Table of Contents
1: Initial Disappointment
2: Basic Photo Editing
3: Basic Equipment
4: Types of Blur
5: Subject Motion Blur
6: Camera Shake
7: Plane of Focus and Depth of Field
8: Noise
9: Exposure
10: Location, Location, Location
11: Composition
12: Subject Motion Revisited: Blurs
13: Silhouettes and Black and White
14: Advanced Photo editing
15: Sample Equipment

Dance Photography (Steps 10-15)

10: Location, Location, Location

Ansel Adams said "A good photograph is knowing where to stand."

We might say "A good dance photograph is knowing where--and when--to sit."

As for the when, dress rehearsal day beats performance day hands down. Photography is sometimes forbidden on performance day, but even if it is allowed, you will be limited because you need to respect the audience members around you. But on rehearsal day you have more freedom to set up a tripod, you can move around to different locations to get different points of view, and with permission you may be able to go backstage or set up in the wings. (Just make sure you don't get in the way of the dancers or invade their privacy.) You might even be able to get an aerial shot from the rigging if you have a good  relationship with the stage manager.

Variety is important, so move around in the audience, and use different camera angles and focal lengths. Here are some shots from different locations:

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From 5th row center (200mm) Unusual angle (55mm)
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From above (85mm) From a low angle (70mm)
Backstage (50mm)From the wings (70mm)
Backstage (85mm)From the rear (85mm)

Here is a chart of the percentage of photos I take at different focal lengths. There is a pretty wide spread, but the totals reflect the fact that most of the time I'm using a 70-200mm lens and so am restricted to that range. Clearly I am at the long end of the 200mm range a lot of the time. Less often I use 50mm, 85mm, and 135mm fast primes, and 17-40mm and 24-70mm zooms.

11: Composition

There are plenty of "rules" for composition, but they all come down to one rule: make an impact. The trick is how to do that. Here are some examples and the rules that are used to justify them; but note that in other instances you would break the rules.

Fill the frame: for a portrait (either head-and-shoulders or full body), one approach is to fill the frame with the dancer. Make it clear that the dancer, not the background, is the subject.

Keep it simple: look at the photo and describe it in words. If you used more than about five words, you probably need to crop or photoshop something out. The description need not be artistically deep; it might be "Cute kid" or "This is a graceful movement" or "Ballet = en pointe"; but if so, then the picture should minimize the parts that are not the message (show the context, but don't distract from the main point).

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Fill the frameKeep it simpleKeep it simple
(Cute kid)(A graceful movement)(Ballet = en pointe)

Dynamic tension (off-center): if the subject is small in the frame (not filling it) you probably want the subject off-center. This gets discussed as the "rule of thirds" (the subject should be at a point a third of the way up-or-down and a third of the way left-or-right) but the exact proportion is not as important as the sense of drawing the eye up and in to the image.

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Off-centerOff-center

Dynamic paths: there should be more than one point of interest, with a clear path for the eye; first I'm drawn here, then there. In the image at left below the eye is drawn from the feet to the curve of the two skirts, which match up to form a semi-circle; then there are the arms extending upwards with their cloth attachments. In the image at bottom right, the eye follows the line from the feet to the center and then out to Cinderella's head, then follows her leg up to the Prince's head.

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Dynamic pathDynamic path

Room to move: if a dancer is running and looking to the left, crop the picture so that she has room to move to the left; don't leave a lot of room on the right. (We see that below right.) This principle can apply even when there is no motion and no looking; in the shot at left below the dancer's head, feet, and hands are all pointed in a direction where we leave more room.

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Room to moveRoom to move

Symmetry: you can add interest by finding and showing a strong symmetry in an image (particularly when there is another element to break the symmetry). In the image at left below the lines of the dress, the two hands, and the exact-forward-facing face project strong symmetry, and the diagonal lines in the background break it. In the middle image below there is an X-cross with the subjects arms echoed by the raised arms in the background. It would be confusing if the subject merged with the background dancer, but the shallow depth of field and the darker lighting on the background figure prevent this merge. In the image at right the two dancers are performing the same pose, but interest is added because we see the back of one and the front of the other.

