A Guide to Photographing Dance Performances in a Theatre

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One of the biggest challenges as photographer is shooting inside a theatre, simply because the only thing that you can control is the camera. You may be faced with very dim lighting conditions, dancers moving around at great speed, different lighting settings during the show, no use of flash, and your movement in the theatre during the show may be limited.

I am writing this guide based on an assignment you have with the organizer, as photographer of the event. Some of the points might not be relevant or accessible for you if you are attending a performance as a member of the public.

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Preparation for the shoot

Know the ground

A protocol for all professional photographers is to understand the grounds and what to expect. This can be done through an early visit (if allowed), or a search online for other’s work in the same location, to understand the layout and surroundings.

Request to attend a rehearsal prior to the performance (usual this is done free of charge) if possible, but to me this is mandatory if the opportunity exist. This not only gives you a chance to enter the theatre but also to understand what is to be performed and its sequence. You can then be better prepared to know the photos you will wish to take, and at which location you’ll need to be so you’ll be ready for the shot. Take this opportunity to talk to the organizer on which seats you will be allocated or which seat you prefer. I will cover location of seat for shooting in the technique part later.

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Settings: f/2.8, 1/125th, ISO 1600

Choosing your seat (if you have a choice)

I am very particular in my location of shoot as it reflect the quality if work I will produce from the assignment.
Most theatres can accommodate hundreds, to thousands of spectators at various elevations. My personal recommendation is to locate yourself on the ground level, a few rows behind the front, right in the middle. Below are some explanations of some problem you may encounter at different locations.

Up in the balcony

Cons: Too far from the stage, shooting angle not directly perpendicular to the dancers.

First row seats

Cons: Too near to the stage.

Side Seat

Cons: shooting angle not directly perpendicular to the dancers, too many distractions in photos (sometimes you can see dancers at the side before entry to the stage.

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Ideal seat

On the ground level, a few rows behind the front, right in the middle is the ideal seat. Personally if I can only sit at one location throughout the show, I will prefer this seat as it provide me a comfortable direction to the stage and most of my shots will be facing the dancers.

Type of Equipment needed

With the above, you can know decide what equipment you need for the shoot.

Flash Gun

As most performances prohibit use of flash during show, you can omit having one on your camera during the performance but do still carry one with you (I use it for group photo at the end of the show). The use of LED light is good as well for after the show shots.

Camera

In such challenging conditions, a camera with capability to handle high ISO settings without producing too much noise is preferred. I usually have my Canon 5D Mark II, and also my Sony 7R for such assignments.

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Lenses

The most important piece of equipment you need after understanding the grounds and location is the right lens. A zoom lens is mandatory for me to enable me to reach out to the stage and get close-ups of the dancers. Lenses with large apertures are preferred in such low light conditions. I will touch on that more at the later section on why. I usually have my 70-200mm f/2.8 on my Canon, and the 16-35mm f/2.8 on my Sony 7R for wide-angle shooting.

Tripod/Monopod

This is a interesting topic as most theatres prohibit you from setting up a tripod, subject to organizer approval. If you are given a seat for shooting, a tripod will be difficult to manage with limited legroom space. I always use a monopod for such assignments in order to conserve energy.

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Camera settings: f/2.8, 1/30th, ISO 1000

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Camera settings: f/3.2, 1/500th, ISO 2500

Know your gear inside out

I am often on site photographing events and someone will come and ask for help as they can’t tune back to certain setting or something is not functioning correctly on their camera.

Shooting in a theatre is like sports photography. If you missed a moment it will be gone, and you will not have a second chance. Always be ready, and anticipate what is coming up. Study your camera inside out for all the functions that you wish to use and manipulate during the shoot. Know all the commonly used functions like setting ISO, aperture, shutter speed, etc. I usually use AV (Aperture priority) and control the ISO if I need more shutter speed.
On ISO, every camera has its own capability to handle ISO and minimize noise. Know the limit of your camera, like my 5D MarkII, I will not push it to more than 5000 ISO.

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Camera settings: f/2.8, 1/200th, ISO 800

Techniques to adopt

Basic technique for shooting such scenes is to select the right ISO for the shot with the right shutter speed, depending on the movement speed of the dancer. Things moves very fast in a performance and you have to make your camera adapt to what is happening on the stage, so you capture what you need.

A common trick I use something is to pre-focus on an stationary object on the stage prior to the dancers coming into position. This only works if you attend the rehearsal and know the staging of the show.

Lastly always shoot RAW for such events so that back at your desk the white balance can still be adjusted. Color balance can be off due to some lighting differences during the show.

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Camera settings: f/4, 1/250th, ISO 1600

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Camera settings: f/2.8, 1/320th, ISO 1600

Photos taken during Enana Production and Academy performances.

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Ray Toh

is a Singaporean freelance commercial photographer, specializing in sports and performance photography for more than 10 years. His style consists of colorful and energetic imagery, and he believes that great creativity is the result of team effort and values working closely with his subjects and clients. Based in Qatar he is ready to create outstanding visuals. He has worked with many publications in the Middle East, major companies, and noticeable airliners on events and marketing tools.

  • Richard Taylor

    From personal experience shooting an opera production.
    #1 Know your subject – attend reheasals so you know what is likely to happen.

