20130609_SBurl2013Recital_Tim Barden025420130609_SBurl2013Recital_Tim Barden0254

How to Get Started in Dance Photography

January 24, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

These entries skip over my early 20 years or so of working with film cameras and the hundreds of hours spent in darkrooms before I discovered digital as a medium. Certainly that experience was a great foundation for me especially when it came to transferring post processing knowledge to tools like Photoshop and Lightroom. Since my interest in photographing dance began around the same time digital cameras and Photoshop began to come into their own, so that's where my story starts. 

How to Start

I'm often asked how I got my start doing dance photography. Simple answer is, I married a dancer. Although I had a pretty extensive background in theater before I met my wife, I had very little exposure to dance. Fortunately for me, in addition to being a dancer and choreographer my New York born wife decided she wanted to own a dance studio. What started as a small studio with a few dozen students in the basement of a Visiting Nurse Association in northern Vermont grew in 15 years to be a robust collection of performing arts training facilities with hundreds of passionate students and dozens of dedicated teachers. Poof! Built in subjects!

There really was no easier way for a photographer to start shooting dance. I could not escape the pull at recital time of grabbing my camera and taking a shot at creating images that reflect the passion and work that teachers and students pour into their performances. What I didn't know when I started was how distinctly different dance photography is from other types of photography and how some of the most common best practices I'd learned early as a photographer would actually work against me. More on that later...

After a couple of hundred thousand frames shot through everything from an early Olympus digital C2100 (with a whopping 2.1 megapixels!) through state of the art Nikon D4 and associated gear costing tens of thousands of dollars I'm happy to say I continue to learn something new each time the lights come up and I raise the viewfinder to my eye. I've also had the pleasure of shooting hundreds of 3 year olds doing their first ever dance recital all the way to people like Kathleen Crocker, principal dancer for the Martha Graham Dance Company (right). The bottom line is the camera doesn't care who the subject is. The choices you make around composition, exposure, timing, etc. will be the same. You do the best you can, with the situation your in,  the skills you have and the subject at hand. The moment you press the shutter release button.... everything converges.

Truth is, shooting dance and other performing arts events is not much different than performing itself. Having been on stage a bunch I think I can say this. Performers bring their skills, knowledge of the piece, technique, etc. to the piece but once the music starts, lights come up and they step on the stage, a great performer "forgets" all the details and gives in to the performance. As a photographer, you need to be able to do the same. You cannot be in the middle of shooting the Martha Graham Company performing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and start thinking... "Now... I wonder if I should be shooting this at 1/160th. of a second or 1/250th? Should I be shooting on manual exposure, program mode or shutter preferred? Am I running out of storage space on my 5D Mark III and where is that extra CF card?"

FORGET IT!

First, if you're thinking about such things, you are too late... you should have settled all those issues before the music began. Second, you are not being "in the performance". You will be better served, even if all your images turn out to be less than what you wanted, to forget about the technical elements and shoot using your intuition and heart. There will be plenty of time afterward to look at the images and decide for yourself what adjustments you might make next time based on what worked for you and what didn't. 

As noted dancer / choreographer Bill T. Jones once said... "The mistakes are part of the performance!"

Bottom line is the way you get started in dance or performing arts photography is to pick up your camera and start shooting. Nothing less will do. If you don't happen to own studio's like we do, make contact with local studios and/or performing arts spaces and introduce yourself. While you may find that there is someone on staff or under contract if you persist, you will find someone that would love to have an aspiring photographer shoot their recital or performance. Don't forget to take advantage of friends or relatives who may have a child appearing in this or that. These are all great opportunities to practice your craft.


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