Leaping into Dance Photography

Peggy Farren 2014-11-22

Patience, planning and quick adjustments help catch the drama by Tom Tracy

It’s a Friday in November and a monthly arts magazine has asked me to drop by for pictures of a Nutcracker dance rehearsal to accompany a holiday feature on a Florida ballet company.

A public relations handler shows up, the director is in her office being interviewed by the writer and the dancers are milling around, not remotely yet in costumes some 30 minutes into my shoot.

Eventually, the company director emerges and sets in motion three pieces from the Nutcracker Suite-- the dancers now finally look terrific in their Nutcracker garb and they are clearly top notch athletes commanding every bit of the studio dance floor.Nutcracker Palm Beach
Dance Photography

But we’re in a plain rehearsal room with little visual appeal, so I set up a single, off-camera wireless flash to cast shadows and hopefully create a little lighting interest.

Photographing the performing arts requires some patience and realism at the outset of the encounter, followed by a quick learning curve: the first goal is to get a grasp on what will be unfolding on stage, asking questions, sizing up the environment, then watching how far and wide the performers traverse. With that, one can begin to anticipate next moves and start lining up shots.

At the end of our 15-minute Nutcracker mini-performance I have only just begun to realize where I maybe should have been positioned in the room and so I’m only getting warmed up when my hour is up. But it was enough, and I was able to capture some strong dance moments.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed some neat opportunities to shoot some form or another of stage dance, ballet and classical dance for newspapers, along with real-deal flamenco performances which I especially enjoy, and more recently -- professional ballroom dance and bellydancers.

Sometimes shooting the live productions has led to solo portrait sessions or commissioned shoots later where we can do some cool stuff like backlit silhouette shots with colored gels against a white background (a personal favorite).Dance009
dancer on beach

Ballroom dancers are probably a photographer’s best friend in this realm: they love and expect to be documented as part of their dance competition culture, and they have a huge catalogue of great poses they can summon on demand. Flamenco is cool to watch, and there’s always high drama in the song, the movements, the expressive faces and precision hand movements choreographed to the guitar.

For all this kind of photography we want to have full frame sensors and the best possible glass in our bag, along with the camera set in manual mode and a good working facility with RAW files & Lightroom on the backend.

We need the wiggle room of a RAW digital file for pulling the most out of images in terms of exposure compensation and color correction because there is no way to get that perfectly in a fast-moving stage environment.

If I can get up close to the edge of the stage I like to use my Canon EF 16-35mm f.2.8 or even a fisheye lens for taking full-body and multi-person shots. I may put the camera on a tripod and drag the shutter to let the motion blur or to zoom-blur the lens with slow shutter speed for a streaked image.

It’s a good idea to bracket with the motion blur trick shots to get something not too wild and not too crisp. An eighth of second has worked well, at about 800 or 1600 ISO, but of course that depends on the movement, the intensity of the stage lighting and the chosen F-stop, which is generally mostly wide open.Dance011

If I want crisp and tight shots I like to reach for my Canon 100 f.2, or even the heavy Canon EF 70-200mm f.2.8, and set for shutter speeds above 1/80th, but if you reach too high you may not get the exposure and ambient stage light you want. So I like to wait for the action to settle down or come to a brief climax for the right moment, in continuous shooting bursts with the intention of deleting at least half or more of the shots.

It’s also nice to be more to the side of the stage and catch some interesting angles and line up stage lighting or props with the dancers in creative ways, not just shooting straight on from the audience perspective. Dance008

As with competitive equestrian riders, who’ve lectured me on how the horse’s ears should be postured in a pictures, professional dancers can be fussy about exactly how they want to be seen and about “correct” dance position in their genre.

One Flamenco dancer/teacher, Niurca Marquez in Miami, put it to me simply: the correct moment should reflect a sense of “having arrived” at something in the dancer’s movement, but never “in the process” nor “getting there” which are seen as unfinished and therefore undesirable.

These considerations are good to remember. And they are mostly worked out in the editing phase in terms of image selection. Of course ultimately what we photographers personally connect with and want to display may be something different than what the dancer needs to showcase. And that’s where art and subjectivity come into play.

Also, don’t forget about the live musicians, if there are any present. Those poor guys, always integral to the enterprise, complain that they never get a good photo, so take time to give them a few.Dance013

Tom Tracy is a writer, photojournalist and event photographer based in West Palm Beach. His flamenco images from Florida & Spain were part of a 'FLAMENCO STORIES' exhibition at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society during the 2009 'Flamenco in the Sun annual festival' in Fort Lauderdale. www.TomTracy.com

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