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SymmetrySymmetrySymmetry

Diagonal lines: diagonal lines seem more dynamic than horizontal or vertical ones; they capture motion better.

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Diagonal linesDiagonal lines

Repetition: An image can be made stronger by repeating an element; many dances have this as part of the choreography, so you will find plenty of examples. The numbers 3 and infinity seem special: below the two-dancer picture is nice, but three dancers in the same pose is stronger. In the final picture below there is a seemingly indefinite row of dancers repeating the same pose.

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Repetition (2)Repetition (3)
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Repetition (3)Repetition (infinity)

Shadows: Flash photography expert Syl Arena says "To create interesting light, create interesting shadows." We don't have the luxury of creating our own shadows (no flash allowed, usually), but we can use the shadows that exist onstage to create interest. At left below a shadow of the Snow Queen becomes the main character in the picture (which also illustrates "room to move"), and at right the picture is largely shadow (reflecting the somber mood after Sleeping Beauty has been bewitched) but the small amount of light adds interest.

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Shadow as a subjectShadow and light

Anticipation and Framing: After you've seen the Nutcracker 5 or 10 times, you get to anticipate what's happening next. I knew that the crucial moment when Fritz breaks the nutcracker occurs downstage left, so I moved over a few seats to be in the right position. The idea of framing is to find a natural frame--here the sweep of the Chinese dancer's ribbon--within the actual frame.

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Anticipate the critical momentFind a frame within the image

Comraderie and Emotion: Show the emotion between dancers, or displayed by a single dancer.

Show comraderie between dancersShow emotion (smiles or other)

Humor and serendipity: you will find intentional and unintentional humor; express it. At left below the main subject seems to be squeezing the seated dancer between her toes; at right the mouse appears to stare at the camera, when actually the dancer is reading a book while waiting to go on.

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12: Subject Motion Revisited: Blurs

Dance is motion, and still photography is still. One way to reconcile that difference is to show motion through blurs. Use a long shutter speed; exactly how long depends on the type of motion. Note that in the examples below there is a part of the image that is in sharp focus because it is unmoving. This contrast accentuates the motion in the blurred parts. To keep the unmoving parts sharp it helps to set up on a tripod.

1/13 sec1/5 sec
1/5 sec1/10 sec

In the following images the main subject is completely blurred; this makes the image more abstract, more about color and form.

1/10 sec3.2sec
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1/10 sec1/10 sec

13: Silhouettes and Black and White

Silhouettes depict simplicity and drama, and they add variety to your portfolio. Look for a scene with lighting in the background but not on foreground figures. Usually you will want to adjust your position left or right, or wait for the decisive moment when the figures are separated from each other (because a silhouette of several people together can be hard to make sense of).

Expose for the background (the simplest way is to add negative exposure compensation to darken the main subject; or you could spot-meter the background), then in postprocessing drag the "black point" slider to the right to make the silhouette truly black (or increase "contrast" if you don't have a black point slider). Some examples:

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Teacher and student between actsPerformance

Black and white images emphasize shape, texture, and lighting intensity while deemphasizing color. Here are some examples:

ShapesDrama
Solve a color problem Classic subject

The upper left example is about the shapes of the legs and arms, and in any rate it would be dull as a color photo, because the outfits are black. The two images on the right have a classic style: a 1950s look in the lower right and almost a 1920s surrealist look in the upper right; both seemed well-suited to monochrome images. In the lower left example, black and white was used to solve a problem: there were two different-colored jelled spotlights hitting the dancers; I couldn't get the color balance right. I was about to discard the image but I tried black and white, and decided I liked the results much better.