    #2 Dress reheasal are great as you may have no restriction on your shooting position, you can move around freely and no audience. The only downside is that the lighting director may be fine tuning the lighting.

    #3 Take back up gear, just in case. I have at least two bodies and multiple fast (f2 at least) primes.

  • Fran

    Thanks so much. I take photos of my nieces dance recital every year and sometimes they turn out and sometimes they’re just really dark. I’ve bookmarked this page. I’ll need it next month!

  • Elisabetta

    remember that the performers are generally well lit, and the background can stay dark: il is better using manual mode. The focus should be Ai servo when you’v taken your subject. And for times: dancing has moments of forzing the movement: you should know then and pressing.. a bit earlier! so you coul take times up to 1/30.. I’va made a lot of photos at dance recitals of my school

  • Robert Cherny

    Colleagues, One concept that the article failed to mention is timing. In dance timing is everything. For example a shot at the end of a movement is more likely to be sharp than a shot in the middle of one. If you have the opportunity to watch a rehearsal or if your child can walk through the dance for you at home, think about where those moments will happen so you can anticipate them and bring home the most miraculous shot of the evening, the one your dancer will cherish for years to come.

  • Ian Manning

    Another tool that I find invaluable at the rehearsals is a small 3 or 4 step, stepladder. You can place it in the gap between the front row of seats and the stage (which is usually larger than any other row) You can now stand at eye level with the dancers but as you are not actually on the stage you do not interfere with the performance. An added bonus of this is that as you are now so visible to the performers you tend to get a lot more eye contact.
    A common problem with dance shows is the use of a single colour lighting to add drama to a particular dance and not even raw can cope with this. If you are able to chat with the lighting director you may be able to request that they do not saturate the stage with a single colour during one rehearsal. Simply leaving the white lights on over the stage and now turning the single colour (often Red) up to full power will not affect the dancers but will allow you to get your shots. I often attend multiple rehearsals so that I can identify those impossible lighting times, then take an example photo with me to the next rehearsal so that I can work with the lighting director and my client to get what we need.

  • Sayuri Yamamoto

    I loved taking this Picture… and many others!

  • stina3246

    Great info thank you. Attending the rehearsals is one of the best pieces of advise. I have done photos for several dance troops and I always go to the last rehearsal. If they are doing a dress rehearsal you can often get the best shots then! Normally no one minds if you move around, you often have the seats to yourself and can even use a flash if needed. During some dress rehearsals they have even let me on stage to get great angles. Then during the actual show I can concentrate on getting the shots with what ever lighting they are using and I already have a good idea of where to train my camera in order to catch the leap or spin. Works out great.

  • Denise Edmondson

    What are you talking about? Lens that at f2?

  • Denise Edmondson

    If you had a dancer in a leap & and a little dark, what would your camera settings be on when your using manual mode? F stop, shutter speed, iso.

  • Richard Taylor

    Yes, with older bodies.
    With new bodies that are ok at ISO 6400 or higher f2.8 lenses used wide open may be OK (nowdays I am using a pair of bodies, one a 24-80 (equivalent in 35mm terns) f2.8 zoom and an 80-300 (equivalent in 35mm terns) f2.8 and shooting at very high ISO (6400+) values.

  • Ian Manning

    It’s always going to be a compromise but there are a few tricks.

    First it will depend on whether you have control over the dancers and lighting.

    if you do then you will want a shutter speed of 1/500 or 1/1000, you can choose the aperture to give your depth of field as it will depend on which way the dancer is moving relative to the camera. Across the lens you can get away with a wide aperture and shallow depth of field. Towards or away from the lens and you will need a larger depth of field and so a smaller aperture. Then adjust your lighting to suit and keep your iso low.

    If you don’t have control over the Dancer or lighting which is the normal situation things get more complicated. Speed and low light are the problem and don’t go well together. 1/500 should be good for stopping the motion, you will probably have to use your lens on its maximum aperture to get enough light then let your camera sort out the ISO. Yes that’s what I said let the camera sort out the ISO, unfortunately if you don’t have the luxury of getting the dancers to do it multiple times and the lighting is changing form moment to moment guessing at your ISO just doesn’t work most of the time. If you need a bit more depth of field then drop the speed to 1/250 and close the aperture one stop you may get some blur at the extremities, fingers and feet but with dancers this can look ok as it shows the movement. I have got away with 1/125 before because the dancers aren’t actually moving very fast in the middle of the leap, they often keep their arms and legs in one position.

    Shoot raw so that you can play with a shot that is a little too dark. Normally the histogram looks horrible at a dance show (compared to what most are expecting) so if you get the chance review the good shots you get to see what the histogram looks like and that way you will be better next time.

    Go to the rehearsals if you can.

    Good luck

    Ian

  • Nice article. I almost did most of the points except attending the rehearsal as I couldn’t do last time. I managed with my APS-C in a show. You can visit my photos at instagram.com/gbarani

  • Ray Toh

    Great work keep it up.

    Stage Performances (low light) shooting are huge challenges for many photographers (even those tutor level photographers) as anticipation and observation is very important apart from controlling your camera and many failed.

    Still remember in most shooting I have to control 5 devices in one performance (2 camera s on my shoulder, one behind the back curtain (with just the lense exposed) via iphone and 2 Gopro….

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