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How to Photograph Dance Performances: A Practical Guide

How to photograph dance performances

Photographing dance performances is nothing short of thrilling. The dynamic movements, intricate choreography, and vibrant energy result in mesmerizing moments that are practically begging to be captured on camera.

However, shooting inside a theater presents unique obstacles. You may face dim lighting conditions, fast-moving dancers, varying lighting, restrictions on flash usage, and limitations on your ability to reposition yourself during the show.

In this practical guide, I will share essential tips and techniques to help you navigate these challenges and enhance your dance photography skills. Whether you’re a professional on assignment or an enthusiast eager to capture stunning images, the advice I share should go a long way toward turning you into a dance photography master!

Start with preparation

If you want to capture outstanding photos of dance performances, you absolutely do not want to show up a few minutes before the official start time with no idea of the venue, the seating, or the lighting. It’s essential that you prepare for each new dance photoshoot far in advance. Here’s what I recommend:

How to photograph dancer performances

Know the ground

To complete a successful dance performance photoshoot, you should start by understanding the venue and what to expect. The best way to do this is with an early visit (if allowed); simply call up the organizers and ask if you can do a walkthrough in the days or weeks prior to the performance. During this scouting trip, make sure to pay attention to the layout of the theater (more on that later!) and think about potential shooting vantage points.

If an early visit isn’t permitted, try searching online for others’ work at the same location to understand the layout and surroundings.

How to photograph dancer performances

I’d also encourage you to attend a rehearsal prior to the performance. You’ll need to ask for permission, but this is usually free of charge, and if the opportunity exists, I consider it mandatory. This not only allows you to get a better feel for the theater but also to understand what will be performed and its sequence. It’ll also let you consider the lighting as it’ll be during the actual performance.

You can then be better prepared to know which photos you want to take, how the lighting will affect your settings, and where you need to be to get the shot. Take this opportunity to discuss with the organizer which seats you will be allocated or which seat you prefer.

How to photograph dancer performances
f/2.8 | 1/125s | ISO 1600

Speaking of which:

Choose your seat, if possible

Not every venue will allow you to choose a seat, even if you’re working as a professional. However, if you can pick your seat, you absolutely should. I’m very particular about my shooting location as it reflects the quality of work I will produce from the assignment.

Most theaters 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. Why? Here are explanations of problems you may encounter at other locations:

  • If you shoot from the balcony, you’ll be too far from the stage, and your shooting angle won’t be directly perpendicular to the dancers.
  • If you shoot from a front-row seat, you’ll be too close to the stage, and you’ll struggle to capture the wider scene.
  • If you shoot from a side seat, you won’t be shooting from an angle directly perpendicular to the dancers. You’ll also end up with a lot of distractions in your photos (e.g., you can sometimes see dancers at the side before they enter the stage).

To reiterate, the ideal seat is on the ground level, a few rows behind the front, right in the middle. Personally, if I can only sit in one location throughout the show, I prefer this seat as it provides a comfortable view of the stage, and most of my shots will be facing the dancers.

How to photograph dancer performances

Choose your dance photography equipment

Once you understand how to prepare, you’ll need to consider which gear to take to the performance. I won’t give you too much advice here – you can get good shots with a wide variety of equipment, and I also don’t think you should go out and spend thousands of dollars to put together a “perfect” gear bag – but I do have a few thoughts based on my own experiences.

Go with a zoom (or two)

In my view, the lens you use for your dance photoshoot is the most important piece of equipment, and it’s the one that you really want to get right.

I love zoom lenses, and I highly recommend you use them instead of primes. Zooms give you flexibility, and they allow you to capture a mixture of shots without changing your position. A long zoom, for instance, is essential for me to reach the stage and capture various close-ups of the dancers during the performance. You’ll also want a wider zoom on hand so you can capture the wider scenes showing all the performers at once; a wider zoom will also ensure you can show the dancers within the context of the theater.

