Technique for Dance Photography
Dan Wallach, Rice University
Originally April 2002
Updated March 2005
Many people have asked me questions about how I take pictures, particularly
pictures of dancers. Here are my thoughts on what you need to do decent
social dance photography. Note that, while this advice is targeted to digital
cameras, most of it applies equally well to film cameras.
- You must have no fear. You have to get close up, which means standing in
the middle of the dance floor. You have to keep your dancing brain active
to avoid people plowing into you, and you have to choreograph inside your
head to predict what your target is doing so you can be prepared. While you
could experiment with zoom lenses to shoot from a distance, you will likely
find that, on a crowded dance floor, other dancers get between you and the
couple you are trying to photograph.
- You need semi-automatic adjustments. The example pictures that you see
on my pages were taken with relatively long exposures (1/10 sec.), with pre-flash
(fancier cameras also support "rear curtain sync", which fires the flash at
the end of the exposure -- but with long exposures, you can't control where
the dancers will be at the end, so it's hard to work with rear sync). That
gets you the nice blurry-but-sharp effect, and also gives your pictures more
warmth (i.e., more red tones from the incadescent room lights to balance the
blue tones from your electronic flash). The cheaper digital cameras don't
give you the adjustments you need.
- You need an external flash. For starters, built-in red-eye reduction often
doesn't work, while moving the flash unit away from the lens works every time
(red-eye comes from flash light reflecting off the retina; if the flash is
away from the lens, the reflection goes away from the lens as well). As a
bonus, you can shoot longer distances (built-in flashes can barely go 2-4
meters), and you can bounce the light off the ceiling (if it's white and isn't
terribly high). External flashes can be fit to a number of popular "prosumer"
cameras, including the Canon G-series. Of course, they work great with D-SLRs.
You can benefit in a big way by putting a "gel" on your flash. The
picture on the left was taken using just the built-in flash on my Canon G2
(no gel). I corrected the image to make the dancers look mostly right, but
the people in the back (who are illuminated by the tungsten-filament light
bulbs in the room) look orange. The picture on the right, for contrast, was
shot with my Nikon D70 with a tungsten-balancing orange gel on the flash.
The people front and back are all illuminated the same. The filter gel "corrects"
your flash from its normal "daylight" balance to match the tungsten
bulbs in the room.
Get a tripod. Both of the above pictures were taken by hand-holding the camera.
While the flash will create the "freeze" of your foreground subject,
your background gets blurred. Maybe that's something you want. But, if you
want the background to be stable, then you need to stabilize the whole camera.
Here's an example that puts it all together. (A tripod is virtually useless
in a crowded dance floor, but it's great for competitions, where you can stake
out your space and not have to worry about getting bumped.)
- You need lots of storage space. I have an two 1GB CompactFlash cards. With
my Nikon D70, I can fit 200 raw images (around 5MB per image) on a single
card. When you've got enough space that you never have to worry about running
out, then you can take lots of pictures and choose your favorites later.
Shooting in "raw" mode is a big win because you can fix the color-balance, exposure, and a variety of other issues later on in Photoshop (more on this, below). Raw images give you more flexibility than JPEGs.
- You should take classes on photography. If you're uncomfortable with talk
about film speed, exposure, aperture, strobes, much less composition, lighting,
and simply learning how to "see", you can study these things. Even if you
plan to be a digital photographer, a class using analog film and darkroom
printing won't be wasted on you. Adobe Photoshop was very clearly designed
to mimic the tools and techniques used in darkrooms; it's just faster and
you don't need any dangerous chemicals.
Prices have dropped enough that you should
seriously consider a digital SLR cameras like a Nikon D70 or a Canon Digital
Rebel XT / 350D. Relative to the smaller "prosumer" cameras, you get
faster frame rates (3 frames per second), faster autofocus, and a variety of
accessories that you can add later on. When the action is moving fast, that
additional speed is a big win. Most of these cameras are available with "kit"
lenses. I've gotten great mileage out of my Nikon 18-70mm kit zoom. It's bright,
it's fast, and it's versatile. Particularly for dancing, I tend to shoot with
it on the wide-angle end, so try not to let a camera shop talk you into a cheaper
lens that isn't as wide-angle.
Some advice on composition
- First, here's some advice I've heard attributed to Ansel
The most important tool in the darkroom is the trash can.
While you should take many pictures, you should only show people the ones
that you really like. Don't be discouraged if you only get one good picture
out of every fifty that you take. With digital cameras, pressing the button
is virtually free, so shoot first and ask questions later.
One of the effects that long exposures give is the experience of motion.
You can also achieve this effect by freezing people in positions where they
are clearly doing a dynamic move. Aerial moves are an obvious example, but
you can also get this effect when dancers are strongly counter-balanced or
in the middle of a "normal" step. Here's an example.
- You need to get the faces of the dancers. A photograph of the best dance
move in the world looks less exciting when you have the back of somebody's
head in the picture. On the other hand, a photograph that has people's faces
can look great even if they're not doing a fancy move.
- Don't be afraid to shoot from unusual angles. If you have a digital camera
with a rotating screen, you can easily hold the camera high above your head
and point down at the dancers. Or, you can hold the camera at your waist (or
lower) and look up at the dancers. If not, just hold the camera over your
head and press the button anyway. Maybe you get a good shot, maybe you don't.
Give it a try.
- Even for outdoor pictures, it is still important to have a camera that
lets you adjust the exposure. Traditional point-and-shoot cameras take every
picture with average depth of field and average exposure. You really want
to go to the extremes: fastest exposure and minimal depth of field (to frame
the dancers, and blur the background), or extremely slow exposures with maximum
depth of field (which may require a tripod, letting you capture some motion
blur). If your camera doesn't have these adjustments, you lose. Without a
tripod, you can also use a flash, even outside. That can help with those longer
exposures, and it will also fill in the shadows.
