Sunday, June 14, 2009

Technique: Indoor Dance Recital Images

This weekend found me in the sound booth at my daughter's dance recital. I was assigned to music and another person had lights. We had spent the prior two days perfecting the lights, cues, sound, stage and props. We were through our first evening show and the jitters and lumps had been worked out.

So for night two, I felt we had enough spare resources between Jamie the lighting person and me to squeeze off some stills of the recital.

The challenge for dance is tough. The dancers are moving, requiring a moderate (1/60-1/200 sec) fast shutter to prevent motion blur. The light source is continually changing, meaning that a fixed exposure will probably not create consistent exposures. The low levels of light confound a lense's auto focus, and the photographer is often quite a distance from the stage. This is a common challenge for indoor performance photography. The objective is to stop the motion and get as much detail as possible. So here was my setup:

  • Canon 50D
  • Medium JPG setting (8MP images)
  • ISO 3200
  • Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 Lens, set to capture the whole stage
  • Manual focus (used live view to sharp focus near the front of stage before show started)
  • Tripod mount
  • Manual White Balance (taken from Tungsten reference)
  • Shutter priority - 1/100 sec (most of the exposures were f/2.8 to 3.5)
  • Remote trigger on 10 foot cord
We taped the trigger button to the light board between us and marked it with tape so we could see to hit it in the near darkness of the light booth. When Jamie was working heavy lights, I would look for the good shots and punch the button. When I was cueing music for the next number or talking backstage over the headsets, she would take over.

We took over 1000 images of nearly 40 numbers over the four-hour show. Each one was well exposed, and showed only the smallest signs of motion blur at the dancer's fastest-moving body parts. With fixed manual focus, the shutter lag was low, so we could capture many leaps in mid-air. And, an advantage with the fixed position of the tripod was that I could crop and resize all 1000 images in a batch using a saved script. That saved me literally hours of editing.

The images are far from technically perfect, but they are very good considering the shooting environment. They are not as crisp as if we could have shot at a lower ISO, but we captured the true spirit of the performance and created some wonderful memories and images that can be used to show the variety and versatility of the dancers, choreographers, and lighting team.

For me, this wasn't a commercial gig. It was for my daughter and the larger dance family to which we have belonged for years. But if it was for money, I would not have changed much in terms of the camera setup...maybe shoot at a higher resolution and vary the zoom level. If I had a faster lens, I could have dropped the ISO a level or two. This is one case where Image Stabilized lenses would not have helped...I needed every bit of speed from the f/2.8 lens, and being on a tripod with remote cable release removed any vibration problems.

So, next time you are challenged with a dark room and can't use supplemental lighting, break out the tripod and fast lenses, set your shutter speed and high ISO and fire away!

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