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Tips for Dance Event Photography

So Susie is in a recital and you want to get some photos. What do you do?

Here are some tips I’ve learned from shooting dance events over the years.

It’s About Light


Photography, from the Greek, means “light drawing.” The challenge is doing this when there isn’t any. Like when your daughter is performing in a dimly lit venue.

I won’t lie to you. Sports photography – which dance is, if you haven’t realized it by now – can be expensive. The ability of your camera to capture as much light as possible will determine your experience and results in capturing your loved one. There are 3 components to exposure (light capture)- aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity (ISO). You work within the confines of your camera and your lens selection to achieve optimization.

Normally you set 2 and work with the other. In dance, stopping motion is the most important aspect, but ironically you are at the mercy of the other two components. Set your ISO and aperture and use the highest shutter speed you can after that. I typically set my camera to “A” (aperture priority) mode at the widest aperture I have (typically f/2.8 in a zoom lens).

Light collection, then, for us depends on sensitivity and aperture. Work at the limits of your camera. This implies that you know what these are. For my system, ISO 3200 at f/2.8 are my working numbers. If you don’t know what these are, you need to find them. Don’t assume the highest ISO your camera is capable of is the one you want to use. More on this later, but increasing ISO also increases noise (color patterns in blacks). Noise reduction – in camera or in post – results in smearing. Pick the highest ISO that produces acceptable results.

ISO depends on your camera. Aperture depends on your lens. Fast aperture = expensive lens. Sorry. I don’t make the rules.

I’m not telling you to you go out and buy an expensive lens. I am telling you to learn what are the limits of what you currently have, At what ISO and aperture can you achieve the fastest shutter speeds in the condition that you have to shoot in? That is the information I am telling you to get.

After you set the highest ISO you can get away with (not necessarily what your camera can do, but what produces acceptable images) and the lowest aperture your lens will allow, what’s left is your shutter speed. This determines how effectively you can stop action.

To stop dance motion, I have found you need 1/750 of a second shutter speed. Sometimes you can get away with 1/500, but hands and feet usually need 1/750. The last time I tried, I didn’t come close to achieving these kind of speeds. Give up? Well, not exactly. As long as you have the face in focus and sharp, you can get away with compromising hands and feet.

Of course, there are no free lunches. Wide aperture means decreased depth of field. Good for isolating your dancer with focus. Bad for keeping everyone in focus when shooting groups. High ISO means noise. Slow shutter speed means blur.

Photography is all about compromise. You give something, you get something.

1 Good Picture is worth 100 bad

It doesn’t matter how many pictures you get. It only matters that you get at least 1 good one.

The more you shoot, the better your chances are. What the world doesn’t see doesn’t count. Edit. Show only the best.

You can have bad focus, blurred image, etc. It doesn’t matter. If you have a compelling image, you have a compelling image. If you don’t, you don’t.

Get Close, Get the Angle

My experience has been go to the side. The side produces views that eliminate background clutter and give the most pleasing views. Get close. Get the angle.

This also has the positive side effect of getting out of everyone else’s way.

86 the flash

Unless you have many or very powerful off camera flash, you are wasting your time with on-camera flash. For one thing, the light source is small and harsh. For another, at the distance you are probably shooting, it will contribute nothing to the exposure anyway. Unless you are in close to your dancer. Then you put her and other dancers in danger – they are performing in a relatively dimly lit area and you come in and blind them with a bright light.

Flash also falls off, so it is good at isolating but bad – again, unless you have many of them – at lighting groups.

Flash also kills any theatrical lighting.

I generally don’t use flash, nor recommend it, unless I am at a dedicated photo shoot without theatrical lighting.

Shoot Rehearsal/Practice if you can

The actual performance is probably not when you want to shoot. There are more people there and more restrictions (if you can shoot at all). Shooting during the rehearsal allows you to go where you need to.

As I mentioned above, however, I tend to shoot from the corners of the stage. This allows interesting angles and gets you out of the way as well – there are other people there, too. They have a right to see and take pictures, too.

