How I Shoot Dance Concerts

I don’t view myself as a particularly good photographer, and when people refer to me as an “artist,” I demand that they take it back or raise their fists to defend themselves. To me, photography is a puzzle I enjoy trying to solve, with no expectation of a solution. I just want to learn from each experience and get better results with each project. There’s not an artistic bone in my body.

I cannot tell you how to shoot dance concerts, but I can tell you how I shoot dance concerts, and perhaps we’ll learn something from one another (if you leave a comment).

I shoot for a local high school teacher who uses the images for both instruction and celebration with her students. As these are actual performances, there is no posing or re-dos or lighting adjustments. I stand at the back of the theater, near the light and sound mixing boards. Shooting at the back of the theater with a long lens causes unwanted compression (see glossary below) in the images, but I have not figured out how to work nearer the stage without distracting the audience.

Since I don’t control the lights, and I’ve never seen the dances before, and I’m limited to a single position at the back of the building, I can capture what the teacher needs –a document of poses and movement – but it’s hard to make good images without considerable luck.

Here’s what I do to improve my luck:

I shoot hundreds of frames per concert, usually over one thousand. I use a Nikon d300, which delivers excellent low-light performance, and a fast Nikon 70-200 f2.8 VR zoom. Originally, I shot in shutter-priority mode, selecting the highest shutter speed I could get, which was usually 1/250th of a second (not really fast enough for moving humans, but all the light would allow). However, even at ISO 1600, shutter-priority mode meant I was always shooting my lens wide open, at f2.8.  This limited depth of field and meant that my focusing had to be perfect or images would not be sharp.  Did I mention that I see the dances for the first time while I’m shooting them? That’s right: fast-moving subjects going in unknown directions, and I need perfect focus.

Even though the D300’s autofocus system is excellent, and the 70-200 is actually quite sharp at f2.8, I wanted to hedge my bet a little bit by stopping down the lens, if only a fraction. Nowadays, I shoot in manual mode, usually at something like 1/250th and f3.2, with auto-ISO activated. That means my shutter speed and aperture remain constant, but the sensor sensitivity varies with the light, controlling the actual exposure as the dancers move though the uneven stage lighting. Clever, eh? Since I’ve given up on creative composition while shooting (because I’m lucky just to keep a dancer in the frame!), I use center-weighted metering so the often-black background and/or bright stage lights do not confuse the matrix meter.

Shooting a concert is only half the battle. Because almost all of my theater and dance work is done at the limits of my camera’s sensor sensitivity, I often employ noise reduction software in my post-processing. We’ll discuss that later.

Wow. For a guy who prides himself on avoiding jargon, there’s a whole lot of jargon in this entry. Here’s a quick glossary of some of the terms:

Compression: In this case, I’m referring to what happens with a long lens when the distance from lens to subject is greater than the distance from the subject to the background. The subject and background appear somewhat flattened together, making it harder to isolate the subject in the image. This also makes the subject look more two-dimensional.

Shutter-Priority Mode: An automatic exposure mode through which the user chooses shutter speed and the camera chooses lens aperture.

Manual Mode: An exposure mode through which the user chooses both shutter speed and lens aperture settings.

Depth-of-Field: the area (front to back) of apparent focus in an image.

Auto-ISO: One of my favorite features of Nikon cameras, auto-ISO adjusts the sensor’s sensitivity based on criteria I program into the camera, such as a minimum shutter speed. I would manually crank up the ISO in low light or turn it down in brighter light anyway, so in uncertain lighting I just let the camera handle it.

Center-Weighted and Matrix Metering: Two of the three light metering modes available on my camera. Matrix metering divides the entire frame into segments and uses complex formulae to analyze the light. Center-weighted uses a roughly circular area around the center of the frame. All light meters can be fooled, but they’ve been getting smarter and smarter over the years. Unless the scene is dramatically backlit or dark, I tend to trust Nikon’s matrix metering. Dance concerts tend to be dramatically lit, so I go with center-weighted and try to keep a dancer in the center as I shoot. I may crop the photo later to move the subject off-center.

1 Comment

Filed under Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Lighting

One response to “How I Shoot Dance Concerts

  1. Pingback: Community Theater Publicity and Keepsakes « Camera Club Confidential

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