 15 seconds increment so if it’s underexposed I’ll set 45 second shutter speed in my next try.

On the other hand if your picture came out overexposed, decrease the shutter speed to 15 seconds and try again. Using a 30 seconds usually give you a good estimate of how much more/less shutter duration you need for your photographs.

If you need to go beyond 30 seconds for shutter speed, you will need to use the bulb mode. This is usually a dial on top of your camera labeled “B” mode. Once you select that mode all you need to do is to hold down the shutter release until you get the shutter duration needed. You can also use a remote trigger so you don’t need to physically touch your camera to do this.

correct exposure

d. Use a tripod and lens hood

For long exposure photography, you MUST use a tripod with no exception. In fact, if you need to handheld any shot slower than 1/60 second then you need to start using a tripod or monopod to avoid camera shakes.

One thing I also highly recommend is the importance of using a lens hood. It greatly reduces flares in your images in long exposure photography.

e. Use a Shutter release cable or remote trigger. Otherwise use 10 second timer.

If you do not have a remote trigger, use a 10 second timer to take the picture on a tripod. Some people asked me before why we need to use a remote when we can press the shutter button ourselves with the timer. The answer is it saves time! Imaging taking 100 photos and waiting 10 seconds for each shots. That’s 1000 seconds! This is one of the equipment that you cannot go cheap not to buy (you can get a 3rd party one like this here).

2) Specific steps for indoor photography in theater

Ok now you know the general settings to do long exposure photography in low light situation, let me walk you step by step of how I shoot indoor photography in a theater. It is very simple once you get the points in part 1 above.

a. Have your composition all set. Tripod and radio trigger ready.

b. Set ISO to 100

c. Set Aperture to 16

d. Set shutter speed to 30 seconds

e. Take a look at the light meter at the bottom of your viewfinder

f. If it’s going to the negative side, go to bulb mode and jump to step I

g. If it’s going to the positive side (more than +1), decrease the shutter speed to 15 seconds

h. Check the light meter again until it hits around +1 exposure compensation

i. Take the shot with the remote trigger. If you are in bulb mode get a timer out and set for 60 seconds. Hold the button down (unless you can lock the button) until the timer hit 60 seconds then release it.

j. If you picture is still underexposed, set your timer to 90 seconds and increase by 30 seconds increments ( that means 120 second if your next shot is still underexpose).

k. If the picture is overexposed, decrease the shutter speed by 15 seconds increments. (So if you are using 60 seconds, do 45 seconds now)

You see one important pattern? Yes! Shutter speed is the only variable in all the shots! That means you don’t even need to worry about ISO and aperture!

3) Do NOT use External Flash

A lot of beginner photographers tend to think using a flash would help. This is partly true if you subject is close to the light source and you don’t have much area to cover. However, it’d be impossible to light up the whole theater just by using the tiny speedlite flash.

So when you do long exposure photography inside a theater just put all your flashes away and concentrate on what composition works best. Then spend the rest of the time figuring out what shutter speed to use. That’s it.

4) Turn off long exposure noise reduction

There is a function in your DSLR that can turn on long exposure noise reduction. Which basically mean your DSLR is going to do the post processing work for you to reduce noise in your photograph.

It works to some extend but I recommend turning this feature OFF. It adds up camera processing time and say if you take a 30 second exposure you may need to wait for another 30 seconds before you take another photo. So for me I recommend doing this in Adobe Lightroom instead. Plus your ISO should be low anyway so you don’t need to worry about noise.

5) Auto white balance does 95% of the job (if not use k2500-3200)

White balance is something that can be easily adjusts in Adobe Lightroom. It is a simple fix so if you don’t want to change your white balance you can skip this step. However, for those who want to manually set the white balance, set it to around k2500-3200. Depending on the lighting condition, you may need to use incandescent or tungsten mode to get proper white balance of your shot.

6) Use mirror lock up

Mirror lock up is a mode you can set inside your dslr’s menu so whenever you press the shutter release button the mirror inside your camera won’t cause camera shakes and gives you a blurry picture. I’ve a mixed feeling using this mode because I don’t really see a difference when my camera is on the tripod. However, you are more than welcome to use this technique as long as you don’t need to waste time figuring the setup and miss your shots.

7) Use bracketing

Bracketing essentially means taking the same picture with 3 or more exposure compensation levels. Usually it’s -1, 0 and +1 in the light metering bar. This is also the way to produce HDR (High dynamic range) photography. To avoid any more technical terms, using bracket allows you to merge all 3 exposures together to create one overall exposure that fits all areas of your photograph.

However, if you just want to make things easy you can still use the bracketing mode but just choose one picture and edit the exposures in Lightroom.

Exposure compensation

8) Look for symmetry

It can be difficult to find a good composition to take photos inside a theater. The best method I found is to look for symmetry. So look for an angle where objects from left to right, or top to bottom reflects each other. I constantly use this technique for standard portfolio shots as well.

I also suggest you to use this simple technique early so that you can get the basic shots out of the way. After that you can then concentrate on other creative photo ideas.


9) Try Dutch angle

Dutch angle is a simple technique that can be achieved simply tilting the camera so the horizon is at an angle to the bottom of the frame of the photograph. Most of the time, you can try combing the leading line concept and tilt your camera to get a special composition of your shots.

In this theater, one of the most obvious leading line concepts are the chairs. So in the shot below I tile the angle and have the chairs line up so they go from the top left corner to the bottom right hand corner. So try this out!

dutch angle

10) Clean your lens filter, it matters!

Yes I mean to clear the UV filter that you attached in front of the lens. If it’s not clean probably you will see something like this:

clean filter

This is a shot I made at the front of the stage where my lens is at an angle towards the light beams. See all the dirty spots you can see all over the pictures? Well I guess it’s time to clean my lens!

Alright there you go with all the tips and tricks that I learn in my indoor long exposure photography inside a theater. What is your indoor photography photo looks like? I would love to see your pictures and your comments below. I hope you learnt a lot in this post and look forward to next week’s blog post. It’s going to be amazing!

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About Gary

A passionate photographer with goals to fulfill your photography passion and motivate you to take pictures even when life is busy!


  1. This is honestly one of the best and most comprehensive articles I’ve seen on this subject. I appreciate the attention to detail. It will help me enormously on my shoot this week – thank you! 🙂

    • Hi Hillary thank you so much for your kind words! I am also very glad this is going to help your photo shoot this week. Helping photographers like yourself and hearing great feedbacks are the motivations that keeps me going everyday. Feel free to share this information around and let me know if you have any photography questions. Have a great day!

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