So You Think You Want To Be A Dance Photographer
by Tim Barden
A Quick Guide To The Basics Or... How To Photograph Your Child's Recital With Little to No Crying (at least for the photographer)
If you are looking for an in-depth collection of blog entries that delve into some of the finer points of dance photography... who does it, how they do it, and how you can get better at it, skip this entry and you'll find yourself in the right place.
On the other hand, this entry is for the parent, friend or relative that's found their way to a child's recital and needs a set of tips that will guarantee you'll have a great chance to wind up with a collection of shots you can share with that special student or parent and be proud of your results!
The Good News
The good news is you don't need to know anything special about photography, your camera or dance to take some great pictures at your child's dance recital. Today, virtually any digital camera you can purchase has the capacity to take good pictures at a recital. Even camera's found on some of the better phones can do a nice job at a dance recital. So... let's get to it.
If you are very lucky, the person responsible for lighting will do their very best to make sure there's enough light on stage, in the right places, so that when you click the shutter release, you stand a chance of getting a well exposed image that's in focus. Sometimes however, you won't be so lucky. Either because of cost, skill level or simple disinterest, you may be working with very little light or light that varies greatly from spot to spot on the stage. In that case, (unless you want to step in as lighting designer) you'll have to live with what's up there. The good news is if you follow some simple tips in this blog, you'll be able to make the best of what ever lighting situation you encounter.
Where to Stand
It's not uncommon to see parents making their way up to the front of the theater as their child's piece get's closer. They hope to be able to jockey for position all the way down at the front so they can get right in front of their child and snap away. Ignoring for the moment just how disturbing this activity is for audience members trying to actually watch the show, this approach more often than not, will result in worse pictures than might otherwise be possible.
Instead, find a spot part way back from the front of theater where you have an unobstrucuted view of the area of the stage where you think your dancer will be. Zoom in with your lens so that your dancer is comfortably within the frame. If the auditorium or theater your in is like most, the audience is "raked" slightly which means you will be standing or sitting a bit higher that the mosh pit just in front of the stage. Your point of view will be much better as a result. Also, because of the optical effect of shooting from a longer distance (depth of field effect), Focus will be much more stable, reliable and consistent than if you were you up close.
Virtually all contemporary digital cameras have what it takes to do a great job at a dance recital. Even those on the lowest end of the cost scale. Success has less to do with the specific brand or type of camera you own and more to do with making sure you have a few key settings properly adjusted. Though today's cameras do a nice job of taking photos in most circumstances when you choose to leave the setting on "A" or "P" (Auto or Program), because of the somewhat unusual lighting, dance recitals can be pretty tricky.
If you are looking for some good advice about modestly priced cameras that would be great for this purpose I recommend this article by the highly acclaimed online review site DP Review.
DP Review Recommends - Best Cameras for Beginners
As long as your camera has the ability to make the following adjustments you will be in excellent shape. Some of these may seem counter-intuitiaive but we'll dig into each one and explain exactly what setting is best and why. In no particular order....
- EXPOSURE MODE - Set your exposure mode to Shutter Preferred Mode ("S" on most cameras). Then, set your shutter speed so that it's between about 1/80th of a second (for Sara's first recital) to about 1/200th of a second, (for things like Hip Hop, Tap, Ballet, etc.) Some photographers may feel that 1/200th of a second isn't fast enough to freeze action to their taste. That's truly a matter of opinion. I tend to shoot on the low end of the range as I actually prefer a bit of motion blur in order to help illustrate a sense of motion. I also work very hard to time action at the peak of movement so as to minimize motion blur. Your mileage may vary.
- FLASH SETTING - Choose the setting on your camera that turns OFF the flash. Why???? Well, using flash during a dance recital is a really, really (yes REALLY) dangerous thing to do. Especially in a darkened theater, having a flash go off in your eyes is a great way to temporarilly blind a little (or big) dancer causing them to not be able to see the lip of the stage they are performing on. There's nothing more frighting or dangereous than seeing a dancer walk off the edge of the stage and fall several feet to the floor below. THIS IS WHY MOST DANCE SCHOOLS PROHIBIT FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY AT RECITALS. It's not because they're trying to be difficult or don't want you taking pictures. They just want your dancer to be safe. ALSO... virtually all built in flashs are not powerful enough to actually brighten up the image enough to make a difference at the distances most people shoot from. So... turn it off.