Shoot Up

If you are close to the stage chances are you are shooting up at your dancer rather than down at them. Good.

Shooting up makes your subject more regal. It is a technique used in fashion photography, for example. It lends import; they are on a stage, after all!

Compositionally it can also help to create diagonal and leading lines. All good stuff.

Get Close

Wide shots, dancers tend to get lost. They are not necessarily bad, but the more you can fill the frame the better. Try to isolate your dancer. Crop in post if need be.

Negative space and other compositional elements still are in play. However, get tight shots too.

But Give Stunts Room

If your dancer performs stunts, you need to back off on the framing considerably. It is very difficult to get hands and feet in when they are flying all over and you are in tight. For tumbling, give twice the frame you think you need. If it’s too wide you can crop in post, but it’s tough to add arms and leg parts when they are chopped off in the frame.

Shoot Dances Your Child Isn’t In

Practice. Learn to anticipate.

Capture the Peak

In any sporting endeavor – including dance – there is a moment when the action peaks and the dancer is almost motionless. This is the moment you want. It is the easiest to capture as shutter speed restrictions matter least.

If you have seen the dance before you can anticipate when this occurs. If you haven’t seen it before the level of difficulty increases exponentially. Best bets are to shoot multiple frames in bursts – don’t keep your finger on the trigger all day long as eventually (unless you shoot JPEG) your buffer will fill. Shoot like soldiers are trained to – short, controlled bursts. More on this later.

Bring Memory

Lots of it. Keep an eye on use and change cards between dances.

Shoot RAW

I have found that if your camera supports RAW format, using it allows correction in post processing much easier than using JPEG images. Of course, RAW format produces larger image files so your card is going to fill faster and your camera will take longer to process them. Still, I find adjusting everything from white balance to noise reduction more effective when shooting RAW.

You do need a RAW converter – Aperture, Lightroom, ACR – something.

Use Servo Focus and Hi Frame Rates

Some camera manufacturers call it “Continuous Focus,” some call it “servo,” but choose the focus method where the lens will follow action. On my camera, there is a “C” mode that you select.

If you don’t select this mode, you may find yourself unable to take pictures as the camera waits to lock focus. On the flip side, you may find yourself taking out of focus or off focus images. You still need to use the focus points, but you won’t be waiting on your camera to lock focus.

Use the highest frame rate your camera will allow. Mine is 5fps while shooting RAW. But keep it light on the trigger – shoot bursts.

Post Process

Eliminate exit signs, body parts that you don’t want, debris on the floor. Photoshop rules. Sorry, but capture is only 1/2 of the equation. Post processing is the other 1/2. Do it.

Make Lemonade

You want 1/1000 of a second at f/8, ISO 200. You walk in and find yourself at 1/30, f/2.8, ISO 3200. Talk about lemons!

You’ve been dealt a shitty hand. Play it.

Use blur, color, motion. Noise. Whatever.

You have an image. Make the most of it. If there is a problem, minimize it, but you don’t necessarily have to hide it. Emphasize it. It’s “art.” Some of the best images in photography technically suck. This doesn’t mean that yours technically sucks, it means it shouldn’t be an excuse. You know when you have the shot – use it.

The image below has blur. But I used it to advantage. The main focus of the image is sharp; the blur in the remainder of the image helps focus the eye on the subject. Note the hands and feet are not sharp. This also adds to the feeling of motion one expects in a dance image. As long as the face is sharp – and even then you can get away with it not being so if you play your cards right – the image works.

The image is also framed to the lower 1/3 – a compositional trick to add interest. This also draws away from the negatives and accentuates the positives in the photograph. You as the photographer use your skill to direct the viewer’s eyes; this doesn’t change in dance event photography.

 Your Camera and Your Lens Means Nothing

You are the photographer. You make the image. No one cares how you made it. If you can make it with a ball of twine and a stick, more power to you. You rock. You are a genius.

But if you don’t get the shot, you suck. I don’t care what you have. Neither does anyone else.

Good equipment makes it easier. It does not make the photograph. You do. Never forget that.

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