Photographing Dance (Hint: It’s Challenging)

I love photographing Dance.  Honestly, dance was not even on my radar of things to do in life until my granddaughter got involved at age 3 (no, that is not her in the lead photo).  Then it was the cute recitals at season end and the attempts to document her performance.  Right away, I discovered that capturing quality images in a darkened theater with rapidly moving dancers under constantly changing colored light was not going to be easy.

Group dance image
Bragging: That is my granddaughter in lower right

Fast forward 8 years and we have two granddaughters in dance and they have gotten impressively good.  So good, that it brings tears of joy on occasion watching their skillful performances.  Not only that, they have graduated to the groups that include the older dancers and they all put on marvelous displays of grace and skill.  Thus I find I am trying to capture the artistry of dancers I do not know in addition to photographing those of our friends and family.  Both granddaughters have earned spots on teams and travel to competitions so Barbara and I have the occasional opportunity to travel and see them compete.  And we always look forward to the great end of season recitals seen in this article.  The girls have made leaps and bounds (pun intended) improving their skills and I only wish my photographing them had improved nearly as much.  Photographing dance is not easy and that is the purpose of the rest of this blog article.

It is said that all photography is a series of compromises.  Brightness: lighter or darker.  Contrast: more or less.  Focus: front focus, middle focus or back focus.  Depth of field (depth of focus): deep or shallow.  White Balance: warm, cool, neutral, or really creative.  Color or Black and White.  Shutter speed to freeze action or blur action.  These are all decisions a photographer has to make when taking the photo.  There is some adjustment control for brightness and color when editing the photo afterwards, but not much you can do for motion blur and blown highlights.

Photographing dance really forces some unwanted compromises on the photographer.  The dances I have access to are on stage with stage lighting. That causes three big problems to try to overcome: 1) how to capture moving dancers in low light, 2) How to properly expose in changing, uneven stage lighting, 3) What color is right?

First is the problem of low light.  Dancers are not static.  They move – and often quite rapidly.  To freeze their motions, you need a fast shutter speed and bright light which you don’t get in the theater.  Ideally I would be shooting with a shutter speed of 1000/second or faster to stop their motion.  In the theater (no flash allowed), I am having to settle for 1/40 to 1/125 per second using a telephoto from the balcony.  And to get even that, I have the camera ISO cranked up to 2500 which causes a lot of “noise”.  Noise can be reduced somewhat in post processing but that also blurs the image slightly.  I also use a wide aperture (f stop) of 2.8 or 3.2 to let in more light.  That also gives a very shallow depth of field but shooting with a telephoto from the balcony seems to keep most of the dancers in relatively decent focus.  Regardless, all movement causes a blur.  Thus, the better photos of the dancers are from instances where they have slowed their movement to do leg lifts (I’m sure there is a more appropriate dance term for them) or other sinew stretching moves that makes the rest of us wince in pain.

Example of Slower Dance Moves
Dance moves like these are slower which provides a better chance that motion blur is reduced

But capturing a good leap or twirl just will not happen cleanly in low light.  I guess you just pretend that the blur is deliberate to convey fast motion.

Low Light Motion Blur
Fast motion on stage is going to be blurred. I would have thrown this image away, except it still captured a sense of the incredible leap and beauty of the dance. This becomes a memory but not a print.

Changing light intensity from second to second prevents shooting manually.  I would love to meter the stage for proper light and set the camera to manual settings.  That way I would dial in a setting that would not blow out highlights and keep the stage floor and side curtains black.  Because the lights constantly change, I allow the camera to adjust itself. This means I need to edit every photo afterwards to dial in the best looking light and darkness and contrast.  I noticed the competition venues have one brightly lit stage for everything.  I bet their photographers and videographers dial in their cameras to perfection and probably make one set of adjustments in editing that can be applied to all photos.  I can only wish!

Uneven Lighting sample
Portions of the stage are lit brighter than others. Challenge is to edit photo to lower some of the intensity while brightening the overly dark areas.