Given the low-light conditions you’ll be dealing with, you should ideally work with zooms that offer wide maximum apertures. You’ll also want to ensure that they focus reasonably well, as dancers can move quickly and you want to make sure you nail focus on the action.

I use two lenses for the bulk of my shooting, each mounted to a different camera: my 70-200mm f/2.8 for close-ups and my 16-35mm f/2.8 for wide-angle shooting.

Carry a flash, but don’t use it during the performance

As most performances prohibit the use of flash during the show, avoid having one on your camera during the performance.

However, I still like to carry a flash in my gear bag (I use it for group photos at the end of the show).

Use a camera with solid low-light performance

IMG 6849IMG 4669 1

Theaters are dark, so to maintain a reasonably fast shutter speed, you’ll need to boost the ISO substantially. (Look at the images displayed throughout this article, and you’ll see that they’re often shot at ISO 1600 and beyond.)

Therefore, a camera capable of handling high ISO settings without producing too much noise is preferred. I usually use my full-frame Canon and Sony cameras for such assignments. In general, full-frame cameras outperform APS-C (and Four-Thirds) models when it comes to high-ISO performance, but it’s worth recognizing that the latest mirrorless cameras do a solid job in low light, regardless of their sensor size.

One more tip when it comes to choosing a camera for performances in theaters: Some cameras struggle to focus in low-light conditions, so you’ll want to make sure that your camera is up to the task. This is also affected by the lenses you use (see above), but a great lens won’t make up for a camera that hunts like crazy in low light. Just something to keep in mind as you pick your camera.

If possible, use a monopod

This is a question a lot of beginner dance photographers have: Should you shoot with a tripod? A monopod? Handheld?

How to photograph dancer performances
f/2.8 | 1/30s | ISO 1000

Unfortunately, most theaters prohibit you from setting up a tripod without organizer approval. And even if you ask, you may not be given permission. Honestly, if you are assigned a seat for shooting, a tripod will be difficult to manage with limited legroom space. However, I do like using a monopod; it offers less support, but it’ll still help you prevent camera shake, it’ll help you conserve energy, and it won’t take up a whole lot of space. Just be sure to clear it with the venue first!

IMG 4454 1
f/3.2 | 1/500s | ISO 2500

Advice for shooting the dance performance

At this point, you should be prepared for a successful shoot through scouting, and you should have a good idea of the gear to bring. But what about the performance itself? How do you capture the best images?

Know your gear

I am often on site photographing events when someone will ask for help because they can’t adjust their settings or something isn’t functioning correctly on their camera.

Shooting in a theater is like sports photography. If you miss a moment, it will be gone, and you won’t have a second chance. Always be ready and anticipate what is coming up. Study your camera inside out for all the functions 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 boost the ISO if I need more shutter speed.

Every camera is different when it comes to handling high-ISO settings. Know the limit of your camera; for example, with my older full-frame DSLR, I don’t like to push it beyond ISO 5000.

IMG 4470 1
f/2.8 | 1/200s | ISO 800

A few more tips

The basic technique for shooting action scenes is to select the right ISO for the shot with the appropriate shutter speed depending on the speed of the dancers’ movements. Things move 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.

IMG 4908
f/4 | 1/250s | ISO 1600

A common trick I sometimes use is to pre-focus on a stationary object on the stage before the dancers come into position. However, this only works if you attend the rehearsal and know the staging of the show!

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

IMG 4594 1
f/2.8 | 1/320s | ISO 1600

Capture some amazing dance photos!

Photographing dance performances in a theater setting is undoubtedly challenging, but with the right preparation and equipment, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Understanding the venue, choosing the optimal seat, knowing your gear inside out, and adopting the right techniques will significantly enhance the quality of your photos.

How to Photograph Dance Performances: A Practical Guide

Remember, capturing the grace and emotion of dance requires patience, anticipation, and a keen eye for detail. By following these guidelines, you’ll be well on your way to creating stunning images that’ll make you – and your clients! – very pleased.

Now over to you:

Which tips were your favorite? Do you have any advice that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Ray Toh
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.

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