Do you know what it takes to be a really good dance photographer?

 If you answered this question by saying that knowing how or when to freeze the action or knowing how to light dancers you’d be on par with most photographers who shoot dancers.

If you mentioned knowing how to interact with dancers, networking, and ‘creating your style’ or ‘brand’ you’d belong to the second biggest set of photographers.

While all that is significant, I think the single most important and often the most overlooked skill, is knowing how to direct dancers and make them look good.

Don’t get me wrong, all the above skills are necessary and are an important part of the process. But where 95% of photographers who shoot dance go wrong is relying on the skill of the dancer in front of them to make themselves look good, hit the right line, fine tune their work themselves. If you are working with professional dancers you’ll of course have much better outcomes, but 98% of the dance photography market is not professional dancers.

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Would it surprise you to know that 80% of my work is not done with dancers who have contracts??

I can hear half of you reading this now saying the same thing; ‘…but you were a dancer, how can I direct dancers if I wasn’t?’

I am here to tell you that developing your eye and the skill to direct good technique can be learned! I’ve been developing this method for the last 10 years, fine tuning it, tweaking it, and touching on it in our workshops this past year. We just launched our two year, comprehensive Neville Method program (drop us a line here if you are interested) that will, among other topics, be diving into this topic deeply.

But Rachel!  What‘s in that secret sauce?

There are several prongs to the Neville method but the first one is to start thinking about the transition from 3D to 2D.  Dancers work in 3D and we do not. The end result of a photograph is a flat print or image on screen. It is our job, therefore, to help them to understand how to translate what they do in the dance studio and on stage for the flat medium of photography and videos.

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There are many tricks to doing this, but let me give you just a few to start working with today:

Ask your dancers to do most of their movements or poses on a more side to side plane as 80% of movements will look better faster this way.  You will partially eliminate the perspective shift that make limbs that are farther away from the camera lens look smaller and those towards the camera look larger.  I often use the analogy of having your dancer feel like they are moving in between two panes of glass that are abut 8 inches wide.

Another common shift we make in my studio is to analyze arm lines to make sure they read correctly on screen. You’ve all seen them: arms that look like they are coming out of the dancers head, one arm that seems to be so much shorter than the other arm, or a curved arm that reads as if it‘s straight.  Arm lines that are parallel to the camera lens often do not shoot well. Have your dancer try out different arms lines so that they create a more pleasing line, and experiment with some different options before settling on the final line.  Working one or both arms toward the flat plane that is perpendicular to the camera is a great place to start.

A great exercise is to practise with one of those anatomy dolls that have movable limbs.   Set your camera up on a tripod at the level of the table you have the doll on and shoot off a series of tests to see how moving the arms in different directions or curves will actually translate when you shoot it.

Drop us a line and let us know how that exercise works out for you!

1 thought on “Do you know what it takes to be a really good dance photographer?”

  1. While directing is a huge part of dance photography in a studio, i would disagree (somewhat) about it being the pinnacle of a dance photographer. It absolutely does help tons in the studio, but outside the studio, where directing dancers in a performance is out of the question, dance photographers still get images that are simply breathtaking.

    So to me, the single most important and often the most overlooked skill, is not only honing the ability to take a dance photograph and make the subject(s) look good, but perhaps even more importantly, getting them to do it (or capturing them doing it) not out of rote, but wearing their hearts on their sleeves, as though there were no one else in the room/studio, but them.

    The poses might be great, but i value the emotions they project even more, albeit not seperately… You might perhaps catch a glimpse of this on my dance photos at http://www.dancingpixelsphotography.com/008-dance-photos/ (by no means a comprehensive portfolio), and i would appreciate it if you would let me know what you think.

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