Hot spots and uneven lighting.  The camera’s metering tries to average the overall light of the scene it is seeing.  It takes all the light and darkness of a scene and averages it to neutral gray.  For example, if you shoot a bright snowy scene, it dims it down (by underexposing it) to unexciting gray unless you force the camera to overexpose.  Shoot a black background and it also comes out gray unless you compensate and force the camera to underexpose.  When I shoot portraits on a black background, I have metered (and controlled) the light so the background stays black and the people are properly exposed.  I shoot in manual mode since the light is not changing.

Hot Spots
Uneven lighting creates hot spots. Here a spotlight blows out any color where it is shining. (“Dad’s Dance – always a fun and popular dance)

Stage lighting is always changing – not only from dance to dance but constantly within each dance.  It changes so dramatically from brightly lit to moody darkness that I have found setting the camera on Manual a recipe for disaster. So I let the camera adjust itself to the changing conditions.

Much of the stage and all of the theater are dark except for the changing stage lighting.  If most of the scene is dark, but the dancers are lit, the camera will overexpose the dancers as it tries to bring up the brightness of the background.  To try to compensate, I set the metering on the camera to “Center Weighted” hoping that it gives priority to the lighting of the area I am focusing on (dancers) and less emphasis to the dark stage and black side curtains.  In addition I force the camera to under expose by 1/3 to 2/3 stop hoping to prevent blown highlights.  I still fail a lot and when spotlights blow out individuals or parts of their bodies.

Oops – My Bad. The angry tap on the shoulder. When I am shooting, I periodically check the histogram on the back of the camera’s LCD.  I am looking for blown highlights so I can adjust the camera’s exposure compensation.  During the second dance of the last recital, I received a hard poke in the shoulder blade from an angry lady two rows back (yes, she was leaning over those directly behind me).  Mea culpa.  She was right, my LCD is just as distracting as those people texting in a movie theater and, with raised seating, those behind me had to look past the occasional annoyance of the brightly lit (relatively speaking) LCD screen in a dark theater to see the performance.  Needless to say I quit chimping the LCD and hoped the adjustments I had made would work the rest of the show.

Changing colors.  Even within a dance the colors on stage are constantly changing.  Once second, there are blue tones and the next it shifts to red.

Color changes constantly from one shot to the next
Color changes constantly from one shot to the next

Sometimes the dominant color is all there is.  In the last recital the lighting technician used only blue many times and no matter how hard I try, I could not adjust the white balance to being out anything but blue.

Mixed Lighting Sample
Notice the back half is lit with only blue light and any adjustments off blue in that area turns the dancers (dads again) gray as all color disappears when the blue is toned down.

What color is right?  Artistic stage lighting bounces all over the spectrum.  During this dance recital it changed often from mostly all blue to nearly all red.  Dancers sometimes look blue like the Na’vi from the planet Pandora (movie Avatar) before plunging red as though we landed on Mars.

So one of my tough decisions is: do I leave the white balance (color tone) the same as the camera and eye saw it or do I adjust it?

Untouche White Balance
White balance as shot (and what the audience saw)
White Balance Adjusted
White Balance Adjusted

So which one do you prefer?  If you look at my galleries, I usually adjust the white balance in an attempt to make the skin tones closer to natural and this adds hours to the work of editing the photos because nearly every photo is different.  I guess I see the artistry of dance in the beautiful, skillful moves by the dancers and coloring the light does not necessarily improve the artistry in my opinion.  Oh how I would love to shoot dance under a brighter, more daylight balanced lighting scheme! (Yes, there is a lazy streak in me).

One day, I hope to have the opportunity to photograph one of these skilled dancers with studio or other lighting I control.  I find inspiration in the work of famed photographer Joe McNally – here is his dance portfolio.  Until then, I work with what I can get.  Hope you enjoy dance as seen in these galleries: Dance Recitals

Ron Ludekens July 25, 2014

2 responses to “Photographing Dance (Hint: It’s Challenging)”

  1. Found this a fun read, and yes . . it would be wonderful to have those same opportunities as Joe!!! a fave and wonderful inspirational photographer. LOL . . I can so relate to the tap on the shoulder, feeling conspicuous as all get out at the slamming of the shutter or the quick chimp at the last frame (an inner sign of insecurities) . . . yes I have been there, shooting Dance is so much fun. My best shots have come from full rehearsal with costume and lighting (no one to tap you on the shoulder) as you have unlimited access at that time. However that is a rare occurrence for me now days.

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