Having a hard time to select a lens for a dance performance shooting

Started Feb 23, 2016 | Discussions thread
anotherMike Forum Pro • Posts: 10,132
Re: Having a hard time to select a lens for a dance performance shooting

Disclaimer: I've shot dance (both performance and studio) for a few decades now.

This is actually an easy one to answer; the 70-200/2.8G VR-II Nikon. Not Tamron, Not Sigma, Only Nikon.

If you look at *any* professional dance photographer working for ballet companies, dance companies, theater groups, etc, you'll generally see two lenses in play: the manufacturers 70-200 F/2.8 and the manufacturers 24-70. You won't see third party - not because they aren't okay optically (in some cases) but because dance performance is one of the single most challenging situations for an AF system, and it will very clearly separate the men from the proverbial boys.

Do NOT even remotely consider the 70-300's or anything slower than F/2.8. As I said, this is an easy answer. If you need a bit of reach, rent a D7200 to go along with your D750 (which IMO is an excellent choice for this task), don't go over ISO 4000 on the D7200, and put the 70-200 on that; you'll do better than a 70-300 which isn't remotely sharp enough wide open.

When I shoot dance performance, I carry a kit centered around the 85/1.8G, 200/2G (which I handhold - and yes, it gets tiring quick, but if that's what it takes, that is what it takes) and the 70-200/2.8G. In the bag will be a 35 and 50 F/1.4 as well as the 24-70 but mostly it's the 85, 200 and 70-200 that get the work done.

General tips:

A) Watch your angles. Don't get too close and end up shooting 'up' at the dancers, particularly in ballet. Most pros like to sit back at a point where they are somewhat/slightly above the vertical centerline of the dancers if possible, never under the centerline if possible. Depending on venue,  you may not have any choice. But it's not an edge-of-the-stage thing. If you are allowed to shoot in the wings for a show (in addition to being in the house), stay the HELL out of everyones way and be as quiet as possible.

1) Stage light is either wash lighting (generally trends towards incandescent WB, or worse) or spotlight. Spotlights, depending on the manufacturer, are generally actually much closer to daylight WB than you would expect. If you know the venue, see if there is a web site for the venue with the technical specs of their lighting plot, you might even be able to find out what brand/model spots and find out what WB those are. Solo/duets/trios and such are often lit with spots, so you know a WB oriented more towards daylight is needed there. But things under the other lighting (non spot) will trend heavily incandescent. So ya gotta shoot raw, and I tend to split the difference with the WB and adjust in post.

2) A very narrow center weight is what I find best for metering pattern; some prefer spot. Personal preference. Watch out you don't blow the channels on white costumes or spotlit faces, but at the same time remember that if you "under expose to be safe" you'll have massive noise issues. Dance photography, done correctly, operates within a fairly narrow window of conditions and it's not easy and nobody has a 100% hit rate. Manual exposure is my preference, with an awareness of when the light changes.

3) AF: Generally I'm in a narrow band of dynamic focus modes, 9pt generally, maybe something broader, although rarely, in AF-C of course. I'm usually running no lock on or short lock on. For slower movements in ballet in a pas (duet), I'll actually drop back to a body set in AF-S center point, and just refocus a lot. Some folks use the AF-ON focus button technique, some don't. Personal choice.

4) Don't compose too tight; dancers need space in the frame. You can always crop a little later on. And never cut off the feet or arms. Ever.

5) Shutter speed is, by far, without any question, your best friend forever. Shutter speed is so much your best friend you'd trade your wife, family dog, 6mm F/2.8 lens you inherited and your sons kidney to get more of it. You laugh? Shoot enough dance and someday you'll be typing these same words. I am not even remotely happy if I can't get to at least 1/640th of a second in most Ballet or Contemporary, and I will do whatever it takes to get there, including using the big heavy 200/2. You need to remember to get the shot first - crisp, and then worry about noise later. A really great, crisp shot at ISO 6400 is vastly better than a soft, somewhat blurry shot at ISO 1600, each and every day of the week. So implant in your mind to go for the best shutter speed you can. Maybe if you start getting above 1/800th then you can consider stopping down. The DOF difference just isn't worth losing your BFF shutter speed.

6) Expect to fail and fail a lot. I used to shoot dance in the manual focus/film days when Ektapress 1600 was as good as you could get, and managed it, and while it's easier now, the reality is between timing, focus, exposure, WB, framing, understanding the movement, dance photography is bloody hard, no matter how many years you've been doing it. So don't expect to be perfect.

7) However, it's enjoyable to do, so have fun!


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