Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Technique: Indoor Dance Studio Photography

In March and April, I spend a lot of time indoors taking dance images. I work at two different studios in different cities, connected by the studio owners being related. I started this activity a few years ago and it has grown to encompass three days at each studio.

The system I use for lighting is very repeatable and provides good results. I shoot with (4) Alien Bees lights. Here is my lighting setup:
- Main light (right of camera): AB800 with 48" brolly box, set at about 1/4 to 1/3 power.
- Fill light (left of camera, up): AB400 with 48" brolly box, set at about 1/8 to 1/4 power.
- Backdrop light (left, back): AB400 with 32" brolly box, set at about 1/4 power.

- Hair light (upper left): AB400 with 20 degree honeycomb grid, set at 1/4 power.

I use custom white balance, set from a white shot taken at the start of the session, and shoot Manual 1/250 sec f/3.5 to f/4.0 at ISO 100. I have Alien Bees remote triggers for two of my lights and the other two fire from slaves. I vary the backdrop each year and often across studios, but keep the same backdrop for the entire session.

Over the years, I have returned to this setup. I get repeatable results: Good front lighting, nearly flat but with some dimension; nice hair and skin highlights off the subject's right shoulder and hair, and a nicely lit background with no shadows. I can modify this setting as the subjects need: For larger groups, I bring both lights closer to front and flatten it out to minimize shadows. I can drop the fill light or take it out entirely to provide higher contrast front lighting, and can move the main light from ground level (for laying-down shots) to high for leaps and tall girls.

In addition, I have quite an arsenal of dance photo props. I bring probably 20-30 kinds of flowers, a white bench, several stools, a pedestal, and lots of little kids items like teddy bears and wagons, as well as hula hoops and fans. I bring a professional steamer to de-wrinkle the backdrop before we begin. I tape the edges of the backdrop and keep the wires out of the path of the kids.

The dance teachers and I tag team with posing and ideas. We try not to pose each student the same as anyone else. We usually shoot three poses per "sitting", with a seated, standing and special pose making up the usual set. Each student "sitting" takes about 5 minutes, and we often have students come for 5 or more sittings each in different costumes. We also do sibling and related groups. I usually shoot both a full body and a close-up (chest/head) of each pose, in a couple of exposures each.

This makes for a very busy weekend, but we often come away with over 100 sittings and many hundreds of good proof images out of perhaps 2000-4000 images per studio. In addition, I offer a special session for the competition teams on a white "high-key" background with special offers for the team members.

Later on, I'll discuss the different aspects of selling event images like this: Whether you pre-sell packages or let the customers pick after the fact; package pricing; proofs sales, specialty items, and special "members-only" promotions.

Also, during the year, I'll often stop in and take candid shots of the kids during class to use in a slide show that they present during the dance recital. It's another way I can add value to the studio's operation, and build recognition of the range of my talents.

From this business, I have gotten school work, senior photos, family portraits and wedding work. It's a great way to interface with a lot of customers in a short period of time. And since I get a signed model release and email release, I am building my customer contact database and my portfolio to display.

Bottom line, dance studio photography is a very good spring activity. If you take your time, partner with your studio owners, pay close attention to every every pose, and offer your customers lots of creative product choices, this activity can be a very lucrative source of income for photographers.


  1. Great info, thanks for sharing this. Getting ready to shoot a similar project next month. Trying to learn as much as I can ahead of time. We're planning on doing teams and individuals on the same day. Still not sure how this will work out, but I'm about to find out!

  2. I have been asked to take over the dance studio photography at my daughter's studio and this information is very helpful. I have been a dance competition photographer, capturing live performances but I have not done dance studio stills. In addition to selling just the stage shots, I have created and sold some interesting "products" in post production.

    My concern regarding the studio photos is the size of the studio (ie sheer numbers) and the size of the groups. Some competitive groups are 15 to 20 and the production and team pictures are up to 70. Any advice?

  3. Some studios are large enough that you need to photograph two or more days. Figure on five minute slots for each costume - some kids may have more than one costume. Shoot a couple poses at full body and waist-up. I usually reserve a separate night for group shots for competition, and use a special backdrop for them - large white, which gives them more print options, and allows me to make some awesome collages!

    Check out my Dance Studio Photography book on Amazon and Nook if you'd like more info. It's readable on a PC as well with free Kindle/Nook software.