Dance Photography: A Complete Guide

Photographing dancers can be one of the most daunting photographic subjects, but also one of the most rewarding in terms of the final images captured. Dance can be an unforgiving subject, and unless you delve deeper and try to understand the movement, the choreography, the piece, and how to capture the light hitting the dancers, it will be difficult to achieve award-winning images.

By dance photography, we generally mean capturing a live dance performance, whether it’s the live performance or the rehearsal, not the scripted dance moves in a controlled studio, which allows for light control , the position and the choice of clothes for the dancer. The style made famous by Lois Greenfield would more appropriately be called human figure photography or anatomical structural photography rather than dance photography. We will therefore limit the scope of this guide to the definition of dance photography as above.

Contents

Before you start

Photographing dance requires some planning, liaison with dance companies and auditoriums, and personal preparation, like all other genres of photography. But how do you capture the split-second moments that reveal the grace, anatomy, movement and power of dance choreography while producing stellar photographic images?

Anticipation, reflexes, listening to rhythms, feeling the music and understanding the dance are important, as is knowledge of the basics of choreography and performing arts. Although dance styles vary, with contemporary dance being very different from ballet or flamenco, dance movement is something one learns to plan for and prepare for. Feeling the tempo of the music and its interaction with the dance helps the photographer get into a mood and shooting zone, and being aware of dance move vocabulary helps you read what the next move might be.

With experience and practice, you begin to learn when a jump is set up, when a particular troop formation is pre-arranged, and when to press the trigger in time with the music so as not to disturb the audience.

Rehearsal or Live?

When filming a dance, you generally have the option of photographing either the dress rehearsal of the company, with prior authorization and in agreement with the dance company itself, with which you have to maintain the best relations to enjoy unimpeded access, or one of the iterations of the dance perform in the presence of a paying audience.

Dancers and dance companies can be notoriously difficult to contact and maintain a long-term relationship with, but it’s not impossible. Avoid working pro bono or “increasing your portfolio”, as this damages the industry itself and other photographers.

The audience pays a monetary fee to enjoy a dance performance, so hammering the camera motor at twenty frames per second will not be well seen, neither by the show organizers and especially not by the audience around you, seen how disruptive the incessant shutter sound is. Hammering is also a poor exercise in photographic composition and finding decisive moments, as leaving the decision of which image to capture to the camera motor itself results in poor or non-existent control on the part of the photographer and no creativity, no assertiveness. selecting when to press the shutter button.

In this regard, mirrorless camera technology promised Valhalla – silent shooting at very high burst rates through the use of electronic shutters, but care should be taken due to the “rolling shutter” effect spoiling many shots, as fast motion is so prevalent in dance photography. So while mirrorless technology promises a panacea, it may not solve all the problems of having loud shutter sound as opposed to DSLR technology.

Dress rehearsals generally give the photographer more leeway in terms of positioning and input on how to proceed with the photography, but it’s best to liaise with the dance company, as most dress rehearsals tend to to be more low-key affairs, with the dancers perhaps not being fully made up and costumed.

Additionally, since he is only human, dancers could also refrain from going through with the planned dance choreography to preserve energy for the full performance itself and reduce the risk of injure themselves before the main show, so the resulting dance moves may not show the full emotion, power or athleticism of the dancer or the proposed choreography.

On the other hand, rehearsals also provide a learning and planning opportunity to become familiar with the future dance performance and one can use the rehearsal to start previewing the necessary shots to be captured during the main show itself. , as well as planning where to stand, where the lighting will be positioned, as well as its quality, as well as anticipating the sound level of the music and whether it will allow filming during the essential moments.

Equipment

Similar to sports photography, photographing dance is similar to sports, in that being in the right place at the right time with the right equipment increases your chances of getting the shots you planned and wanted. Good sports photographers know where to stand and where to point their lenses, exactly where the action is, and the same goes for dance photographers.

Standing directly in front of the center stage gives different compositions from being 45 degrees to either side, as well as being eye level to stage level, this gives different backgrounds behind the dancers , which could be great for avoiding or hiding any unwanted elements that you don’t want to include in the composition.

Lenses with fast apertures of f/2.8 and above are a prerequisite for dance photography, as most dance performances have spot lighting with very low background light or near complete darkness. It is therefore essential to capture as much light on the sensor as physically possible through a large aperture, with the caveat that this then results in a very thin plane of focus.

The shallow depth of field means the photographer needs better reflexes, preparation, awareness and better autofocus capabilities on the camera body to ensure the dancers or framed elements are in focus, especially considering these are very fast-moving subjects during the dance performance itself.

The type of lighting used in most dance performances is extremely confusing to even the most demanding and advanced light meters, with high contrast light and spotting being common, as well as variable color balance. We suggest always using manual mode and the meter for highlights to avoid blowing them out by choosing the shutter speed according to the composition and the desired effect (blurred motion or frozen motion and/or intentional camera movement), and the ISO doing the rest of the exposure triangle.

Modern sensors are making leaps and bounds in low-light performance, ensuring usable images even in near-darkness, a far cry from the days of analog film. Any camera sensor with good low-light performance and noise control at higher ISOs up to 12,800 results in a very usable camera for dance photography, so most brands of cameras cameras have camera bodies suitable for this type of photography.

Please note that the use of flash during dance performances is strictly frowned upon and even prohibited in most shows, the reason being that flash would directly affect the dancer’s performance and disorient them, as well as being a nuisance to the audience. Although the use of tripods is allowed, depending on the space and the position of the photographer taking the dance, we suggest using a monopod to provide stability or simply shooting handheld as this allows more versatility, freedom of recomposition and movement. posts.

Settings

Most dance performances take place in the dark, where even modern advanced cameras have trouble getting autofocus or metering “correct” exposure. Andrea Mohin, legendary for shooting the dance for the New York Timestends to describe dance photography as “photographing a very fast sport that you are unfamiliar with, with rules barely known to you, in almost complete darkness” – and she is right.

Apertures of f/2.8 or higher are essential to capture as much light as possible; closing the aperture to f/4 or f/5.6 will ensure a deeper plane of focus, but it could result in too high an ISO to give a usable image with acceptable noise control.

Dance is ultimately an expression of kinetic energy, so capturing movement, flight, and freedom in a dance performance is essentially what dance photography is all about. The photographer should keep in mind what the intended final image will look like.

A shutter speed between 1/250s and 1/320s will generally freeze most dance moves with just the slightest hint of motion blur; slower than 1/125s to 1/250s and motion blur becomes evident, and if one wishes to go for intentional slow shutter speeds, long exposures or intentional camera movement, the speeds of shutter to aim would be in the range of 1/10s to 1/2s, or even slower depending on the availability of camera stabilization (monopod, tripod, or in-camera stabilization for those who don’t are not afraid!).

To ensure a full motion freeze, a shutter speed of 1/400s and above is usually required, ISO and aperture permitting of course, especially if other props are used during a dance, such as flying water or powder.

Post treatment

The decision to post-process in color or black and white is a very personal innate decision for each photographer, and it depends on their vision, ideas, creative baggage and the subject at hand. Some shots will be more suited to color than black and white, and vice versa. Excessive saturation and increased contrast usually results in a garish end result and should be carefully avoided.

Conclusion

Dance photography is a very rewarding genre in photography, and it doesn’t have to look intimidating or unapproachable. It takes hard work, dedication and passionate intensity, but the result is within reach and rewarding. Never stop trying.


About the Author: Dr. Charles Paul Azzopardi is an art photographer, curator, photographic cultural heritage consultant and writer. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. You can find more of Charles’ work on his website and Instagram.

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