How to photograph a dance performance
Dance performances are challenging, there's no doubt about it. dozens of people zipping around on stage, jumping, spinning, jumping, kneeling, spinning some more, combined with sometimes less than ideal lighting, and parents standing up or clapping through your shot, it can be a challenge.
We recently shot a dance for Spotlight Dance Company in Killeen, where there were hundreds of students rushing around, here's what we learned, how we shot, and some things we're going to change moving forward.
-Charge your batteries-
Sometimes I'd like to think it goes without saying, but charge your batteries the day before. These things can be very taxing on your gear and can potentially eat your batteries up. The last thing you want is to show up with a half-dead battery or worse, swap a dead battery for another dead battery. Develop a good system for charging and then storing good and dead batteries. I'm lucky, I switched my bag over to a sling that has a red and a green zipper storage to differential the two.
-Clear SD cards & bring back ups-
Another one I wish I didn't have to say, but I do. Clear your SD card, you're going to shoot a ton of images, make sure you have the space for them on empty cards. During one performance I walked out with nearly 3400 images, filling up two 64gb cards and a 32gb. Having them clear before hand makes those seconds swapping them out go by much faster by not having to format or potentially deleting other photo shoots stored on those cards.
If you don't have a back up system in place now, you should look into at least one RAID.
-Bring fast cards-
It's pretty simple, bring fast cards. Shooting video I already have class 10 SD cards, usually between 80-95mbps and those guys still aren't fast enough to keep my camera buffer happy often times still having me wait a few seconds for it to clear and transfer. In this case, the faster the better my typical card is a 64 gb, 95mbps Sandisk but I've ordered this faster card from Amazon for our next dance to have an even smaller lag time while it buffers.
-Fast shutter speeds-
Like SD cards, the faster you can push your shutter speed, the crisper those images will be, freezing those jumps and spins. Now, there are some artful uses with slow shutter speeds, just make sure your client can tell it's art and not just a mistake. Currently I'm shooting on a Canon 5dMr3 and pushed my shutter to 1/1000 to get those crisp frozen images.
Because you have to push your shutter so far to freeze the dancers, you're going to lose a lot of light. The stage will be lit but not bright enough to warrant a low ISO. With my photojournalist background, I'm the type that doesn't like to edit too much. I like to get the shot as close to right in camera as I can to reduce the time I sit in front of the editor. Combined with the fast shutter speed I had to push my ISO to 2500 on my Mrk3 to get properly exposed images in camera. Now, I'd never say that this can't be done with a crop sensor camera, because I absolutely love my Canon 80D but, a full frame camera will prove to handle the high ISO better.
-High Speed Continuous-
Mary and I differ on our shooting preferences pretty frequently. I nearly always shoot on High Speed Continuous, also a result of photojournalism. I like to shoot "through" moments. What that translates to for dance is anticipating a jump, prefocusing, and shooting through the entire jump rather than trying to one or two shot it. This almost always ensures that I get a few decent images from the jump. Depending on where you're shooting from and the songs playing you might switch it over to silent continuous, a little slower but less annoying to the people surrounding you.
-Lenses and other stuff-
I'm throwing this out there now...I'm not a prime shooter, I don't like prime lenses. Not that they aren't crisp and beautiful and all of that, I hate being tied to one focal length, especially if I can't move.
I would say you need at least one long lens and a wide. I take a Sigma 70-200 with me and a
Canon 24-70 2.8 and If I can't move around during the performance, I try to sit somewhere within the first 3 rows depending on stage height. This gives me enough reach for close ups and when I switch over to wide, usually gives me full stage coverage. Though I don't do it, I would also recommend a monopod of some sort to take the strain off of your arms while you shoot. Over a 3 hours period the weight of the camera can start to really fatigue your muscles.
With those tips, you should be set to tackle your first dance performance. Keep your eyes open, follow the movement and anticipate. Dances are fluid but have a recurring pattern.
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