My main focus area in photography is dance; and at that mostly social dancing.

This usually means:

  1. spontaneous action, no way to stage anything or prepare beyond being "in the moment and very observant"
  2. low light and no flash allowed
  3. being unobtrusive to not disturb the dancers

And it also means:

  1. difficult choices when selecting how to take pictures, like, for example: motion blur (½ s) vs. as short exposures as possible (usually 1/60 or 1/90s)
  2. prime lenses with very wide aperture, but very shallow Depth of Field

And there's probably more.

What I am looking for is inspiration in the form of

  • photographers who also specialize in dance photography
  • articles that talk about these "extreme" conditions
  • groups/forums to exchange ideas or have pictures looked over by the like-minded
  • any "unusual" pieces of advice that might not be obvious or would be overlooked by someone without years of experience.
  • 1
    A quick comment - "very thin focus planes" is called shallow Depth of Field. Focus plane, by it "planar" nature, has no thickness. There is only one plane in space whose image is in max focus on the sensor/film.
    – ysap
    Jan 24 '11 at 17:31

I've done a bit of dance photography, albeit under stage lights. A 50 f/1.4 (or f/1.8) is a very good idea as light is very limited. Shoot wide open and don't be afraid to push your ISO as high as it goes! I don't find the shallow depth of field a problem really, if you're shooting full length it's enough to get a whole person in focus on a crop camera.

I shot most of the following at f/1.4 ISO1600 (highest I could go at the time) and shutter speeds between 1/125 and 1/500 depending on the lighting. I was in TV mode as I wanted the shallow depth of field for effect, and I was aiming for little motion blur. Motion blur can really add to the sensation of movement in a dance shot but it's very hit and miss! No flash was used:

You say "spontaneous action, no way to stage anything or prepare" however unless you're photographing some totally wacky freestyle routines the dancers are all moving to a rhythm that enables you to anticipate their movement and time your shots. The above photo was the slowest speed I used as the lighting was worst, at 1/125 you have to time your shots (and expect a lot of missed ones!)

If you're photographing at a reasonable distance you should be able to get people's whole body in focus (though you may not get more than one dancer in focus unless they are in a line).

This shot was under a spotlight, so I stopped down for extra sharpness (and still mananged to overexpose!)

  • 1
    Matt, those pictures are great! And thanks for the pointer about the music, which really is the best hint of finding the "right time". Most of my photography is argentine tango, and, being a dancer myself I find it very natural to anticipate the right timing. Jan 24 '11 at 18:52
  • @Matt did you get those images with a single click or in burst mode? and what mode did you use?
    – kacalapy
    Jan 24 '11 at 19:11
  • @kacalpy It was probably a mix, I would have had the camera in continuous high speed mode in case, but if you're timing shots it's easier to concentrating on taking a single shot, whereas if there's all sorts of stuff going on shooting a sequence is usually more effective.
    – Matt Grum
    Jan 24 '11 at 19:18
  • 2
    Nice examples. I just want to point out that photographing social dances is much more difficult and involved than photographing a dance presented on stage. Usually you cannot get below the level of the dancers; there is often no room to back off and capture a scene (because dancers can fill the hall); lighting can be terrible. A good choice is to get above the dancers, if only a little bit (such as a short ladder): this enables you to select individual dancers or groups and isolate them in a frame.
    – whuber
    Jan 24 '11 at 19:38
  • @Matt Grum - great shots!
    – ysap
    Jan 24 '11 at 19:38

Not strictly following your rules, but Richard Calmes produces stunning dance images. You can read an interview with him on the January 2008 PBase Magazine, and look at samples in the PBase website. This may give you some insight on his methods that can help you with ideas of grabbing your images. He is not a professional photog (at least wasn't at that time), but it doesn't stop him from taking these pro-grade images.

  • Calmes' images are amazing to me.
    – mmr
    Jan 24 '11 at 18:04
  • 1
    Great images, but those are all clearly done in the studio, with flashes to freeze the motion!
    – Matt Grum
    Jan 24 '11 at 18:43
  • @Matt Grum - that's almost right, if you look at his photo sets, you'll see that some are taken on locations other than studio. Anyway, the OP asked for inspiration from "photographers who also specialize in dance photography", so there it goes.
    – ysap
    Jan 24 '11 at 19:10
  • It's a great link, and very relevant, I just think it's worth mentioning that flash was used (to be honest I didn't look through the entire set so didn't see any non studio ones)
    – Matt Grum
    Jan 24 '11 at 19:13

Like ahockley mentioned, a camera with high ISO performance will be very helpful.

Also, go ahead and use a wide aperture. That will give you a lot more control of shutter speed, which is really the most important aspect for dance. A good dance photo needs the right amount of motion blur, otherwise it just looks odd...

With the wide aperture will probably come a very narrow DOF, but that is fine in most cases. Just make sure that the dancer's eyes are in focus, and the rest can be soft.

  • "the right amount" can be 0 as well. Take a look at the link I provided in my answer for some spectacular examples of totally frozen dance images.
    – ysap
    Jan 24 '11 at 17:40
  • 1
    I totally agree, but you have to keep in mind that there are a lot of situations where freezing the action would be the wrong move... so... "the right amount" is the only way to describe it. Shutter time is the key factor.
    – chills42
    Jan 24 '11 at 17:57
  • agreed. No argument on that.
    – ysap
    Jan 24 '11 at 18:12

While I'm not aware of anything specifically about dance photography, the situations you describe are not limited to dance photos but are also seen in any sort of live-event, low-light photography situation including concert and event photography.

Your best option is likely to be a camera with good high ISO performance which will allow for you to attempt a faster shutter speed without flash. You might end up needing to shoot at ISO 3200, 6400, or higher in order to freeze the motion using a fast lens. As you note, lenses with wide apertures will help but you'll need to be cognizant of the shallow depth of field.


My favorite photography happens to shoot dance photography from time to time. He is a master of the craft, and I recommend you check his site out.


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