A couple of months ago, I had to eat my pride after my first foray into dance photography went terribly awry.
Since, I’ve spoken to Laurie, who is a friend, Ruby on Rails coder, dancer, and fellow photographer, who offered to write me an article explaining how to get dance photography done The Right Way™. His top tip: Learning about dancing makes you a better dance photographer!
Take it away Laurie…
Ballroom dancing is the hardest photographic challenge I have personally come across. It seems everything is set up to make it hard, and nothing makes it easy. Everyone moves too fast, the lighting is horrible, and getting a spot to stand can be a challenge in itself. None the less, after years of working on it. I finally think I know enough to pass on some advice.
Photo on the right © Laurie Young – see it bigger on Laurie’s Flickr stream!
The first thing, as with any photographic trip is to know what you want to get. For me there are three different goals I can be thinking of. The first is to try and great stunning photos. The sort that i want to frame and maybe even sell as art. Secondly I want to document the dancing, including all the bits that don’t look so good, the mistakes and the moments in between the rehearsed lines. Surprisingly this is what most dancers are looking for when they ask to see my photos, as it helps them improve. Finally I want to capture the emotion of the day, the excitement and nerves before the competition, the release after coming off the floor, and the joy or disappointment that any competition brings. I’m not going to talk about this one today, as technically its similar to portraiture, and so off topic.
Like any demanding field of photography, the equipment you have really makes a difference. You are just not going to get really good photos with anything less than a semi-professional DSLR.
The biggest single leap I took was getting my hands on a camera with no shutter lag. If you are waiting between when you press the shutter and when it takes the photo, you have no chance of getting anything, dancing is ALL about timing, and so is dance photography. Hand in hand with this is a camera with fast autofocus. More than anything else you can spend your money on, no lag, and instant AF will improve your pictures.
For the choice of lenses, I like to go for the extremes, either a telephoto, or a wide-angle. Standard lenses have little to no place in my kit bag. Having said that, I use the telephoto to pick out just one couple or dancer, and if the competition is in a small room, then this job is done best by a slightly longer than standard lens like 70mm.
Either way, the lighting is going to be low, so the fastest lens is going to pay dividends. Personally I use a Sigma HSM 70-200 f/2.8, and this seems to be the lens of choice among the other photographers. For wide angle I like about 20mm, which i use mainly for the Standard (ballroom) dances from right up close.
Photo on the right © Laurie Young – see it bigger on Laurie’s Flickr stream!
Flash is a good next addition to your kit. You are going to be taking a LOT of photos, so it needs to recharge really fast. In a dark room you are going to be dumping a lot of charge with each flash. I use a Metz Hotshoe Mounted gun, charged from a Quantum battery pack, and even then can easily go through 2-3 full charges of it in a day.
The last thing you need is memory cards. Lots. If your shooting an all day competition, you are probably looking at between 1000 and 5000 photos. At full quality thats a lot of GB, so stock up, or bring a laptop to download onto.
When I arrive at the competition the first thing I do is get a feel for the light levels. Competitions are held in lots of different venues, from community halls with lots of windows and ample natural light, to the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, a massive hall with quite dim lighting. If you are lucky there will be some spots of lights from down-lighters, or even follow spots, which can make for some great photos. Personally I prefer not needing to use flash, it is hard to avoid flash shadows, but its not always an option.
I tend to meter manually, taking some sample shots till I am happy with the ambient light, then setting the flash on auto, (use the most advanced form of auto your camera supports) which will generally do a nice fill in. Because the dancers are moving so fast, and because the background at competitions is typically horrible, a wide aperture and really fast shutter speed is the best. Autofocus should be on, but if your camera can’t focus fast enough, then pre-focus on a specific part of the floor, and only take photos when people dance on that spot.
Next decide where to position yourself. My two favorite spots are on the balcony, looking down with a telephoto, or right on the edge of the floor, close enough to get hit by the girls dresses as they go past.
Photo on the left © Laurie Young – see it bigger on Laurie’s Flickr stream!
If you do this, be nice to the judges. They are competing for the same floor space, and often have to stand right in front of you to get their job done. It can often feel like part of the judge’s training is learning how to stand right in front of photographers, but I have been assured this is not true. Annoying as it is, its something you have to accept. If you are at the floor edge, then kneel down. Your camera should be at or below the dancers waist height. Otherwise you are going to foreshorten their legs, and no girl, and pretty much no dancing guy is going to be happy with that look. The lower the camera is the nicer the legs will look. Just don’t get so low you get accused of trying to take photos up the girls skirts!
Now its time to take photos. This is where your biggest problems are going to begin. At first it will feel like lots of random motion is going on, and you only ever see a good photo after you have missed the chance to capture it. To fix this, you need to learn more about dancing, and learn the individual couples routines. Here Latin and ballroom start to differ. Ballroom is all about motion, so still photos are always going to be difficult. Add that to the fact that each couple is effectively embracing each other for the whole dance, you will always get the back of one persons head.
Except in the “lines”, those moments when the dancers stay on the same part of the floor for a bar, and show how they can stretch, and create impressive shapes. Learn the routines. If you watch them for a lap or two of the floor you can start to see that they repeat the same steps each time. This lets you predict when such a line is about to happen.
In the Latin dances, there are lots of accents. Highlights in the music where the dances do something dynamic, powerful, or sudden. As you learn more about the music these become more predictable. In Cha Cha, its normally on count 1, in Rumba, its on 4. In Paso there are two specific highlights. Learn the music and you can tell when these accents are coming. If you have learnt the couples routines, you can know when they are about to go into a line, if not, assume they are going to do something that hits the accent. You will be surprised how often you are right.
You really have to listen to the music, and be as aware of it as the dancers are. Its the only way to get good photos of dancing.
As with so many other things in life, Flickr is great for inspiration for finding great dance photography. Plug in the name of the dance and search by most interesting, get a feel for what can be done!
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