Dancers, Cameras, and the Laws of Physics

Dancers often appear to defy the laws of physics as they routinely move in ways that would make every night’s highlight reels if someone dubbed dance a “sport.”

Sadly, my camera sensor really is bound by the laws of physics, as I discovered while sorting through 3,500 frames shot during Dancing With the Ojai Stars 2013. The lighting and focusing challenges are familiar to anyone who shoots performances, but the extra wrinkle with dance is this: I need to leave dancers a lot of room in the frame, because I don’t know precisely when arms will splay or mighty leaps appear. So even with a 16 megapixel camera, I end up cropping to images much smaller.  At screen size, these images look okay.  When I was working on them on my big monitor, they looked like pixelated messes. Well, that’s physics for you.

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Many of the dance images were unsharp because of motion blur. This shot of guitarist Marc Weber showed me that my sharpness issues were mine alone, and not a gear problem.

The lesson for next year? I should make a full day of it and shoot the dress rehearsal. That will help me scout moments and frame the action tighter during the performance. Plus, I’ll get twice as many opportunities with each dancer.  And to answer the question from a couple of posts ago, about why my few rehearsal shots were better than my performance shots, I think there are two reasons: 1) The house lights remained on during rehearsal and acted like a fill light, reducing the contrast ratios for more pleasant tones, and 2) I was on my feet, moving around, so I was a little closer to the stage, which improved perspective, and I was not tilting my camera up, which improved both perspective and the potential flare and ghosting from errant light sources.

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Some of what I perceived as sharpness issues were really exposure blow-outs, particularly under red lights.

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Often I try to correct for skin tones, but mostly I try to preserve whatever the lighting designer created.

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Even at 1/320 of a second, you can freeze action if you catch the action while it’s freezing, e.g. at the peak of a jump.

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When the UCSB dancers took the stage, I got a much higher percentage of keepers. I presume this is because they were lit more uniformly than the pairs competing in Dancing With The Ojai Stars.

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Filed under Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Lighting, Low Light

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