8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers

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Dancers inspire with their grace, poise, and physical strength. Explore how these eight pro photographers capture the dynamic beauty of dance and bring the dancer to life in their images.

A brief look through history will tell you that photographers and dancers make great teams. Gordon Anthony worked alongside his sister, Ninette de Valois, from the time she first learned ballet. In the 1940s, at around the same time as Anthony rose through the ranks of the British ballet, Gjon Mili captured the grace of Alicia Alonso in multiple exposures. Barbara Morgan collaborated with Martha Graham for years throughout the 1930s and early 1940s and helped shape the course of modern dance forever.

Cameras have evolved leaps and bounds in the last seventy-five years, and still, dancers continue to be some of photography’s greatest muses. We interviewed eight pro photographers to gain insight into the art of capturing motion. Read on for their best tips for iconic photographs of dancers working across ballet, hip-hop, modern dance, and more.

1. “Be mindful of your shutter speed when shooting with natural light.”

Claire McAdams

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Be Mindful of Shutter Speeds

Image by Claire McAdams. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 50mm 1.2L lens. Settings: Exposure 1/160 sec; f7.1; ISO 160.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I was lucky enough to be put in contact with a member of the cast of the National Broadway Tour of The Lion King when the tour passed through Houston. I discovered he was in town only the day before we shot this, so we had to throw ideas together quickly! We decided to shoot in an empty parking lot where we had access to a hose to create fake rain and plenty of space to go overboard with a fog machine. The shoot was fast, messy, and incredibly fun.

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Accentuate Movement

Image by Claire McAdams.

Pro Tip

Photographing dancers for the first time can be overwhelming, but there are some basic technical tips you can lean on as well as broader studies you can delve into to make sure your images look dynamic and professional.

Be mindful of your shutter speed when shooting with natural light. Either freeze the motion with a shutter speed of 1/500s or faster, or be very deliberate with your use of blur to create interesting shapes and textures. In the studio, it’s easy to forget that many strobes have a flash length that is slow enough to cause unwanted blurring in dance shots. I use Einstein lights on action mode to freeze motion, and I love them. They do a fantastic job.

You can take your dance photography to the next level by adding elements that accentuate a dancer’s movement and motion. Fabric, water, powder, paint, fog, and other elements that react in a fluid way when thrown, dragged, or waved add texture and dynamic interest to movement and are endlessly exciting for experimentation.

This overarching advice may sound obvious, but it’s critical to be deeply interested in dance and at least study some of the basics of what proper form looks like. Being familiar with various styles of dancing will help you give direction to models and create a collaborative spirit on set. This leads to interesting posing and experimentation. Your interest in dance and familiarity with the art form as a whole will help you connect with your models.

Another useful strategy is tethering your camera so the dancers can review and adjust their form. You can even have a dance teacher or other professionals on set to help with direction.

2. “Dance photography is pretty similar to sports photography.”

Nick Starichenko

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Think About the Location's Needs

Image by Nick Starichenko. Gear: Nikon D800 camera, Nikkor 24-70 lens. Settings: Focal length 35mm; exposure 1/640 sec; f5.6; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This photo of the Russian dancer Ksenia Karelina was taken during a trip she took to NYC for a few days. We did this shoot on the Brooklyn Bridge in the early morning—around 6:00 AM on a Saturday. We selected that time not just because of the good lighting but mostly because that’s the only time when you can avoid huge crowds of tourists and bicycle traffic on the bridge.

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Engage the Dancers BTS

Image by Nick Starichenko.

Pro Tip

Nowadays, more and more dancers are trying to be more engaged with people behind the scenes through platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Most of them are looking for new content, so they are interested in collaboration. In my experience, these dancers have good acting skills, and you can expect to shoot some real art with them.

Dance photography is pretty similar to sports photography. You have to be fast, and your camera and lenses should also be fast because you’ll want to shoot dynamic scenes that may require additional light with high-speed synchronization. In general, dance photography requires more expensive equipment and a bigger setup.

