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Theater Photography

Welcome to the first official Bright Blue photography tutorial offered here for my fellow dance parents and patrons.

Photographing dancers at competition and recital can be challenging. The action flows quickly and takes place under very high-contrast lighting in a relatively dark environment. If you are comfortable with manual settings, you will likely have greater success since your camera is going to have hard time figuring out what its exposure should be between the very bright highs and very dark lows. Not every theater is the same, but if I had to choose a general purpose setting I would pick something in the range of:

iso 3200-4000 f/4.0 1/250 AWB AF Servo, continuous/burst mode.  For my lens I usually use a 70-200 2.8 or the same lens in the 4.0 version.

I shoot with a Canon, I think that AF-C (continuous) might be Nikon speak for AF Servo, but perhaps someone could confirm that.

To break it down a little. I am usually at iso 3200-4000 in competition lighting. You are going to be contending with digital noise (that grainy appearance) in the shadows which is going to be worse at a higher iso and also worse if you underexpose. Don’t underexpose. You can spot meter to help find your exposure, but I’ll usually just take an educated guess then check exposure in camera of a couple of test shots. I try to be just shy of where my highlight warnings (“blinkies”) are starting to appear on the brightest parts of the skin

taken at iso 4000 f/4.0 1/250



shutter speed: I photograph indoor dance at 1/250. At that speed I expect to see some blur in hands and feet as in the image above, but to really freeze everything you are going to have to shoot at 1/500 or even faster and are going to have to push your iso too high.

taken at iso 3200 f/4.5 1/250


You can see the blur in the dancer’s feet in the image above, but her face is acceptably sharp. Perhaps someone can explain the physics of why her feet are moving faster that her face because I don’t quite get that.

Aperture: I like to photograph group dances no wider than 4.0 in order keep most or all of the group in focus. If you are photographing an individual dancer you might choose to shoot wider to single them out as in this image.

taken at iso 2000 f/2.8 1/200 135mm


Note that I’m shooting from fairly close to the stage with a long lens which gives me a short depth of field. I’ll usually back out to about the middle of the theater for large groups and achieve a much deeper plane of focus or I could get the same effect shooting with a wider lens.

White Balance – I shoot in auto white balance and tweak in Lightroom if I feel the need to do so. I’m usually not worrying about perfectly true-to-life skin tones.

AF-Servo – best focus mode to follow the action. Consider also switching to back button focusing if you haven’t already.

Continuous/burst shutter release – I have my camera set in burst mode, but I don’t like having to cull one bazillion photos so I’ll often just tap the button to take one frame then hold it down for the burst when  I’m going for the money shot in a leap or extension.

iso 8000 f/4.0 1/250



iso 6400 f/4.0 1/250 200mmOvationFB-91

Neither of the above images would have been as good half of a second before or after so it was worth it to cope with the extra images.

When positioning, I like to photograph group dances from the center and fairly level with the dancers as I think that the formations are best appreciated from this angle. For soloists, I come in closer and try to shoot from slightly beneath but not so much that I’m really having to point my lens upward. This is a typical angle for fashion photography and is usually flattering without causing significant distortion. I also like to photograph soloists more from the side and try to catch a few frames of the dancer against the black side curtains which can give you a more dramatic, arty look.



And that’s about what I know about dance theater photography.

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