- Take more than just dance action shots. Take standard group shots of people
smiling. Better yet, take advantage of dancer's natural goofiness. If you
tell people to pose in a certain way, they will, no matter how much it will
embarrass them later. Here are some examples from a costume party:
- Go look at art by "real" artists. Dancers have fascinated artists as far
back in time as you wish to look. From primitive cave paintings through Greek
vase painting to French impressionism, artists have recorded dance. Some of
these pictures can captivate you. Don't be afraid to experiment with your
- Make pretty web pages. Many people use automatic tools that generate HTML
to frame their images. If you write your own HTML (or perhaps use a fancy
tool like DreamWeaver), you can produce more attractive results, using text
and color around your images to better frame them and tell a story. As a general
rule, you want your web pages to load fast for people with slow network connections,
so you should have pages with "thumbnail" pictures (mine are something like
220x180 pixels). When you make the JPEG images for the thumbnails, you can
control how large the files are by lowering the JPEG image quality. The thumbnails
you see on this page are only 6-8 kbytes, each. Likewise, when somebody clicks
to see the larger image, you can control the quality of those JPEGs. I try
to keep my large JPEG images between 100 and 150 kbytes, which looks quite
good at 800x600 resolution. Lately, I've been using Photoshop's built-in web
page generator as a starting point, and then editing the results by hand with
DreamWeaver. It's not quite as beautiful as hand-made pages, but it's a lot
There are many books on this subject. Buy one and read the whole thing. Here are
The Kieran book doesn't cover all the newest features in Photoshop CS, but it's
just amazingly detailed in all the ways you can clean up color issues. You may
not need it all on day one, but it's a fantastic reference book. The Kelby book
(and lots of others like it) introduces some of the crazy new Photoshop CS features
and covers a wider array of techniques.
- Touch up
Many images have small "bugs" in them. If your picture came from film,
you will have dust spots and scratches. If your picture came from a digital
camera, you may still have "hot pixels" or perhaps just a distracting food
stain on a shirt. In Photoshop, the "clone tool" lets you trivially fix
these bugs. You do not need to make a picture be perfect, but fixing these
little bugs can remove distractions from the beauty of the photograph.
- Color adjustment
Even when you're shooting with a digital camera, the color recorded by
your camera is often less than perfect, especially when you're shooting
at night or indoors. Your camera tries to compensate for this, but it doesn't
always do a perfect job. In the old chemistry days, this would take you
hours of careful tweaking to fix, and you were limited in exactly what you
could and could not easily fix.
In Photoshop, you just just use Adjust Levels. Let's pretend you
had black & white pictures to keep it simple. Adjust Levels shows you
an image histogram and gives you three sliders. You get to say "absolute
black is here, absolute white is here, and 50% grey is here." By dragging
three sliders, you get to fix you contrast and brightness and gamma response,
all in a nice, intuitive fashion. It rocks. You can get even more detailed
by using Curves. To master those, you really need the Kieran book
as a reference to guide you.
Even better, when you shoot "raw" images, then you can use Photoshop's
amazing Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), introduced as part of Photoshop CS.
ACR is amazingly flexible. With a single click, you can point at somebody's
white shirt and say "make this be white". You can easily make
all the most common tweaks you might want to perform (fixing brightness
and contrast, sharpening the image, filtering out noise from your camera
sensor, and plenty more), all from one simple interface. Even better, you
can get one picture right, "apply" the settings to every other
picture you took at the same time, and then use a batch action to convert
them all to JPEG at once.
(Tip: you may want to get yourself a cheap "grey card" that you
can use for a reference photo. I have WhiBal
plastic card-set that does the job nicely.)
- Image size
My Canon G2's native size is 2048x1536 pixels. My Nikon D70's native size
is 3008x2000 pixels. I import these pictures, at full resolution, into Photoshop.
I do all my adjustments at the full resolution, then shrink to 800x600 only
at the last minute before publishing on the web. (Photoshop's "Web
Photo Gallery" does all of this for you, automatically.) Why the change
in resolution? Every time you modify an image, particularly by adjusting
contrast and brightness, you're throwing away a certain amount of information.
To see this, use "Adjust Levels", make a drastic change to an image's gamma
(moving the middle slider), select "OK", then use "Adjust Levels" again.
The first time, the histogram was probably smooth. This time, it has many
spikes and lots of blank stuff in between. Those holes are grey-levels that
your photo no longer has.
When you shrink the image after you're done adjusting it, you'll notice
the histogram is again smooth. This gives you the highest-possible quality
for your final web page. (In case you're curious, this same effect happens
with audio recording. This is why digital recording studios use higher resolution
when mixing than is available on the final compact disc.)
Some photographers make a habit of always showing you their entire
photographed image (in the analog world, they might even include the film
edges with the sprocket holes in the final print). But, nobody ever said
it was required. Often, you can improve a picture by cutting stuff
out. For this picture here, the sides had nothing particularly interesting
(some people standing around). By cropping them away, you can focus the
viewer on the subject of the photograph.
Another note on cropping: when you do this, your thumbnails will not necessarily
all be the same size any more, and laying them out on a Web page naively
will look unattractive. If you go look at this cropped photograph in
context, you'll see how I matched its width with the picture above it
in the same table layout. You should also consider that, for your thumbnails,
you could crop further, perhaps focusing only on the faces. This would let
you shrink the images less, preserving details like facial expressions.
Likewise, for strongly vertical pictures like this, you could work with
a page layout that doesn't require space for the tall, vertical element.
Thanks to Danil Suits, Paul Dandurand, and Marty Lyons for their help and
feedback on this document.
Dan Wallach, CS
Department, Rice University
Sun 03-Apr-2005 16:00