3. “Create a theme with clothing or even just a piece of flowing cloth to create the illusion of movement.”

Paul Aiken

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Draw Attention to the Dancer's Movement

Image by Paul Aiken. Gear: Nikon D810 camera, Nikon 70-200 lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/800 sec; f8; ISO 125.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I met this amazing African dancer, Gbemi Giwa (@gbemigiwa), on Instagram, which is one of the best social media sites for sourcing talent. I simply asked her if she was interested in having me capture a few shots, and she readily agreed after seeing my portfolio. We had a great three-hour session. Here, I am focusing on theme and expression.

Pro Tip

Form a comfortable relationship with the dancer, and have a big enough shooting area for them to express their movements freely. Try to spread the dancer across the composition (e.g. legs and/or arms should be extended for maximum drama). Don’t overwork the dancer, but if you see a great move, ask for a repeat—keep pushing for that outstanding shot.

Overshoot with lower power on your strobes to ensure faster recycling time to capture a flow of shots. Make sure to shoot with your camera on Continuous Focus Mode with short rapid bursts of shots. Create a theme with clothing or even just a piece of flowing cloth to create the illusion of movement. Create great edge or side lighting, and shoot for different levels: low, high, straight on, overhead on a ladder, etc. Get some facial expressions to finish the shot.

4. “When working with dancers, I try to create the most comfortable environment for them.”

doodko (Aleksandr Doodko)

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Establish a Comfortable Environment

Image by doodko (Aleksandr Doodko). Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF85mm f/1.8 USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f6.3; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I have always been fascinated by dancers, especially ballet dancers—their incredible grace and strength, flexibility and elegance, temperament and passion. There is always a lot of work behind their smiles and outfits. They are perfectly fluent in body language and are able to convey a huge range of feelings and emotions using movements.

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Take Duplicate Shots

Image by doodko (Aleksandr Doodko). Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF85mm f/1.8 USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/160 sec; f9; ISO 100.

Pro Tip

When working with dancers, I try to create the most comfortable environment for them. Usually, it’s enough to turn on your favorite music and just let them show themselves. But in order to get really interesting images, you have to do many duplicate shots, all while choosing the optimal lighting and angle.

Dynamic images allow you to visually violate the laws of gravity. As for lighting, I prefer a hard backlight, which perfectly emphasizes all the texture, tense muscles, and highlights so the picture looks voluminous.

Start shooting with simple static shots and gradually complicate the scene. Watch the dancer’s movements. Pay attention to the composition and geometry of the shot. Discuss the result with the dancers; they can find technical errors that you might miss. Don’t be afraid to experiment. After all, photography is first and foremost about creativity and inspiration.

5. “You must have knowledge of the construction of the body, the lines, and the poses.”

vitdance (Vitaly Mytnik)

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Understand How Dance Works

Image by vitdance (Vitaly Mytnik). Gear: Canon 80D camera, Canon 24-105L f4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f8-11; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This is Galina from Belarus, an ex-soloist from the Opera and Ballet Theater in Minsk. I took this series of photos in the city of Shenzhen in China. For her, we prepared a red leotard and red chiffon (the length of the fabric is slightly more than five meters). The idea was to show the lightness of the ballerina, in a way that was evocative of the ballet La Sylphide.

Pro Tip

It is necessary for dance photographers to understand the anatomy and physiology of a dancer. If you want to shoot ballet photography, attend a lesson at a ballet school. You must have knowledge of the construction of the body, the lines, and the poses.

I like to use two lighting setups. The first includes a large softbox (or an umbrella with a white coating of 180sm) for wide movements, a beauty dish with a grid for narrow movement from above, and two strips on each side at the back for backlight. The second is about the same, but I remove the light from above. If you can find a big white flag to use as a reflector, your photos will be more expressive.

You can find your first models in dance studios. There are many ways to approach this. You can go to a theater and present a bouquet of flowers to an artist you want to photograph (having previously put a note with a proposal and contact info in the bouquet, of course), or you can communicate with the organizers of a ballet tour or the administration of local theaters.

