Updated: Apr 27, 2020
There's an art to capturing performances that relates to understanding peak moments and stage lighting
Each year, there’s always at least one dance performance that I can’t cover for my dance schools and companies. So I face the same challenge each year, finding someone to photograph a dance performance.
I put out an announcement on my Facebook page and a few photography groups in my area, and get the usual responses from photographers who are not exactly experienced in photographing dance performances. The hardest part is their unwavering confidence in their ability to photograph dance. That’s the telltale sign they have no idea how difficult it is.
Anyone can photograph a dance performance
Let's be honest. Anyone can sit in the seats and take pictures of a dance performance. Parents do it all the time.
With any luck, inexperienced dance photographers won’t be using the spray-and-pray method, and they can time their single shots to the dancer’s peak movements.
Then, of course, there’s just that smaller matter of managing focus, setting a proper exposure for the lighting on that particular spot on the stage, and composing the shot.
As it is now, I require any photographer who wants to shoot a dance performance for me to sit with me through a dance performance dress rehearsal so I could talk him or her through how to photograph the performance. They usually can’t do that for various reasons. The value they would gain through the experience would far outweigh however much I could afford to pay them to sit through a performance, but they rarely take me up on the offer. The truth is, I continue to get hired for gigs to photographer dancers, and the ones who don’t put in the time and effort to learn dancer photography, do not get these gigs.
So consider this my training manual for photographing dance performances. Keep in mind this my way of photographing performances. There are many other ways of doing it, and my style isn’t necessarily the right way of doing it, just my right way of doing it.
My guidelines for photographing performances
Arrive early. Use a camera muffler/silencer for live performances. Pick your seat wisely for dress rehearsals. Quickly assess the stage lighting once the performance begins.
Whether I’m shooting a dress rehearsal or live performance, I time it to arrive half an hour before the performance. If something on my trip to the theater delays me, chances are good I’ll still arrive in plenty of time. If I’m photographing a dress rehearsal, I’ll usually greet the artistic director or whoever my contact is for the company. If it’s a live performance, I stay out of their way as I know they’re busy getting ready.
To begin with, here are the fundamentals. Shoot in RAW format. Stage lighting can be very challenging to work with, or it can be pretty amazing. But when you shoot in RAW, you have a lot more flexibility in the range of what you can do with your editing. Color grading and exposure can be an issue when shooting dance performances, and editing RAW files gives you a little more flexibility.
If it’s a live performance, I usually have a seat reserved for me, usually in the center and in the back. I have a sound muffler for my Nikon D5 camera that basically absorbs the sound of the shutter. If it’s a dress rehearsal, I usually can pick where I sit. I find a spot in the direct center, far enough back that I can capture the entire stage at 70mm, and then I can zoom in on solo dancers going in as tight as 200mm. As long as I have control, and I pretty much always do, I don’t allow anyone to sit between me and the stage.
When I shoot dance performances, I always shoot at f/2.8. If I zoom in on a dancer at 200mm, the shallow depth of field will create separation from the other dancers. If I shoot wider up to 70mm, the depth of field will increase and more dancers will be in focus.
My Default Settings to Start
Without knowing what the stage lighting setup will be, I'll start at ISO 2500 or 3200 and a shutter speed of 1/250.
I want the fastest shutter speed I can get, and I’ll give up my ISO to get that. There were times when I was photographing the Houston Ballet that the stage lighting was so glorious I could shoot at 1/640 and 1/800 at ISO 1600. The minimum shutter speed I want to be working with when shooting live performances is 1/320 or 1/400, but sometimes the stage lighting just doesn’t provide enough light for that. I’m not willing to kick my ISO up to 6400 or 8000 just so I can have the shutter speed I want. If you’re photographing tiny dancers, then you can shoot as slow as 1/125 without much motion blur as they don’t move as fast as the older more skillful dancers.
Once the performance starts, I check a few shots to see if I need to make any ISO/shutter speed adjustments. I notice how the lighting falls off throughout the stage. On some stages, you can actually see the hot spots and then the other areas where the light really falls off, just two or three feet away from the hot spots. Once I have a pretty good handle on the stage lighting, I just focus on the dance and shoot. I may adjust my ISO from one dance to the next, depending on how the lighting changes. As dancers move across the stage, from brighter areas to darker areas, I’m adjusting my shutter speed without looking at the controls to accommodate for the lighting changes.
Anticipate the Peak Moments
No matter how well you know the dance, this is a hit-or-miss venture. Anticipate those peak moments, and time your shot to capture them. If you see the peak moment, and then shoot, it's too late.
With tiny dancers, it's pretty easy to capture their peak moments. But as the dancers get older, more skilled, more experienced, and the choreography becomes more complex, anticipating the peak moments becomes more challenging as the dancers can begin doing things that are unexpected. Each dance has its own cadence, although it may change throughout the dance. You just have to find the rhythm and go with the flow.
More than anything, understand you're going to have some misses when you thought they were going to do a movement or leap with a peak moment, and then they didn't do it, or did it differently than you expected. Everyone shoots differently, has different levels of expectations on the quality of their shots, but my expectation is to have a 1-in-3 or 1-in-4 hit ratio. So if I shoot a performance and shoot 1500 shots, I anticipate showing them close to 500 images. Of that, they'll likely choose 300 to 400 images to show to parents and the dancers. And of those, maybe 30 or 40 are marketing shots for the company.
That’s pretty much it. I shoot wider group shots covering the entire stage when I can, and then I focus on tighter shots and I try to get individual shots of every dancer in the corps, not just the principals.