Dance sessions are an investment. They take a lot of time and effort, and so the more we can take care of ahead of your session the better. The quicker we can get each each image nailed, the quicker we can move on to new locations or new pieces of movement. This will give you a far richer portfolio in the end.
When I photograph dance sessions, I coach dancers through similar problems over and over again. Essentially, , the camera takes 3 dimensional space and flattens it into a 2 dimensional image. This creates all kinds of optical illusions that can take beautiful body positions and make them look weird and warped. I will definitely continue to coach you throughout our time together, but these articles will help you mentally prepare to make the most of your dance photography session.
For the purposes of this discussion, the world is our stage. Where you are dancing is your set, and I, the photographer, am your audience. Imagine that the flat plane of my lens extends through space and becomes the flat plane of the proscenium opening. I’ll use stage directions like upstage (away from me) and downstage (towards me) to help explain body positions that are best for photography.
Whatever style of dance you are doing, if your feet are “wrong,” the image is unusable. Beautiful extension, great expression, interesting composition, and you’re not over your box? Too bad, so sad. It’s very easy for both you and me to get so wrapped up in all the other parts of your positions and movements that we forget to check your very foundation- your feet. Check your feet early and often.
Sometimes a position, especially anything in a lunge, can look more like a yoga pose than a moment of dance. Relevé, a forced arch, or rolling over to the top of your foot can help bring it back to the world of dance.
Hips and Shoulders
Here’s where especially classical dance training and photography butt heads. In ballet, things happen on the diagonal. When my camera takes a diagonal body position and flattens it to a 2D image your upstage arm and your downstage leg look short. Likewise, if you bend your spine so your shoulders are heading too far upstage from me or downstage towards me, your neck looks short or your head looks huge. Instead, we either want to square your hips parallel to the flat plane of my lens, or turn them 90 degrees perpendicular to my lens.
If your hips are parallel to me, you might face upstage or down, with your shoulders also square. If there’s too much twist in your shoulders, then your arms start to head up and downstage, appearing short. Your head can float on top in any direction from hard left to right (chin in line with your shoulder).
If your hips are perpendicular to me, you’ll either keep your spine extending along that same line so that you’re in profile to me, or twist your shoulders to open your chest to the camera. Again, your head can move in any direction.
Of course things won’t stay in absolute 180 or 90 degree positions, and there are lots of interesting images that break these “rules,” but I believe this gives us the best possible starting point. Then check your feet.
Once your hips and shoulders are set for a movement or position, we want to be sure that your arms and legs continue along those same long lines. It’s very easy to, say, open your chest only to pull your arms behind you, upstage, making them look short. This happens a lot with jumps, especially with a leg in attitude. Point your toe straight up to the sky- don’t let your leg rotate too far upstage.
Likewise, we want to know that you have all four limbs- no Tin Soldier action. It’s very easy to hide your upstage arm behind you- we don’t have to see all of it, just know that it’s there. Similarly, we wouldn’t have you perform a pas de chat in a long skirt- you’ll look like a floating Pac Man ghost. Again, there are interesting images that break these “rules,” but when this goes wrong it’s really noticeable. Know what else is really noticeable? Bad feet. Check ‘em.
Your dance teachers have told you this for years, and it’s still true. Your hands need to extend along the same lines as your arms. If your hands bend from the wrists like you’re waving, you end up with weird tiny or giant hands. This is true onstage as well, but it’s really apparent with the flattening action of the camera.
We want your hands engaged as well, but not too engaged. If you’re holding on to something for stability or as a counterweight, by all means hold on, but try not to white knuckle death grip the thing. If you’re pressing against something like a door frame, move your hand to the very downstage edge and press flat. This will let us see your hand, help you twist to open to the camera, and it will keep you from getting a weird claw grip around the edge of the frame. Then check your feet.
I hope you found this useful, and feel ready to tackle your session! More information about making the most of your dance photography session can be found in the next two articles:
Part Two: Facial Expressions and Zombie Eyes
Part Three: Bringing Life and Energy to your Dance Images
Featuring Dancers Colby Foss, Candice Bergeron, Sabrina Gentry, Abbey McWhirter and Gwen Phillips
Wow! I love dance photography and it was awesome to see a bit more of what a photographer considers when they capture these amazing artists!
Woah! Very cool! Love the first image of legs and the one of him in the snow. Perfect!
Fantastic information, really demonstrates your extensive experience and knowledge of dance photography! I’d love to see a million more photos of before and after, really fascinating!
Awesome article, I learned a lot! Its amazing how simple modification change how we perceive things!
Reading this made me miss my dancing years. Jazz for 12 years! <3
This is absolutely fascinating! Thanks for sharing all your knowledge! 🙂
Dance photography is beautifully amazing! Thank you for sharing your tips with us.