Intern News: Tips for Photographing Puppets

Me and my hand puppet

Hi, my name is Samantha McQueen, and this summer I worked as an intern here at Puppet Showplace. My job as an intern was to work on different graphic design and photography projects for the theater. 

To help me take better photos of puppets, I developed a few tips that I would like to share with you.

Tip 1: Focus!

In photography, "focus" usually means whether an image is sharp or blurry. For puppeteers, "focus" means what a puppet is looking at. For a puppet to look alive, the audience needs to believe that the puppet is seeing things around it: they need to believe the illusion of focus.

Giving a puppet focus is harder than most people think. Have the puppet look into the camera. Does something seem off or creepy? That's because the puppet's focus needs to be adjusted to make it look like the character is looking back into the camera. Usually puppeteers need a director or an outside eye to confirm that the focus is correct.

The Dinosaur Show

 An alternative and sometimes easier way is to have a puppet focus on an object or another puppet on stage. That's what we did in the photo shoot for The Dinosaur Show, where Mama Brachiosaurus looks alive and attentive because she is focusing on an egg in her nest.

Tip 2: Know your puppet

Augustine, from Punschi: The Advantage of Kasper

Always know the puppet you are shooting. Every puppet will have different needs to look alive. Some puppets might need different angles to show off their best features, just like people like to show off their "good side." Also, keep in mind the lighting angle because it can cause dark shadows across a puppet's best features.

For example, Augustine, from Punschi: The Adventures of Kasper, has a heavy brow. His heavy brow causes him to look angry if he looks down. This is shown in the photo above, which make him intimidating to the viewer. This can be fixed by having him look slightly upwards, almost looking like he's day dreaming.

tip 3: strike a pose

Wire armature 

Sometimes you might be working by yourself to take photos, or your puppeteer might want a rest. In these situations, you can "wrangle" the puppet into an active pose using some pro techniques. 

One option is to create an armature like the one shown here to hold up the puppet, similar to those used in stop-motion animation. You can pose the puppet in the desired position, then step back and take the photo all by yourself. Other options include using stands, wires, strings, and other structures. If they end up in the photo, you can always edit them out later in photo software. 

Tip 4: Plan your shoot

It's hard to get a really good shot during a performance in front of a live audience. It might be better for you to take shots during a dress rehearsal, when the puppeteer can freeze at the part you want to shoot.  Another idea is to watch the performance and write down the parts that you think will be good for an action shot or a posed set-up. Sometimes a staged photo might be necessary to get all of the elements you need, even if it's not exactly a scene from the show. 

Bonnie and Kids.JPG

This is also true if you want to capture audience reactions and interactions after the show. In order to show how much kids enjoyed the performance of Squirrel Stole My Underpants by The Gottabees, I had to get permission from their camp director and move quickly into position to show their smiling faces after the show. With a little planning, you can be in the right place at the right time to show their excitement. 

tip 5: keep practicing!


5) The most important tip is to keep practicing. Photography is a skill that takes time to develop. Don’t be afraid to check out other photographers' work for inspiration. For example, I spoke with Richard Termine, the photographer for the Muppets and one of the country's leading puppetry photographers to get advice. 

Check out Richard Termine's website for more great inspiration.

Photos won't always come out the way you want, so don’t get discouraged. You can take another photo or you can edit in photo software. Or, you can go out in public and see what happens, like we did on this fun photo shoot with Mike Horner of Mesner Puppet Theatre. This photo had a record number of likes and shares on Facebook! 

T-Rex and Botson Subway

I hope these tips will help you in future photo shoots. Special thanks to Puppet Showplace Theater for being a great place for my summer internship!