Tips for Photographing Dancers
Here’s how my tips for photographing dancers evolved.
Oh….I was so naive……
I showed up to my first dance shoot and thought I knew what I was doing. After all, I had been into photography for nearly ten years and had exclusively shot portraits of people for the past five years. How different could it be to take portraits of dancers?
Turns out the answer to that question was VERY. It was VERY different.
As a matter of fact, when I walked away from that very first dance shoot, I only had about five photographs I was genuinely excited about. I walked away feeling like I was a fledgling newbie photographer all over again. Since that first dance shoot two years ago, I have learned a lot.
Four things about dance photography I wish I had known at my first dance shoot:
1. Shutter Speed:
Dancers are FAST. I knew I would have to increase my shutter speed from my normal (double the length of my lens), but I underestimated how much I needed to increase my shutter speed. Because of this, over half of my shots were completely blurry, and about a quarter of them showed motion blur on feet and hands. Now, when I am photographing a dancer, my shutter speed is always at least 1/500. Some dancers require an even higher shutter speed. It is so important to look at the back of the camera and zoom in to make sure that feet and hands are tack sharp.
2. Get Low:
Normally, when shooting portraits, the ideal height to shoot is slightly above eye level. Being slightly above eye level, produced the most flattering angle for most subjects. Shooting dancers is completely different. When shooting dancers in action, the lower the better. Don’t get me wrong, there are always situations to break that rule. But, generally, the lower you are – the higher in the air they appear to be. I take a yoga mat to all dance shoots. It’s thick enough to cushion me and provide a clean space to set my camera on when I’m giving feedback to the dancer. The yoga mat is a life saver because on a typical dance shoot, I am lying on my stomach for 95% of the shoot.
3. Back of the Camera:
When I am shooting a portrait session, I rarely show the client the back of the camera. I know it’s a personal preference, but I do not like to release or show and work that has not been retouched and edited by me. For my first few dance sessions, I continued this line of thinking, but quickly learned I was setting myself up for failure. It doesn’t matter how wonderful your light is, or how perfectly you composed the photograph, if their technique isn’t right – they will most likely hate the photograph. Now, I show the back of the camera to the dancers throughout the shoot. If they feel like their technique is off, we redo the shot.
4. Develop a thick skin:
This was the hardest part for me. Dancers are extremely competitive. Most of them are graceful and kind to other dancers, but not all of them are. Before I started showing dancers the back of the camera, I was adding shots to my portfolio that captured a dancer in an imperfect technique. I received anonymous emails from dance teachers (some kindly worded…and some not) that tore apart the work I had created. I’ve even had other dancers screen shot my work, zoom in on the dancer’s feet, and text it to me with specific reasons why it was a technically bad shot. I know this seems harsh – I thought it was at first too. I will tell you though, although (as with all fields) some critics could learn how to offer more tactful criticism, I learned and grew from each email, text and comment. If you give dance photography a try, be ready to have constructive criticism sent your way. Don’t ignore it. Realize it’s not personal (as much as it may feel that way), listen and grow from it.
The final thing I’d like to leave you with in terms of dance photography is…..
It is AMAZING!
Don’t let the fact that it’s different and challenging stop you from trying it. Photographing dancers has made me a much better photographer in all other genres of photography as well. It is inspiring, uplifting, and so rewarding!