Your photo editing software probably has a one-click "black and white" (or "monochrome") button, but if it has sliders for black and white color mixing, I suggest you try playing with them. You can get a much more dramatic rendering.

14: Advanced Photo editing

Photo editing software comes in many flavors. Some examples: Basics: With these programs you can improve images in a number of ways. Consider the original image at left below. Not bad, but: (1) The arms and dresses of mostly-unseen dancers in the lower corners are distracting. We can crop some of them away and use the clone tool to remove the rest. (2) the white outfit is on the edge of having blown highlights; the recover slider brings back detail. (3) To make the main subject stand out from the background, darken the image with the exposure slider. (4) The Vignette tool further darkens the corners. (5) A few spots are removed with the spot tool. (Many images also need a white balance correction (although this one did not). I set my camera to auto white balance, but apparently the camera manufacturer thinks that people like really warm skin tones, so many pictures come out two yellowish and need to be corrected. Either slide the color temperature slider towards the blue until it looks right, or use the eyedrop tool to click on a white or grey spot to set the white balance.)

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BeforeAfter

Panoramas: Another trick is to stitch together two pictures into a panorama. This is useful if you don't have a wide enough lens to capture the whole scene, or if you want an unusually wide aspect ratio. It only works when the subjects are keeping still; with movement it will be too hard to match the pictures. Here's an example at the end of a scene when the dancers are all posing still and I was able to fire off two quick shots:

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Panorama stiched from two images above

Picture within a picture: You will often find a detail that makes a picture by itself. Today's cameras have lots of pixels, allowing you wide lattitude to crop, for example:

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Too much going on with 7 subjects The real action is these two sisters

In addition to cropping, I altered the white balance (so the skin doesn't look orange) and reduced the overexposed bright spotlight on the middle dancer's back and arms. I also had to clone out part of a dress in the lower right corner.

You can also use Photoshop (or similar programs) to create works that get away from photo-realism. This is not my favorite approach, but the kids like them:

BeforeAfter (Photoshop "Artistic > Colored Pencil" filter)
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BeforeAfter (Selective color)

15: Sample Equipment

Here are some sample outfits, to fit budgets from $700 to $7000. At the low end, pick any recent DSLR and add a fast lens. I recommend an 85mm, 100mm, or 135mm lens in the f/1.8 to f/2.8 range. You can save a couple hundred dollars by opting instead for a 50mm f/1.8 lens, but that overlaps with the lens that came with the camera (usually 18-55mm). If you think you are going to stick with this hobby, I would pick one of the two leading manufacturers, Canon or Nikon, because they have more complete offerings. One good strategy is to buy what your friend(s) have, so you can learn and share together. The beginner outfit is around $1000 (or less if you buy used or stick with just the 50mm) and can get some images that are just as good as anything you get with the $7000 budget--the difference is that you'll get fewer good shots and they will have less variety.

If you are serious about photography a tripod and tripod head will be one of your best investments. There are many choices; I picked some I happened to know.

With a $5000 budget, you can get the perfect equipment for dance (and many other types of) photography: a full-frame camera (like the Canon 6D or Nikon D610) and a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom lens. (If $5000 seems crazy and your kid has only one big performance per year, you can rent this outfit for $200 for 3 days.)

SystemCameraLensOptional LensTotal
Budget
Canon
Canon 700D
$600
50mm f/1.8
$100
85mm f/1.8
$350
$700-1050
Budget
Nikon
Nikon D3200
$500
50mm f/1.8
$200
85mm f/1.8
$500
$700-1200
Full-frame
Canon
Canon 6D
$1800
70-200mm f/2.8 II
$2200
24-70 f/2.8 II
$2200
$4000-$6200
Full-frame
Nikon
D610
$2000
70-200mm f/2.8
$2400
24-70 f/2.8
$1900
$4400-6300
 TripodTripod head  
AnyManfrotto
$300
Acratech
$300
 $600


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