Dance Photography

Above photo: Da’ Von Doane, Dance Theatre of Harlem-Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate to photograph seven ballet events in New York. I’ve captured dancers during curtain calls for the past 10 years, but never during live performances; this was my first foray into dance photography and has been a fun learning experience. I’m no expert, but here are thoughts on my experience that may be of use to those interested in this art form (my work is posted on my photography website notmydayjobphotography.com.)

Access

Access is everything in dance. Obviously, audience members cannot photograph during a live performance so dance photography requires an invitation from the company during a dress rehearsal. My first event happened by chance; while I was blogging away one evening, out of the blue, I received an invite from a New York City press agent inquiring whether I would be interested in attending dress rehearsal photo shoots for Mikhailovsky Ballet at Linclon Center. OF COURSE!!! I jumped at the chance to photograph leading stars Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev, Leonid Sarafanov. After scrambling to figure out what equipment to use, I attended three great dress rehearsals during the Mikhailovsky November run: Giselle, Don Quixote, and Flames of Paris, a dream for any photographer.

My interest piqued, I inquired and obtained access to dress rehearsals for Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s The Nutcracker, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Ellison Ballet’s 10th Anniversary Gala. In addition, through a press agent, I also received an invite for the Career Transition for Dancers Gala. These ballet companies and events don’t receive much space in the popular press and are probably happy to get publicity, even from small-time bloggers like me. The level of dancing at these companies is very high and presented great photographic opportunities. The student companies (Kirkland and Ellison) have top-notch young dancers, some of whom will dance at larger stages in the future.

The major New York companies, ABT and NYCB, aren’t starved for publicity and already have great staff photographers, Gene Schiavone and Rosalie O’Connor at ABT, and Paul Kolnick at NYCB. Since major companies have staff photographers and plenty of press interest, it is likely very difficult to get an invite to a dress rehearsal in New York. The companies want control over photos of their dancers, and rightly so; they don’t want substandard images of their dancers circulating. The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, DanceTabs, and other news organizations use photos from the ballet company staff photographers in their reviews. An exception is The New York Times, which publishes photos from its staff photographers. I’ve found the quality of the Times’ dance photography highly variable with some good photos but others not at the level of the photographers listed above.

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Michelle Katcher, Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, Nutcracker. An example of a dark scene and the importance of a camera with low light capabilities. Canon 5DM3, f2.8, 4000 ISO, 1/500, 200mm

Preparation

I’ve always thought that when learning a task, figure out who does the task well, understand what they are doing and why they excel. To prepare for my photography gigs, I looked at work from ABT and NYCB photographers Gene Schiavone, Rosalie O’Connor, Paul Kolnick and independent photographer Jack Devant in addition to countless photos on a great website Ballet: The Best Photographs. Their work gives insights on what to look for in a great dance photo. Each photo has high impact and meaning rather than a random image from countless photos taken.

I also watch YouTube videos of the ballet I will attend. Preparation is important in anticipating the action. Event though I’ve seen full length ballets GiselleDon Quixote, Nutcracker many times, it still helps to stop the action on video at key moments to anticipate the live action. For ballets I have never seen before, particularly contemporary or modern works, the task is more difficult. I basically fire away, taking many images because I can’t anticipate the action.

Event Shooting

Most of the performance dance photos you see are from dress rehearsals. Typically a ballet company invites the press to photograph a segment of a ballet during a dress rehearsal. The theater is largely empty except for stage hands, artistic personnel, and dancers. Photographers are allowed to roam around the theater to seek optimal angles. For some reason, I like shooting from the side rather than the center. Sometimes the action on stage is stop and go as the Artistic Director stops the action to give corrections to the dancers, lighting directors, or orchestra. Other times, the dancers will “mark” a solo, not going full speed. It is fascinating to observe the sometimes frenetic activity as the company readies for a performance just hours away.

