Shooting 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 one delves deeper and tries to understand the movement, the choreography, the piece, and how to capture the light hitting the dancers, it will prove tough to achieve award-winning imagery.
By dance photography, we usually understand capturing a live dance performance, whether the live show or the rehearsal, and not scripted dance movements inside a controlled studio setting, which permits control of light, position, and choice of apparel for the dancer. The style made famous by Lois Greenfield would be more aptly termed photography of the human figure or anatomical structural photography rather than dance photography. We will thus limit the scope of this guide to the definition of dance photography as above.
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Before You Start
Photographing dance requires some planning, liaison with dance companies and auditoria, as well as personal preparation, like all other genres of photography. But how does one go about capturing the split-second moments that reveal grace, anatomy, motion, and power in dance choreography while resulting in stellar photographic images?
Anticipation, reflexes, listening to the rhythms, feeling the music, and understanding dance are all important, as are knowing the basics of choreography and performing arts. Although dance styles vary, with contemporary dance differing wildly from ballet or flamenco, dance movement is something one learns to predict and be prepared for. Feeling the tempo of the music and its interplay with the dance helps the photographer get into a shooting vibe and zone, and being aware of the vocabulary of dance moves helps you read what the next move might be.
With experience and practice, you start learning when a jump is being prepared, when a particular troupe formation is being prearranged, and when to press the shutter in keeping with the music in order to avoid disrupting the audience.
Rehearsal or Live?
When shooting a dance, one usually has the opportunity of photographing either the dress rehearsal of the company, with prior permission from and in agreement with the dance company itself, with whom one must remain in best relations with to be granted unfettered access, or one of the iterations of the dance show itself with a paying audience present.
Dancers and dance companies can be notoriously difficult to contact and maintain a long-term relationship with, but it is not impossible. One should avoid working pro bono or to “increase one’s portfolio”, as this results in damage to the industry itself and to fellow photographers.
Audiences pay monetary fees to enjoy a dance show, so hammering away at the camera’s motor drive at twenty frames per second will not be viewed kindly, either by the show organizers and especially not by the audience around you, seeing how disruptive the incessant shutter sound is. Hammering away is also a poor exercise in photographic composition and seeking the decisive moments, as leaving the decision of which frame to capture to the motor drive of the camera itself results in poor to no control on the part of the photographer and no creative, assertive selection of when to press the shutter release.
In this regard, mirrorless camera technology promised Valhalla — silent shooting at very high burst rates through the use of electronic shutters, but one must be careful due to the effect of “rolling shutter” messing up many shots, due to the fast movement being very prevalent in dance photography. So although mirrorless technology promised a panacea, in the end, it might not solve all the issues of having a loud shutter release sound as opposed to DSLR technology.
Dress rehearsals usually allow the photographer more leeway in terms of positioning and input on how to proceed with the photography, but it is best to liaise with the dance company, as most dress rehearsals tend to be more muted affairs, with the dancers possibly not being in full make-up and costume.
Also, as is only human, dancers might also be holding back from going to the full physical extent of the planned dance choreography to preserve energy for the full performance itself and to decrease the risk of getting injured before the main show, so the resulting dance moves might not showcase the full emotion, power or athleticism of the dancer or the choreography on offer.
On the other hand, rehearsals also provide a learning and planning opportunity to get more familiar with the prospective dance show and one can use the rehearsal to start pre-visualizing 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 how loud the music will be and whether it will permit shooting during the essential moments.
Akin to sports photography, shooting 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 for and wanted. Good sports photographers know where to stand and where to point their lenses, exactly where the action is unfolding, and the same applies to dance photographers.
Standing directly opposite center stage results in different compositions from being at 45 degrees to either side, as well as being at eye level versus being at stage level results in different backgrounds behind the dancers, which could be ideal to avoid or hide any untoward elements you do not wish to include in the composition.
Lenses with fast apertures of f/2.8 and wider are a pre-requisite for dance photography, seeing most dance shows have spot lighting with very dim background light or practically complete darkness. Capturing as much light onto the sensor as physically possible through a wide aperture is thus essential, with the caveat that then this results in a very thin plane of focus.
The shallow depth-of-field means the photographer needs better reflexes, preparation, awareness, and better auto-focus capabilities on the camera body to ensure the dancers or the elements being framed are in focus, especially taking into consideration these are very fast-moving subjects during the dance performance itself.
The type of lighting used in most dance shows is extremely confusing, even to the most discerning and advanced exposure meters, with very contrasty light and spots being common, together with varying color balance. We suggest always using manual mode and meter for the highlights to avoid blowing them out while going for the shutter speed depending on the composition and desired effect (blurred motion or frozen motion and/or intentional camera movement), and the ISO making up the rest of the exposure triangle.
Modern sensors are making leaps and bounds in terms of low light performance, ensuring usable frames even in near darkness, a far cry from the days of analog film. Any camera sensor with good performance in low light and noise control at higher ISOs up to 12,800 results in a camera highly usable for dance photography, so most camera brands have camera bodies that are suited for this type of photography.
Kindly note the use of flash during dance shows is strictly frowned upon and even forbidden in most shows, the reason being flash would directly affect the dancer’s performance and disorient them, as well as being a nuisance for the audience. Although using tripods is permissible, depending on the space and position of the photographer shooting the dance, we suggest either using a monopod to ensure stability or just shooting hand-held as it allows more versatility, freedom to recompose, and to move around varying shooting positions.
Most dance performances take place in the dark, where even modern-day advanced cameras struggle with achieving autofocus or metering a “correct” exposure. Andrea Mohin, fabled for shooting dance for the New York Times, tends to describe dance photography as “shooting a very fast sport you are unfamiliar with, with rules barely known to you, in near complete darkness” — and she is right.
Apertures at f/2.8 or wider are essential to capture as much light as available; closing the aperture down to f/4 or f/5.6 will ensure a deeper focus plane, but it might result in the ISO being pushed too high to result in a usable image with acceptable noise control.
Dance is ultimately an expression of kinetic energy, so capturing motion, flight, and freedom within a dance performance is quintessentially what dance photography is all about. The photographer must keep in mind what the intended end image will look like.
A shutter speed between 1/250s to 1/320s will usually freeze most dance movements 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, shutter speeds to aim for would be in the region of 1/10s to 1/2s, or even slower depending on the availability of camera stabilization (either monopod, tripod or in-camera stabilization for those not faint of heart!).
To ensure complete freezing of motion, a shutter speed of 1/400s and higher is usually necessary, ISO and aperture permitting of course, especially if there are other props being used during a dance, such as flying water or powder.
The decision to post-process in color or black and white is a very personal decision innate to every photographer, and it depends on one’s vision, ideas, creative baggage, and the subject at hand. Some shots will be more suited to color rather than black and white, and vice versa. Excessive saturation and contrast boost usually result in garish end-result and should be carefully avoided.
Dance photography is a very rewarding genre in photography, and it does not need to appear daunting or unapproachable. It needs 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 a fine art photographer, curator, photographic cultural heritage consultant, and writer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Charles’ work on his website and Instagram.