Shooting the Metropolitan Opera is a grand profession
How did you start shooting for the Met?
I shot the San Francisco Opera for 20 years and developed a relationship with the Metropolitan Opera. They invited me to come and do a shoot—like a tryout—and it worked.
What led you to opera photography?
I started out as a dancer with a little ballet company in San Francisco. I was sitting around watching rehearsals a lot, so I got myself a camera and started playing around with it. I started shooting performances, went to the San Francisco Ballet, and shot a couple of rehearsals. The San Francisco Opera saw those photos, asked me to do a test shoot, and they liked my work. That was 1982.
How well do you have to know the operas?
I’ve been doing it so long that I know a lot of opera stories, but I’m not an expert. I just go with my instinct. It helps to do a few rehearsals—and to know the story, of course. Mostly I just keep my camera focused on the performers, and when they do something exciting or dramatic or touching, then I shoot. I shoot a lot.
How many frames?
For a full dress rehearsal, as many as 1,500 to 2,000. There are so many variables. You think you’ve got the moment perfect, and when you look at it, somebody’s doing something: They’re licking their lips, their eyes are closed.
Do you move about the theater?
At some of the final dress rehear-sals, there’s an audience, so it’s hard to move around. For those, I stand in the photographers’ section. But for earlier rehearsals, we have access to pretty much all of the theater: We can go way downstage right or left, up to the boxes or the parterre section for different angles, or up above to see the set.
What gear do you use?
I just bought a Canon EOS 5D Mark III that I love. It’s the best so far for me—the quality of the files in dark lighting is so much better than my previous cameras, it’s amazing.
Do you have any say on the lighting?
We shoot with available light on the stage—we don’t have any control over the lighting at all. The hardest part is when there are pools of very bright light and parts of the stage are really dark—that makes it hard to expose correctly. When it’s lit very bright and flat, it’s harder for me to get a good, sharp image than when there’s a little contrast. I like contrasty lighting.
What makes opera photography special for you?
I love the grand sets of opera—the colors, the lighting, the grandeur. It’s really exciting to me.
How do you capture that?
I zoom out my 24-70mm f/2.8 USM. Or I get farther back in the theater and try to get full stage shots, stopping down a bit to get deeper focus. Quite often, I get the best full-stage shots during early dress rehearsals, where I have access to the center of the theater.
How much editing do you do?
I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4, mostly to lighten and sharpen and to clean up the shadows. Then I’ll export photos chosen for the press to Photoshop and do more touching up, removing obvious wig lines or distracting things. Occasionally I have been known to make a singer look a bit thinner, but not often [laughs]!
Which operas are your favorites?
The old ones, with the big stage filled with hundreds of people. I really love Turandot and Aida. There’s a trend in modern operas toward sparse sets, and they’re fun to shoot, but I really love the old grandeur of the opera. A beautiful stage and all those lights. The best singers in the world.
Marty Sohl is one of two main photographers for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where she lives during the season (September through May). Off-season, she lives with her family and dogs in Fort Worth, TX. See more of her work at martysohlphoto.com and at PopPhoto.com/sohl.