I use rapid burst mode, which produces 5-10 images per second, resulting in around 300-700 total images for a shoot. The economics of photography has changed dramatically in the digital age; in my film days in the 1970s I was stingy with my shots because each film frame probably cost 10 cents. Given that I was making minimum wage from washing dishes at $2.30 an hour, 23 photos equaled an hour of work. I marvel at the digital age in which memory is basically free and the marginal cost of an extra image is zero. Also, I am happy to report that I currently make…more than $2.30 an hour.

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Leonid Sarafanov, Mikhailovsky Ballet, Flames of Paris, Canon 5DM3, f4, 3200 ISO, 1/800, 140mm

Equipment

Like sports, dance photography requires high level equipment that can track and focus on fast-moving objects in dark lighting conditions. Consumer cameras, like my Canon T2i, are great for landscape, portrait, or street photography, but don’t hold up when challenged by fast-moving objects in dim light. Professional cameras with substantial sensors, high ISO capabilities, and rapid autofocus are necessary.

I’ve used two cameras: Canon 5D Mark III (borrowed from a colleaque) and Canon 7D Mark II (rented from Adorama). The 5D, which was released in 2012, is a full frame camera while the 7D, released in late 2014, is a crop sensor camera with a 1.6X crop factor. Both are great cameras, with the 5D, as a full frame camera, having greater low light capabilities while the 7D is faster, shooting a blazing 10 frames per second to catch fast-moving targets. The 7D has an autofocus system similar to the top of the line Canon 1DX. I think I prefer the 7D with a greater burst rate of 10 frames; its low light capabilities appear to be adequate.

Note that these camera are heavy, particularly combined with a long zoom lens. It helps to have some support in the form of a monopod, which is basically a pole that supports the camera. This reduces the physical stress of holding the camera for hours and also results in sharper images as camera shake is reduced. Monopods start at around $50. A good investment if dance photography is in your future.

Camera Settings

One important rule I follow on camera settings: ALWAYS underexpose by one stop. In my early shoots, I found that some of the images were overexposed (too light), particularly when dancers wore white costumes. Sometimes the overexposure was so severe that photo processing software such as Lightroom could not correct the image. As a result, I use a setting that underexposres all of my images by one stop, resulting in images that are a bit on the dark side (which can be corrected by Lightroom), but provides nice detail for lighter parts of the costumes.

I shoot shutter preferred, which means that I set the shutter speed (generally 1/500 or 1/640 of a second to capture action without blur) and the camera sets the aperture. My ISO setting depends on lighting conditions; for brighter lighting, I use about 3200 ISO, with darker conditions at 10000 ISO. My average setting is about 6400. I provide settings in the photos above.

Lens

I’ve used only one lens-Canon 70-200 f2.8 IS (image stabilization) and don’t have any interest in experimenting (UPDATE: I now use a Canon 17-55 f2.8 which is 27-88 with a 1.6X crop factor in smaller theaters). The lens provides nice coverage of the entire stage and the f2.8 helps in low light conditions. In dance, the stage is fairly small and one lens provides excellent coverage, unlike a football or baseball field (that’s why football photographers use three cameras, each with different range lenses).

Post Production

After the shoot, I end up with hundreds of images to upload to Lightroom. Although Lightroom is a powerful tool, I don’t do much processing, generally cropping, color balance, and exposure adjustments. The primary work I do is photo selection and cropping. For image selection, I go though the photos in several passes with the first time eliminating obvious rejects due to lack of focus, unappealing composition, or dancers out of synch. Next pass, I identify images with possibilities, evaluating with multiple stars. Then the real work starts, selecting final images to process.

If necessary, I sharpen the important parts of the photo and use noice reduction, all in Lightroom. As a final touch, I use the vingetting slider in Lightroom to darken the edges, which focuses attention on the center of the image.

Wrap-up

Let me know your experiences with dance photography, equipment, lenses, post-production work, etc. Check back as I hope to have more photos from live performances in the coming year.

Update

I agree with Paul Warburton’s tweet that there are many ex-dancers that excel at dance photography. In addition to former ABT dancer Rosalie O’Connor referenced above, check out works by Kyle Froman (NYCB), Renata Pavam (ABT), and Josh Tuifua (The Royal Ballet). In addition to understanding the timing and correct body positons of dance, they have great access. Some of their photos from the wings backstage during performances, curtain calls, and dressing rooms provide views not available to the public sitting in the seats during a performance. For example, Josh’s photo of two ugly step-sisters smoking a cigarette backstage in full makeup and partial costume.

