There are two principal reasons for regarding circus photography as a distinct subject and not merely as another type of theater photography: the lighting comes mostly from directly overhead; the audience encircles the performers. These factors largely govern the choice of equipment and the best technique for taking photographs.
The lighting usually comes from above and tends to be concentrated on the center of the ring. Spotlights are occasionally used from the side of the ring. There is rarely any change of color or brilliance in the lighting from start to finish of the performance.
Because the audience encircles the ring there is a wide choice of viewpoint, but only certain positions are suitable for photography.
The performers always play to the higher priced seats so the photographer should take care at least not to sit on the opposite side of the ring or he will get little but back views.
A ringside seat will be too close to take in much of the ring but it is useful for close-ups of individual items. Generally a seat next to the gangway and two or three rows back from the ring is the best compromise, and the photographer can stand up if necessary without spoiling the view of the people behind.
Practically any good camera with a lens of at least f3.5 and an eye-level viewfinder can be used for circus photography. A miniature camera with coupled focusing or a reflex camera with eye-level focusing gets over the difficulty of focusing by scale in the poor lighting of the auditorium. Where the camera must be focused by scale, it is useful to remember that all circus rings are 42 feet in diameter. It is never possible to use such a small stop that the depth of field covers the whole ring.
A lens of normal focal length covers most of the requirements of circus photography as the photographer is always fairly near the subject. Even a normal lens will not cover the whole of the ring from the second or third row, so a long focus lens is only necessary when shots are wanted of just part of the ring.
A deep lens hood is advisable, more especially when the camera is pointed up for shots of the trapeze artistes.
For most shots the exposure should be made with the fastest shutter speed possible at the full aperture of the lens. Generally this will be about 1/100 second at f3.5. Slower shutter speeds may be used for acts employing the larger animals- e.g., bears, sea-lions, elephants. It is usually safe to double the exposure meter reading with circus lighting.
There is no point in using anything but the fastest panchromatic material.
With fast moving subjects, the fastest shutter speed possible under available lighting may be still too slow to arrest movement. In such cases, the exposure should be made at the "dead point" in the movement (e.g., when a trapeze artiste is at the highest point of his swing).
The combined use of a fast color film and a wide-aperture camera lens makes color photography possible, even when using the available light. Whether photography is possible in any given lighting must be found by use of an exposure meter and through experience.
It is essential to expose correctly for the performers in the ring, even if the entire background is thus reproduced black. A correctly exposed background serves no useful purpose, if the main point of interest is and lifeless.
There are several kinds of subject; acts on the edge of the ring (clowns) which call for fast shutter speeds; fast moving acts in the ring proper (equestrian items) which also need fast shutter speeds; slow moving animal acts (elephants, etc.) which can be shot at 1/50 second; trapeze turns which may be shot at 1/50 second by careful timing, and the spectators'- particularly children's faces around the edge of the ring, for which exposures as slow as 1/10 second may often be used. Anything that takes place inside a cage is not worth trying for because the bars are invariably too distracting in the finished photograph.
It is sometimes possible to get a seat at a dress rehearsal. This is a great help in establishing the most suitable viewpoint and technique for the real show. Failing this it is worth while making a preliminary visit with a notebook and no camera.
It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that the photographer should always make sure that photography is permitted (it is often encouraged) and that under no circumstances should any kind of flash photography be attempted.