- ISO SENSITIVITY SETTING - Look in your camera's manual and find the setting that controls something called "ISO". ISO is simply the setting that controls how sensitive to light the camera's optical sensor is. For most cameras you are going to want to set the ISO to "AUTO" if possible. An additional option that is usually supported is the ability to define what ISO setting is the maximum that can be used when in AUTO mode. If so, try an initial setting of no more than 800 unless you are using a more advanced "prosumer" camera (in which case you can probably go up to around 1600). This will allow the camera to self adjust it's sensitivity as lighting conditions dictate.
So... you ask... why not just set the camera to it's most sensitive setting? Well, there is a trade off between how sensitive a setting you use, and how much sensor "noise" winds up in your image. Most consumer level cameras are pretty forgiving up to an ISO sensitivity level of 400 - 800 beyond which the advantage gained by increased sensitivity is offset by the general loss of quality. Like most things in life... there are always trade-offs. Pro level cameras like mine (Nikon D810 and D750) are usable up to an ISO of about 9600 - 12,800).
- AUTO-FOCUS MODE - Try setting your camera to AF-S (auto focus Single) mode. Most digital cameras support at least three different focus modes. AF-S, AF-C (auto focus Continuous) and Manual. No need to discuss Manual mode here as it simply doesn't make sense for our purposes. The main difference between the other two modes is that in AF-C mode, the camera will continually try to refocus within the frame as you change your composition and/or as people move in and out of the composition (they are dancing after all!) AF-S, or auto focus single mode on the other hand establishes focus the moment you press the shutter release button half way down and keeps that focus no matter what happens (unless you release the button and press it anew). This has several advantages for dance photography. First, YOU control the focus point. For example, if your dancer is the third from the right in a long line of dancers, you place him in the camera's focus point, depress the shutter button half way (focusing on your dancer) then while keeping the button half depressed, you can recompose the picture to include the remaining dancers. What you will wind up with is a wide shot of all the students in your child's class but with your particular dancer most clearly in focus no matter what other factors are in play. If your camera were set to AF-C mode. it's likely the focus would have been on a dancer closer to the center of the image and your dancer may well have been out of focus.
- IMAGE QUALITY SETTING - Usually, this setting will default to "JPG Normal". This is the best place to start. You may come across recommendations that say you should only shoot in "Camera RAW" mode for absolutely the best quality and though that is indeed true don't bother until you've advanced past beginner stage. Why??? JPG files are smaller and in their native format can directly be used for anything including printing, use on you website, shared by email or on social media. RAW files are much larger and must be converted to JPG or some other media friendly format for use. Leave it to the pros or advanced amateurs.
- COLOR TEMPERATURE - Especially if you are using JPG as your quality setting, you'll need to pay some attention to your camera's color temperature setting. While often this setting defaults to "AUTO" you may find your results less than satisfactory. If traditional stage lighting is being used, switching this setting to "Tungsten" should help. If, (heaven forbid) only overhead fluorescent lights are being used, the "Fluorescent" setting is the way to go. Unfortunately, in some instances you will find lighting includes LED instruments in the mix. This usually happens when you get a lighting person who has lit mostly bands or DJ's and isn't familiar with stage lighting used for theater and/or dance. The problem with many LED instruments is that color is 100% saturated all the time, which raises havoc with most digital sensors. In that case, shooting with the color temperature set to "AUTO" may be your best hope.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
As the old adage goes, you get to Carnegie Hall by practice. If you have a chance to attend the dress rehearsal for your dancer's show... don't miss the opportunity. You can use that to try using your camera with these settings as well as others and learn exactly how it performs under different circumstances. Once you get to the actual recital, you will be much happier for having had the practice! And... you'll be surprised, some of the greatest photos you will take might be during rehearsal when kids are relaxed, having fun and getting ready for the big show.
Take a Moment....
Most of all... whenever you are shooting, don't forget to take a moment, forget the camera and just enjoy what is going on with the day. Your photographs will be better when you've taken a moment to let yourself get into the rhythm of the performance and actually enjoy the show!
Photographer Tim Barden has worked with Martha Graham Company, Abraham.In.Motion, Kyle Abraham, Tap Kids, August Wilson Ensemble, Bill Evans and many more. He has lectured on dance photography for Professional Photographer's Association of New England. In addition, Tim is co-owner of Spotlight Vermont, a performing arts education facility and co-founder of the Vermont Musical Theatre Academy for whom he teaches acting.