I started dancing when I was about three. I will always love it and wish I still had the flexibility and endurance of my sixteen-year-old self. It’s probably something I will never get back, and sadly, all my photos from my golden dancing days are a blurry mess! With the affordable cameras available today and a few great tips, you can learn how to photograph a dancer and better preserve the next generations’ talent for years to come.
How to Capture a Dancer in Motion
1) Learn to count.
If you’re not a dancer, you’ve probably never started a sentence with “5, 6, 7, 8”. Well, most dance music has 8 beats per measure, so counting 1-8 will really help you get in sync with the music and movement. If possible, talk it over before you start taking photos. Work out the counts – such as “I’ll count 1, 2, you bend on 3, jump on 4”. Or have the dancer count for herself – have her tell you on what number she’ll be in the air and be ready to snap away.
And remember – when you’re shooting from the bleachers and can’t talk with the dancers – counting is your best friend!
2) Use a fast shutter speed.
Shutter speed is the most important setting on your camera when it comes to photographing something as quick as a dancer. Nothing should be blurred – especially their feet. I love when I can see every strand of hair moving. If lighting is an issue – shoot in the middle of the day. NEVER let your shutter speed get below 1/600. I try to keep mine above 1/2000.
You can see that in the photo below that 1/50 second is simply too slow to effectively capture the movement of the hands, feet and hair.
By dialing up the shutter speed, you achieve a much sharper photo.
3) Increase your ISO indoors.
Taking pictures in a high school gym is one of my least favorite things to do. Those lights! They are my worst nightmare. However, when you’re shooting a recital or competition, you don’t have the luxury of deciding the light source. So get on board with the fact that, in order to keep your shutter speed high, you’ll have to bump up your ISO and deal with the grain. I never use a flash – even in unflattering fluorescent lighting. I generally try to keep my ISO under 400, but anything under 1200 in a gym is fabulous. If the grain is too much for my taste, I convert the photo to black and white.
4) Be prepared, but don’t over direct.
It’s always a good idea to come prepared with ideas for your dancers, but some of the best shots come when you let them to their own thing. Dance is an emotional outlet – so let them do what feels right, and don’t take your eye off of them! I have a pinboard with dance poses for a back up in case my mind blanks and my dancer runs out of ideas. Blast music from your car and see what happens.
5) It’s not all about movement.
Not all dance photos have to be of jumps or turns. Be sure to capture some detail shots and stills as well. These quiet images help to tell your dancer’s story.
So remember: count along with the dance, use a fast shutter speed, and increase your ISO when necessary to capture the dancer’s motion. And don’t forget to shoot the details, too. With these tips, you can take beautiful photos of your favorite dancer.
Hayley Bradshaw is a portrait and sports photographer in Southern Utah who lives for the moments in life that only come around once. Follow her blog to view more beautiful photos.