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Dance performance photography

I'm unsure whether this should be put on trip photos directory or on article directory.  However I decided to put this on article, since on this article I will discuss how to take pictures of dance performance and focuses on the dancer's effect. 

I admit the first time I took their picture is just for testing my camera + lenses low light performance.  However, since I find the camera + lens can capture the swift dancers, then I decided to take something artistic and end ups at hundreds plus pictures of dancers.  You'll see why do I took so many picture after you see the pictures below.

Without flash

Dance performance without flash means available light shooting, which requires a fast lens.  If it was on a hot sunny outdoor, any lens will do, however most of the time dance performance were on dark indoor.  Tripod and IS didn't work since the dancers were swift, and they'll be blurry.

I use my trusty Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens, with ISO ranging from 800 to 1600.  At 1/200 seconds, most of the motions were stopped, and the blurry part were insignificant.  Please refer to the picture below.

Please note the dancer is jumping, and the face is quite sharp.  However her hands are blurry since she was very swift.

This picture was taken that at f/2.8, ISO 800, 1/125 seconds yield normal exposure.  My lens is at f/1.8 and ISO 800, therefore capturing at 1/200 seconds results in a reasonably bright image.

This picture shows that motion is stopped 1/200 second.  For shooting in this condition, I recommend Shutter priority mode (Tv).

Set to 1/200 for freezing motion, 1/500 for even more freeze.  SLR camera can do this, however no pocket or point and shot camera can do this.  Please read why do we use SLR camera for more details.

Noise can be a problem here!  Therefore I advice to use flash (if allowed) on capturing dance performance.  Not only flash helps in using lower ISO's, but also it makes the dancer stands out from background!

With flash

Flash made things easy, as you can use slower shutter speed to stop motion and creating motion blurs.  However you must be remember not to flash all the time as you do without flash.  Otherwise the flash will run out of power and recycle for quote a while or the flash overheats, therefore loosing the precious moment when it do happens.

I recommend to use 2nd curtain sync or rear curtain sync and shutter speed of 1/10 - 1/13 seconds to make the dancer movement leave trails and the flash will then freeze the motion.

Look at her movement trail which is visible on those two picture below. 

Movement trail creates impression that she really moves, fast!  Therefore gone are the impressions that she pose for you.  The flash freezes her motion making a solid picture.  This picture also involves panning that you can see from the trailing lights on the background.

How to get non vibrating picture at shutter speed of 1/10 - 1/13 of a seconds?  I sat on a chair, dampening myself even further.  Therefore, the vibrations are minimal, and the image is stabilised.

The worst thing risk flash is shadows cast by hand on dancer's face, so always plan your shot as best as you can and shot when the dancer's hand is not on her face.

Anyway, flash also made the dancer's face brighter and stands out.  For most people, bright skinned girl is more appealing than darker skinned girl.


Set the camera to AI Focus, and choose the focus point that locates on dancer's head or other point where you want to focus.  Do not use auto-select focus, since all that we want is to capture the dancer's expression, the best bet is to focus on her head.

The AI Focus will then works as hard as possible to track focus and ensure your dancer is in focus!  There are other option on Nikon, however I don't know them since I didn't own any Nikon here.

Showing glitters and beads glitz

Dancer often wears glitters and beads to enhance their appeal, however glitters and beads doesn't always visible in photograph.  Most often, they will appear as bright spot under flash.  And I admit it is hard to capture glitter and beads at their best.

There are 3 ways to make glitter glitz on a photograph. 

  1. For fast exposure with available light, the glitter and beads automatically glitz. 
  2. For slow exposure without flash, glitter and beads will show as trailing lights.
  3. However flash kills array of glitters and beads, since they all lit at the same time and equally bright means no glitz, therefore they will not give any glitz.  For capturing glitters with flash, do not use fast exposure of 1/60 seconds or faster, instead use slow exposure of 1/10 or 1/13 of a seconds to give chance for the glitters to vibrate and glitz.


This girl's glitter and beads glitz in red and green. 

Composition and Framing

Due to dancer's movement and your restricted movement It is very hard to compose properly.  You'll need practice and practice before you can compose properly.  Moreover you'll also need to predict dancer's movement.

Don't worry, dancers movement is not random and can be predicted.  After a minute or two watching a dance, you can guess what are they going to do next.  This is not very accurate however, if you can see the dry run, you'll have a much better guess.  Costumed dry run will be the best.

Choose the closest chair to the stage but not too close that you'll see dancer's underwear.  When the dancer is on a 60cm stage, 1-2 meters from the dancer are great with 50mm lens on an APS-C camera (equiv 80mm on a full frame camera), they looks most elegantly from this distance.  Less than 1 metre is bad, you won't see their movement at.  More than 3 metre will reduce your flash's power considerably, therefore resulting in a dark face.

Finally, crop! 

This image was cropped to a half of the original 10 MP image for making a good composition.  This image is good enough for gallery size prints (76 x 76 cm), A0 or 30R.


One of the most important thing that I forgot to write is gesture!  It is much more important than other aspect since gesture is what determines whether a dancer looks really dancing or just posing!  The flying costume's fabrics can't lie, body inertial movement, glitters and bead movements and their motion blurs also adds some effects in our subconscious mind.  They are just there.  We can't see it but we know its there. 

The very same dancer, the very costume, only a split second difference can yield a different photograph.  Some luck are needed, however most importantly your camera needs to be able to spray at adequate speed, then your dancer will be captured at her very best gesture.  Oh, I almost forget, a fast recycling flash is also a requirements.  On board flash just can't cope up, get an external flash. 

Taking picture of dance formation

Unless the formation is really special, picture of a dance formation rarely yield a good picture.  Therefore, choosing one or two dancers will often yield a better result than the whole dancing team.  This is due to distraction, the other dancer will distract our eye from seeing others.


The only problem is haze that results from dry ice that is sprayed to them.  Well, actually haze could create a very special effect like the one on this picture bellow.

This effect was obtained on camera, without Photoshop or Corel Photopaint.  OK, I admit I sharpen the image and enhance it's colour on Corel, due to the haze which desaturate the colours.  However the translucent effects has been there when I took the picture.


I think that's for now, thank you for reading!  Now, go to the nearest dance performance and practice.  You will need to set your camera on burst mode so you can chooses which one is the best picture available.

Remember: to make a girl's picture most interesting, a girls should be pictured when doing girly things, just as a fish when doing fishy things or bird doing birdie things. 

Anyway, I still have some more picture at higher resolution available in my Gallery.