Return to the Dance

Looking for a photographic challenge? Let's go to the dance.

Pamela Lappen  invited me to photograph a dress rehearsal for Santa Barbara City College’s Spring concert. It’s been a few months, so let’s review the challenges of dance performance photography:

1. We need fast shutter speeds to capture action, but even with our fastest lenses under seemingly bright stage lights, the circumstances call for high ISO settings.

2. We need to focus on a fast moving subject that is often surrounded by other fast moving subjects.

3. Unless we have seen the performance before, we cannot easily predict the action.

4. Dramatic stage lighting that bedazzles an audience may also play havoc with our light meters and color recording software.

5. We need to shoot in rapid bursts, which means we must ensure our camera buffer can process a large number of images in rapid succession.

6. Depending on the theater design, we cannot always choose an optimal location from which to shoot.

Other than that, it’s pretty easy.

1/250 second shutter speed is not fast enough, but it's all I could get at ISO 3200 and f2.8. A little blur in the hands and feet enhances the sense of movement, but the images would be much crisper at 1/500 second. I've yet to encounter a dance event where I could shoot faster than 1/400.

Am I a genius to have focused on the leaping dancer in this situation? Decidedly not, because I almost always try to focus on the dancer in the foreground. Apparently, this is a lucky miss. This also speaks to the fact that I could not predict the action. I had no idea who would be leaping or when. ISO 3200, 1/250, f3.2

The stage lighting was absolutely stunning, but Nikon sensors tend to overexpose reds, and this caused me no end of grief in post-processing. On the one hand, I want to show the lighting designer's artistry. On the other hand, I may lack the skills to do so.

One solution to extravagantly colored stage lighting, but an imperfect one. Detail lost to the red channel's overexposure usually stays lost. I might have expanded the dynamic range slightly by shooting in RAW, but remember point 5: I needed fast burst speeds, so I shot in jpeg.

This doesn't illustrate point number 6; I just like the shot. But shooting from the orchestra pit meant I was always shooting up toward the stage. I prefer to be level with the stage, but I wanted to be close, since there was no audience for me to disturb. I'd like to straighten the image more, but we'd lose a dancer's hand on the right.

Generally speaking, the higher you set your ISO, the more time you will spend post-processing your images. I’ll probably be working on this set for weeks to come, seeing if I can learn any new software tricks to improve them.  To see the full set (to date), you can visit my smugmug gallery.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Low Light, Post Processing

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