My daughters have been dancing competitively for 5 years now, and although I’m not a professional sports photographer, I have through trial and error, compiled my list of top 9 tips to getting that amazing dance image. I wish I had a top 10 because it sounds a lot more technical but for now I’ll just have to be content with 9, maybe next year I’ll come across the infamous number 10! My camera of choice is a Canon 5D Mark II camera body, and for these images I paired it with my 85mm 1.8 portrait lens. Although you may be afraid of your camera’s manual settings, they are truly the secret to getting those great images. Hopefully, something I’ve learned will bring a new perspective to your images.
1. No Flash Photography. For the safety of all performers, make sure your flash is always disabled. Remember, no matter how dark you think it is, there is always enough light projected onto the stage as long as you make use of high ISO settings. I like to use ISO 2000 or ISO 2500 for most indoor photography.
2. Large Open Aperture. I almost always use a large aperture setting like 2.8 or 3.2 to really focus my audience to the details of position and alignment. There is usually so much action going on during a dance that it can often be distracting with too many options to look at. I pick one dancer for each 8-16 counts and follow that person around. There are definitely times for large group images but I find the ones that really emote feeling are focused on a particular dancer.
3. Fast Shutter Speeds. In dance, you will rely heavily on fast shutter speeds to freeze your action. These girls are spinning, turning, and leaping so quickly that you will often just miss that magic moment. I like to use at least a 400 speed if not 500 if I can.
4. Take a lot of Pictures. Don’t be afraid to take 50-75 pictures per 3-minute dance. Sometimes the best shot is one that you weren’t intending to capture.
5. Choose an Alternate Angle of View. Sometimes it’s best to choose a side angle to shoot from. Most parents push and shove to get front and center seating for their daughter’s performances, and if you could only raise your seating 4 feet I would probably be bustling right there with them. However, in reality your eye level will usually land at their feet level, which sometimes doesn’t present the best angle of view for pictures. You will usually also be trying to shoot between judges heads or if you weren’t lucky enough to get that prized front row – the heads of other parents! I prefer instead to move to the side areas that are usually raised a little, or stand against the wall so as to not block others behind me. Often you’ll find this view presents new formations that aren’t seen from the front.
6. Lighting. The stage is usually set with varying degrees of lighting so just keep in mind that all your subjects will not be sharing the same light pool. It is almost impossible to capture all the dancers in the correct exposure, so as soon as you accept this you can feel free to focus on a lead dancer and let the light illuminate and bring focus to them while letting your other dancers form a backdrop. Feel free to play around with which performer you wish to correctly expose, sometimes I choose the front dancer while other times, if my daughter is in the middle group lost in the mix lol, I correctly expose her and underexpose the girls in front of her and overexpose those behind.
7. Focus Point. Don’t be afraid to use your far right or left focusing points to direct attention to the edges of your image. I used to simply leave the camera on center focus and follow the girls around, capturing all of action in the middle of the frame. After playing around at a few competitions, I actually prefer to have the focused dancer to the edge and then direct the viewer’s attention to the rest of the image.
8. Leaps and Jumps. These can be tricky. I try to stick to 2 basic rules; never rely on continuous shooting mode, and take 3 shots. Firstly, continuous shooting will likely lock your focus on your starting point so your chance of obtaining that great focused leap is slim to none. Secondly, when I say 3 shots I mean I take the first shot as the dancer leaves the ground, then by the time you are ready to hit the shutter button again your dancer is usually at the peak of her jump, then I take a final landing shot as sometimes the finish pose can be just as breathtaking. The 3 shot rule is very simplistic and will take some personal tweaking with time. The more attempts you make, the better you become at spotting that sweet shutter release spot. I just find if you force yourself to take the beginning shot you can usually erase the chance of shooting too early.
9. White Balance. Although listed last, it’s usually the first thing I tamper with at a competition. I will take test shots of other studios dances and check the color temperature of my camera. The stage is usually warm so I have to manually lower my color temperature to around 3200. This can change from one venue to the next but it is usually between 2900 and 3500. I tend to start at 3200 and go up and down from there. I find if I zoom in closely on a girl’s face I can tell if the image is going to be too warm or not. You also need to keep in mind that the stage is sometimes lit on purpose with red lights giving an overall warm tinge to skin tones. I play around with 2-3 different dance teams from other studios, until I find a setting I like and then I stick to it for the rest of the event. If you leave the camera set to AWB (automatic white balance) you will almost always have an orange or muddy tinge to your images. This can be minimized in post production, but really who wants to have to spend time correcting the color later if you can set it right at the beginning!
That’s about it for my advice pool. Hopefully, there was something in there that will peak your interest and cause you to play around a little more. Sometimes the best images are those that are unexpected. While the front on full team image has a purpose, I believe the best images that evoke emotion are those taken from a different view, with a purpose in mind. Be creative, and let your vision shine!
All the best…Melissa