Seven Tips for Better Dancesport Photography

Last month I held the privileged position of Head Photographer at the fourth installment of Dance Fest, a wonderful event I’m sure you’ve heard about (and if not, what rock do you live under?). We took an incredible 15,000 photos, some of them featured in this issue of Sheer Dance. Dance Fest’s position on photography is that the more photos that get taken and shared with fans and loved ones, the better, so I’d like to offer some practical advice to all of the wonderful team and family photographers I have seen around the floor at every competition. My goal is to improve the quality of everybody’s shots with a few targeted tips.

Photography is a broad field with many layers of technique and technicality to be explored. This guide cannot be comprehensive. I will make it functional. For my purposes, I am going to assume you are shooting with a DSLR or similar camera where you have control of the Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO (more on these later). This article focuses on some techniques that can help. Though buying more technical equipment can help too, it is also out of the price range of most amateur photographers, and has therefore been left out of this particular discussion.

The Seven Tips:

Look at that Smile!
A well-timed, well-exposed shot.
  • Prioritize Shutter Speed – When you’re taking photos of moving subjects, shutter speed is almost always the most crucial ingredient for good photos. Shutter speed determines how long your camera’s shutter is open to allow light in, and is usually measured in fractions of a second, anywhere from 1/5th of a second to 1/4000th of a second. In general, we’ll want to stay towards the latter end of this continuum. Speeds between 1/200 and 1/500 are usually sufficient to achieve crisp photos, though this is often a difficult range to get into without the help of more sophisticated–read: expensive–lenses. the 1/100-1/200 range may work well for you, but check your photos often to make sure things are sufficiently crisp.
  • Crank the ISO – In order to achieve your desired shutter speed, you’re almost certainly going to need to boost your ISO value to 1,600 or higher. ISO level indicates how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. Since most dance events are held indoors, often with limited light, you’ll want to push the sensitivity high. Be sure to take some test shots and make sure your images are not ‘grainy,’ a common problem experienced at high ISO values
  • Widen that Aperture – You’ll want to widen your aperture as much as possible, down to f/2.8 if you can. Most entry-level lenses will be unable to go under f/4 or f/4.5. Aperture refers to the size of the shutter opening, and, non-intuitively, the smaller the number the larger the hole. We’ll use as much light coming in as possible for the reasons mentioned above. I tend to shoot in ‘Aperture Priority’ on my camera, meaning that I set the aperture and let the onboard computer calculate the shutter speed. Wide apertures also give you a shallower depth of field, keeping your subjects (hopefully!) in focus while pleasingly blurring the background.
  • Test Different Light – When you take your first few pictures at a new shooting location, check out what they look like. The age of digital photography allows most anyone to instantly review their photos, which gives you a great chance to check your photos early. Too often I have flicked the on switch and started shooting, only to find out 30 minutes later that my camera was in some weird mode that made all of my pictures blurry. D’oh! Check these sorts of things before you get too far in. It also pays to try shooting from 5-10 different locations around the floor, paying attention to what the light is like at each location. Find spots that play well with your camera.
  • Look at that smile!
    Timing is important. Catch the action!

    Time your Trigger – It helps to be a dancer or at least be familiar with the general movements of partner dancers before photographing a dance event. Crossover breaks in chacha tend to peak on the ‘2&’ beat in the music, so see if you can pull the trigger a fraction of a second before this in order to time the shot properly. In American tango most beginners will hit their best promenades on beat 8. Grabbing photos at optimal times will make your subjects look their best, which always elicits smiles and praise. This mostly takes practice; when in doubt, take photos on the beat of the music.

  • Fill your Frame – Most people are too conservative with how ‘tight’ they are willing to be on their subjects. While it’s generally best not to cut any limbs out of the frame if possible, don’t be afraid to fill the entire picture with their body. This will make for a more interesting, engaging photo. It also saves time when editing: no need to crop each photo in order to tell if it is a shot worth keeping or not.
  • Shoot in RAW – Though JPEG files may be easier to instantly export, RAW files preserve much more information about the photo, and will give you a greater ability to edit and fix a photo after the event. This was especially important at Dance Fest, where the light was quite extreme in some cases. Shooting in RAW gave us more dynamic range to work with when bringing these photos back to a correct exposure.

Of course, the best way to get better at dancesport photography is to just get out and do it! Hopefully these tips will give you a starting place for taking excellent dancesport photos.


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