Leave a Reply

  1. Hey,
    I am a male dancer that will be studying at the New Zealand School of Dance in 2017
    I really want to get into dance photography on the side but don’t necessarily want to spend $1000 on a telephoto lens… I read your article about dance photography and I was wanting a little bit of advice 🙂

    I would like to purchase a DSLR (preferably an 80D) but I am wondering if it is necessary to buy a lens for the camera, or use the one that is provided when purchased…
    I am fairly new to dance photography and all I really know about it is the video capabilities of a DSLR (I currently do videography)
    Anyways, so what would be a reasonable setup for in studio photography and outdoor dance photographs?

    Cheers,
    Jake
    16 – NZ

  2. Jake, I’ve never used the Canon 80D, but have heard that it is a solid camera, great image quality, with nice dynamic range. At 7 frames per second burst rate, it is fine for dance photography, although it lags behind the Canon 7d Mark II, which shoots 10 frames per second.

    On your question on lenses, the kit lens is 18-135mm f3.5-5.6. For photos in low light ballets such as Giselle, the f5.6 may require a higher ISO than is optimal for the camera. However, you said that you shoot outdoors. I would think the f3.5-5.6 would be sufficient given the light. On focal length, I shoot with the Canon 70-200 (112-320mm with 1.6X crop factor) f2.8 in larger theaters such as Koch Theater at Lincoln Center or City Center. In smaller theaters, I use the Canon 17-55 (27-88mm with 1.6X crop factor) f2.8. I used my 70-200mm f4 non-IS in one shoot that was in fairly dim light (http://www.notmydayjobphotography.com/Curtain-CallsOther-Ballet-Comp/VKIBC-Ballet-Competition/) and the results were fine.

    On lenses, one alternative is to rent lenses to see what you like best. I found one place in NZ that you might want to try: http://www.whitestudios.co.nz/rentals/camera-hire/canon-lenses/. Prices seem reasonable, $40 USD per day for a Canon 70-200 non-IS, which is about what I pay in NY for the IS version. By renting, you can see what works best for you before buying. Hope this helps; let me know how things work out. Kent

  3. Lots of helpful tips here. Thank you. But the 70-200 is not the end all! Based on what I see here a prime might suit you better, like the 135/f2. Since you’re in NYC why not rent one some weekend. I’m also wondering about shooting from side of stage instead of shooting from the front? Also wondering about tripod. Cheers! W

  4. Thanks for your comment William. I am starting to use my Canon 17-55mm (1.6X crop factor) in smaller theaters and it works well. On your point about using prime lenses, I like the flexibility of a zoom lens as I move in and out depending on the action. For a corps shot, I would go wider angle while a tighter shot for a single dancer performing a solo. On shooting from the side of the stage, my advice is to experiment. During dress rehearsal shoots, the theater is usually empty so it is possible to try various angles. On your point about using a tripod, I prefer a monopod as it allows me to roam around the theater easier. A tripod would be useful for long exposure work; maybe I will try it sometime. Let me know if you have further questions. Kent

  5. Really enjoy your site and comments. I have also been photographing a local ballet. A very useful tool another photographer recommended to me is PhotoMechanic, which allows a much more rapid first phase scan of photos before importing into Lightroom, and then to backup all of the photos for safekeeping in an external drive. The ability to view all of the photos taken is nearly instant. Usually that means I can go through and mark those photos with possibilities quickly before importing to Lightroom and then the whole process is by 1/2 or 2/3. It also keeps my main drive free of those photos that are clearly misses.
    I’ve been using mirrorless systems, Sony a7Rii which is fantastic for very dark performances, and Fuji XT2 , which has a very robust Boost mode of 11 frames per second, but less ability in the netherworld of nearly no light. Both have the ability for silent shooting using electronic shutter.