One of the important rules when shooting dancers is similar to the rule about shooting nude portraits: do not approach the model closer than a meter during the shooting process, and do not touch the model. If you can, it’s better to call in an assistant of the same sex as the model.

I like to use fabric or flour to enhance the dynamics in the frame. For this, you will need at least one assistant. The fabric should be light and flowy. I like the way chiffon behaves most of all.

6. “Make sure your shoots are high-energy and not boring.”

chaoss (Stanislav Perov)

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Pursue High-Energy Shots

Image by chaoss (Stanislav Perov). Gear: Sony A7r II camera, Sigma Art 35mm F1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f4.5; ISO 50.

What’s the story behind this photo?

To me, this photo shows the passion and energy of dance photography: a dark stage with lots of flashes, falling drops of water, and smoke that looks like fire and explosions in the background. The dancer stands like a champion. There’s no light in the front, resulting in a high-contrast silhouette that appears to be dancing in the dark.

This photo is not complicated, except that there are a lot of flashes in the background, and there was no complicated post-production—the main part was the color correction of the RAW file. I like this image because it freezes the action of a high-energy dancer on stage with lots of cool effects.

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Consider Your Equipment's Capabilities

Image by chaoss (Stanislav Perov).

Pro Tip

As with many other things, you need to have passion for your work in order to create good dance photographs. For me, this passion started decades ago. Be passionate about every shoot, and create a positive, active, and energetic atmosphere. Good music is a big part of this. Make sure your shoots are high-energy and not boring.

To make outstanding dance images, you should have perfect equipment, including flash units that can freeze quick movements and high-megapixel cameras capable of capturing every detail, every hair, and every drop of water. Not everyone has access to very expensive equipment, and this doesn’t mean the door to dance photography is closed to you, but you should understand and be able to navigate the weaknesses of your specific equipment.

For example, I like to use a lot of portable flashes. If you are shooting in dark conditions like inside a studio or at night, they will have enough power to light one person, maybe a small group of people. Don’t use them at max power when trying to freeze motion. Camera lenses with a wide aperture will help you to use less flash power.

7. “I believe the way to get the best photos of dancers is by working with the dancer in a partnership.”

Sarah Jennie

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Build a Partnership with the Dancer

Image by Sarah Jennie. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon EF 24-105mm 1:4 L lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f20.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I had this idea to do a project to showcase my city through dance photography. I started out by posting on my personal FB page to see if anyone knew any ballet dancers that would be interested in this project. So, I got a couple of names, and then from those dancers, I got a couple of names, and then it just branched off from there.

This was taken in the summer of 2017, and it was my second photo shoot with Jade, the dancer. I am lucky to live in a city that not only has all the attributes of great city life but is also on the coast—the best of both worlds. This was one of the last photos we did that day, and I was floored by her doing pointe on a rock. I could hardly stand on a rock with both feet and sneakers. There was such beauty in the sunset on the beach, complimenting the beautiful strength of the dancer.

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Connect with Potential Models

Image by Sarah Jennie.

Pro Tip

I believe the way to get the best photos of dancers is by working with the dancer in a partnership. Before every dance photo shoot, I email back and forth with the dancer about locations that speak to them, and we also decide on outfits together. I look to them for the dance positions/moves that they feel most comfortable with or would like to try, and then we decide on the final pose together. Working together as a team will show in your work.

8. “Prepare to catch the high point of a jump or motion—that’s the point at which the body is already frozen for a moment.”

Guryanov Andrey

8 Photographers on Shooting Beautiful Images of Dancers — Capture the High Point of a Move

Image by Guryanov Andrey. Gear: Sony Alpha a7R II camera, Sigma 50mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f6; ISO 160.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This is a real shot with colored dust (Holi paint) and a beautiful, athletic girl, taken with a regular studio flash.

Pro Tip

Look, shoot; look, shoot; repeat. That’s the basic principle for any artist, photographer, or director. Prepare to catch the high point of a jump or motion—that’s the point at which the body is already frozen for a moment.

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