Whether photographing your kids putting on a little dance show in the yard, a senior dance photoshoot on location or professional dance photography in the studio, the principles of dance photography are the same. I’ve packed this article with tips on how to photograph dancers, as well as camera settings.
Because dance is all about capturing movement, dance photography is action photography. So camera settings need to be geared towards capturing and freezing motion. Or go completely the other way and allow the motion to blur, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Here’s a basic shutter speed guide for sharp photos with movement:
- 1/60 – motionless subject
- 1/125 – subject with slight movement
- 1/250 – subject moving at walking pace
- 1/500 – subject running
- 1/1,000 – subject leaping or jumping
Now let’s have a more detailed look at camera settings for pictures of dancers.
Freezing motion in dance portraits
Not all dance photos are of a ballet dancer leaping through the air. Experienced dancers can hold some really interesting poses, and this applies to all types of dance, not just ballet dancers.
So you don’t always need a fast shutter speed, but the less you fiddle with your camera settings the more you can focus on the dancer and what they’re doing. For this reason, I start with a fast shutter speed, wide open aperture and low ISO.
If you need to adjust camera settings, because of low light, fine, but if the light is good enough for a fast shutter speed, then I’d go with that, even if the dancer is holding a pose and not in motion. This of course is if you use natural light only.
Photographing dancers with flash allows you to shoot in a dance studio, photographic studio or outdoors. The camera settings for off camera flash dance photography will be different from when using just natural light. We’ll get to this in a moment.
Natural light camera settings for freezing dance movement
Fast shutter speed
Set shutter speed to at least 1/1000 to freeze a dancer’s movements with natural light. When a dancer leaps in the air, the area to watch out for is their hands and feet as these will move faster than the rest of their bodies.
If you notice that either the hands or feet are slightly blurred, increase your shutter speed to about 1/1200 to freeze the motion.
A wide open aperture works well for dance photography for two reasons:
- Enables setting a faster shutter speed
- Blurs the background, which makes the subject stand out from the background (known as isolation in photography composition)
Higher range cameras are capable of producing noise free images at very high ISOs, but it’s still a good idea to keep the ISO as low as possible to achieve a high quality image with good contrast. That said, if with a large aperture you still don’t have enough light for the shutter speed you want to use, then by all means increase the ISO to get a sharp photo with frozen movement.
Further reading: How to avoid and reduce image noise in photography
As I have a Nikon, my ISO starting point for all shoots is 200. Canon and Sony users should start at ISO 100.
Camera settings for motion blur in dance pictures
Medium to slow shutter speed
If you’re going to capture blurred movement it’s a good idea to make it obvious that that’s the look you’re going for. There’s no point getting a sort of blurred photo. Slow down your shutter enough to record the motion trail of the dancer.
How slow is slow enough for a long exposure?
If the dancer is moving fast, leaping and covering a lot of ground, you’ll want to show the full dance movement as a trailing blur behind the dancer. This will take some experimentation, because some dance movements are faster than others. A good starting point is 1/80th and then increase the exposure time until you have the look you want.
Pro tip – to ensure that you capture only subject movement and not wobbly camera shake as well, mount your camera on a tripod for long exposure photos.
Because your shutter speed is so much slower, you’ll find yourself in a more difficult position when it comes to setting aperture for blurry dance photos. You’ll be torn between wanting a wide aperture (of F2.8 or wider) to create a blurry background, but needing a narrow aperture (of F4 or narrower) to allow for a slow shutter speed.
The alternative is to fit a neutral density filter to the lens. This will allow you to open the aperture wider for shallow depth of field while keeping a slow shutter speed.
Another solution is to ensure that the dancer is far from the background, which will give you a blurrier background than if they were close to it.
You can also use a longer focal length lens to help diminish depth of field.
As always, keep that ISO as low as possible and to give you more wiggle room with your other exposure settings, turn your ISO right down.
Camera settings for freezing dance movement with flash
It’s a common misconception to think that adding flash will freeze movement. There are 2 factors that influence freezing motion with flash:
- Ambient light
- Flash duration
But before we go there… High speed sync is not the solution to movement blur. To freeze motion you need a shorter light burst, but high speed sync is like using continuous lighting.
A short flash duration and no ambient light is how you freeze fast motion with flash.
To avoid high speed sync your shutter speed needs to be below your camera’s maximum flash sync speed. On my Nikons that’s 1/250. Your camera may be different – Canon can be as low as 1/100 and Sony 1/160. So check your manual if you’re not sure of your camera’s flash sync speed.
Further reading: Getting started with off camera flash
If the ambient light is bright enough to be visible in the photo, the dancer’s movement could be blurred. I say could, because the speed of the movement will have an influence. The faster the movement, the more careful you need to be about excluding ambient light from the shot.
