For 4 years now I've been shooting performing artists and especially dancers. Thought I'd share my experience with you guys and maybe help you with your dance photography!
For me there are 3 ways to shoot a performing artist:
A/ Your first option would be to let your talent move and improvise and rely on your reflexes and skills to capture that perfect moment. This is maybe the best method for a dancer (and performer), as you let him go into a creative flow and give him or her the freedom to fully express him or herself like in actual performance. The drawback is that you deliberately sacrifice a precise framing and composition and you will have no control over the position, placement of the dancer, or on the resulting light and shadows on your subject. It's similar to photographing, covering live stage performances, or dance competitions. You have little to no control over your scene whatsoever and on what happens in front of your lens.
B/ The 2nd option is to decide in advance what you want to capture in favor of precise composition. I usually discuss this with the performer beforehand... whether the talent is posing for me or executing a movement. Since I often work with strobes, we try our best to be as precise as possible with our hand, arm, head, feet, leg placements. Sometimes, the background is almost as important as the performer. I have to make sure everything works together. I've been shooting a lot with wide-angle lenses recently, mixing architecture and dance photography. The drawback here is for the dancer because he or she has to limit the performance to a really short movement and has to “fake” it in a way, to give the sense of a "real full"performance.
C/ iThe 3rd option you have is a mix, kind of the best of both worlds! You let your dancer improvise in a specific area of your frame, and choose a particular moment inside the succession of movements you want to capture. Not a full performance but enough room for the dancer to express himself. This should give much more authenticity to the final shot.
It's up to you to decide. None of these 3 options are perfect.. it depends on what you wish to create and what you feel comfortable with.
Personally, I use B and C as option A is the main reason why I stopped covering live dance events (although I still do some from time to time). I wanted to have more control over my scenes!
So let's go deeper, how do I actually do it? Here are 9 tips that will help you improve yourself as a dance photographer.
1/ You may have understood by now that locations are important for me. They often guide me and help me choose the style, colors, and even the movement or pose of the performer!
Once I found my location, choose my scenes, my composition, and framing, I tell my performer what impact I want them to have on the viewer, the feeling I want to communicate, the story, the atmosphere.
2/ Once we have decided what to do, my next step is to Sync with my performer. I need to feel them, I need to get into their "flow".Sometimes it helps to impose a rhythm... Determine a beat so that you are making one with your artist. This will greatly help you to nail your shot.
3/ To help you with your poses and moves, Let yourself be inspired by your environment. Play with Frames, extend lines, create shapes. Also, check out my blog /video post on how to improve your compositions, it might help!
4/ Know your dancers and ask them what are their strengths, don't ask them to make crazy backbends or jumps to only discover a few shots later it's not their thing.
I need to see them move and whenever possible, I try to watch videos of them if they have any on the web or even better I go see their shows. Shooting dancers for 4 years now has helped me have a deeper understanding of how they move and when and what to capture.
5/ Make sure the performance is "readable", ask yourself, do we actually understand what's going on? Where are the arms? The face? The legs? Do we understand what she or he is actually doing? Does it look like a performance, is he or she dancing, or does it just feel weird and look like he or she is falling or doesn't know what he or she is doing with his body?
Have your artist check if technically the photo is good. When you shoot performers If they are not satisfied with their technique, even if the light is perfect and your composition top-notch, you have missed your picture!
6/ Be ready and ask your dancer only to perform when everything is all set. Do not push your dancer too far, keep them fresh. It can be physically demanding depending on the type of performance and the number of pictures you have to make. You don't want to injure your talent either or have them worn out during the first 15 minutes.
7/ Listen to your performer, please communicate, have them involved in the process, they're human beings! Make sure everything is alright throughout the process, I have seen so many photographers staying in their world hidden behind their cameras... This makes no sense!
8/ Get your camera settings right! What is your goal? What are you trying to capture? What exactly are you trying to achieve? You are shooting movement, do you need motion blur in your shot? Make it clear and don't make it slightly blurred or it will look as if you didn't know what you were doing. If you want to freeze movement get the right shutter speed to make it tack sharp usually above 1/1000thof a sec, or use your flash and choose your settings accordingly...
I often use strobes for my pictures and I am actually working with 2 Broncolor Siros L depending on the situation I use the Speed mode to freeze movement with the flash or I use the HSS mode (Hyper Sync) if I want to freeze movement with my shutter speed.
To summarize, think about your shots before releasing that shutter, you cannot show up on set without knowing what you are going to do!
9/ Make it fun! This is really important... if you and the people around you are not enjoying the process, it will affect your work. If every time you pick up your camera fun doesn't come with it... you might give a 2nd thought about developing a career in photography. I know there are a few elements in this article that deserve further development... I am working on it!