Reduce visible ambient light with a fast shutter speed and narrow aperture.
Not all flashes are the same, so there isn’t a one size fits all to this. Two factors affect flash duration:
- The power of your strobe. More powerful strobes can produce more light in less time.
- Whether your strobe is on full power or lower. The harder your strobe has to work, the longer the flash duration will be… and you want a shorter light burst.
For example, my Profoto B1X is twice as powerful as my Profoto B10X, so has a faster flash duration, even at full power, so I can demand more of it.
So here’s the problem…
When you set a faster shutter speed to cut out ambient light, you might need to up the power of your flash, which then means a longer flash duration.
In the studio – it’s easier to block out ambient light with a shutter speed below high speed sync, without needing to turn up the power on your strobes.
Focus settings for dance photography
As with any kind of photography involving a moving subject, I highly recommend using back button focusing to separate the shutter button from your camera’s focusing facility.
Use autofocus and set your:
- Focus mode to continuous (AI Servo for Canon and AF-C for Nikon) – so that your camera tracks and focuses continuously on the subject
- Drive mode to continuous high – so that you can shoot off a fast burst of frames to ensure you capture the peak of the movement.
Further reading: Back button focus technique – how to use it and why it’s your BFF
If you have a mirrorless camera, it’ll be much easier for you to photograph dance movement than with a DSLR camera as most mirrorless cameras have auto eye focusing.
7 dance photography tips for creative dance portraits
Now let’s look at how to maximise the variety and creativity of a dance portraits. (This is aimed at more experienced dancers, rather than photographing your child’s dance recital or backyard concert.)
1. Best mode to use for dancers
If you’re not comfortable using manual mode, the next best option is to switch to shutter priority mode so that you can decide on the shutter speed and allow the camera to set aperture.
2. Time your shot
When photographing a dancer in motion try to capture the movement at its peak for two reasons:
- This is when the movement looks its best
- At this point the dancer is slightly stiller in motion than on the rise to the peak or afterwards, so limbs are more likely to be sharp
Even in continuous shooting mode, plan to capture the peak of the motion only and not the entire movement from start to finish. This will prevent shooting too many frames, filling up your memory card too quickly and running your battery down unnecessarily.
3. Pan as the dancer moves
Panning is moving the camera with the subject at the same speed.
If the dancer is moving across the fame (left to right, preferably) focus on them at the start of the movement and pan with them as they move. Push and hold down the shutter button as they’re about to reach the peak of the movement.
This is why it’s particularly helpful to use back button focus to focus. As the dancer is on the same focal plane throughout, they’ll be in focus.
4. Camera angles
As with any portrait session, you can easily add variety to a series of images by changing your position. Avoid photographing just from a standing position.
For example, get down low on the ground and photograph upwards when a dancer is leaping to exaggerate the feeling of height in an image and create a more dynamic dance picture.
Further reading: 4 of the best photography viewpoints for impressive composition
5. Capturing dance photography poses
The beauty and fun of photographing dancers is that they’re very in tune with their bodies, so are very aware of facial expressions, hand position, feet position, head position and how they’re holding themselves. They’re also able to hold poses very well to create some amazing, eye-catching shapes.
They’re athletes, but they’re not robots, so you do need to work fast to get the best photos while their energy levels are still high.
Don’t get stuck overshooting a pose. We all want the perfect shot, but if you speed too long focusing on just one pose, you’ll exhaust the dancer before you have a chance to get the variety you want from the photoshoot.
Photograph a series of movements or poses and move on.
It helps to discuss the types of photos you both want ahead of the shoot so that you both know what you need to work through during the session. This also helps to keep a dance shoot moving without getting stuck and the dancer can pace themselves.
It’s also really important to let the dancer see the photos during the shoot. They’ll know better than you what to look for in their dance poses and if they see that something wasn’t right about their pose, they’ll want to have another go for a better photo.
6. Color schemes
For a dynamic complementary color scheme or alternatively, a harmonious analogous color scheme, plan your dance photoshoot location in conjunction with the outfits and colors the dancer will wear. This way you can create much more dynamic or harmonious images to suit the dance moves.
7. Use material for dance photography
Adding floaty material to a dance photoshoot really helps to convey movement in photos and makes them much more interesting. I always take my bag of floaty fabrics when photographing dancers. The good thing about floaty fabrics is that they’re very light, so easy to carry.
Pro tip – don’t fold the fabrics as you’ll have creases, which are a real pain to Photoshop out afterwards. I dislike digital ironing as much as I dislike real life ironing! Instead, it’s a good idea to just roll the fabrics up roughly. The creases will be less severe and more haphazard, so not distracting like deep straight lines.
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