Parents at my daughter's dance study asked for advice
on photographing dancers. This page reviews my path
from knowing nothing about photography to getting some decent
results. I hope it can help you as well.
The typical scenario: Your kid gets a role in a dance performance, you
proudly snap some photos with your fancy new compact point-and-shoot
camera, and you are disappointed to get results like what I got:
Crop from same picture
What's wrong with this picture? On the plus side, it captures a lot of
smiles and has a sense of motion. On the minus
side are some technical and artistic problems:
Subject Motion Blur: the shutter speed for this picture was 1/60 sec.;
during this time the dancers moved enough that their features are
Camera Shake: also during the 1/60 sec. that the shutter
was open, the photographer moved the camera very slightly. You can see
this in the hinges on the door: they aren't moving, but they aren't
Noise (Grain): In the cropped photo you can see the background
is not smooth; there is what people used to call "graininess" in the
days of film and now call "noise".
Exposure: The photo is rather dark. Darkness can be used to set
a mood, but this photo seems to have a happy mood, which suggests a
Color Balance: The color is off; there is a beige-yellow color cast.
Dynamic Range: The black leotards all blend together; we can't
see any detail.
Composition: The photo is confusing: is the subject the
foreground dancer in red? If so, why is her head missing? Or is the
subject the photographer's daughter in the background? If so, why
is she partially hidden? The trophies in the background are also distracting.
In the following sections we'll see how to manage all these issues.
(Note: you might think I had to work really hard to find a photo that
displayed all those faults in one, but actually most of my photos
from the early days have most of these flaws. And that's after I
deleted all the really bad ones!)
Some of the problems can be addressed with photo editing software.
If you hit the "auto-correct" button, or if you fiddle around with
the brightness, color balance, and noise reduction sliders, you'll get something like this:
(Note: you can click on
any image on this page to see a larger version. (You might want to open in
a new tab.) You then have the option of the "info" or "sizes" buttons in the lower right.)
Edited for brightness (exposure), color, noise
Crop from same picture
Better, but unfortunately, most of the flaws remain.
If you're like me, your reaction to the initial disappointment
is "I got to get me one of those big black cameras." A single-lens
reflex camera (abbreviated SLR or DSLR with D for "Digital") does
indeed have several
advantages over compact cameras:
Sensor area: "Photography" means "drawing with light", and
ultimately what matters is the quality and quantity of light you can capture.
A digital camera uses an image sensor
to convert light into a digital signal. The bigger the sensor, the
more light that can be gathered, and (other things being equal) the
better the image. The diagram at left below compares sensor areas of
various cameras (magnified to about 4 times actual size):
Compact vs. DSLR
The big pink rectangle represents the relative size of 35mm film (and
a few high-end DSLRs called "full-frame" cameras). Most DSLRs have a sensor the size of the
blue rectangle (called
"APS-C," or you could call it "half-frame") while most
compact cameras have sensors the size of the small purple rectangle (about 1/20 of full-frame).
There are a few other common sizes in between, and cell phones have the smallest sensors of all
(the teal rectagle). With a DSLR sensor
you gather more light and get a better picture (usually). Note:
another measure of sensor "size" is the number of
megapixels. Ignore this number; all current cameras have plenty of
pixels. You won't be able to tell the difference between a 16 MP and
a 20 MP camera with the same sensor area. You will be able to
tell that half-frame is better than 1/20 frame. Here is the
same information in table form:
W x H (mm)
Canon 5D; Nikon D800
36 x 24
Canon T4i; Nikon D7000
23.6 x 15.7
OMD-EM5; Panasonic GH4
17.3 x 13
Sony RX100; Canon G7 X
13.2 x 8.8
Canon S110; Panasonic LF1
7.6 x 5.7
4.8 x 3.5
Interchangable lenses: in buying a DSLR you don't
just buy the camera, you buy into a whole system. You can add
lenses that are designed for specific purposes (such as
portraits of moving subjects in low light). For dance
I recommend a lens
with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or better (could be f/2 or f/1.8).
A wider aperture gathers more light, enabling you to shoot at a faster shutter speed, and thus is called a "fast" lens.
They tend to be more expensive, but needn't break the bank; a 50mm f/1.8 lens is about $100.
Viewfinder, focus, and shutter lag: By definition, "SLR" means
that the light comes through the lens, hits a mirror, and is
reflected to your eye. That means you see what is actually
happening, without the delay that can occur with an electronic LCD display.
In addition the autofocus mechanism of an SLR is faster
than for compacts, and there is almost no lag from the time
you press the shutter to when the picture is actually taken.
This makes DSLRs better for photographing action.
Controls: DSLRs are bigger than compact cameras, so
there is more room to put physical controls (dials or joysticks) that allow you to instantly
adjust your camera's focus point and exposure, rather than having to go through a complex menu system.
If you've bought a DSLR in the past few years, congratulations--no
matter what model you have it is certainly capable of taking great
pictures. If you are currently agonizing over what model to buy,
don't worry, you can't go wrong; all the DSLR cameras offered today are good compared to just a few years ago. When in doubt buy the same model that
your friends have, so you can share experiences.
After I said "Oh crap--my pictures are all fuzzy/blurry,"
my next step was to diagnosis the cause of the blur--you can't
correct a problem if you don't know what the problem is. Here are the five
most common types, and how to tell them apart:
Subject motion blur: if a motionless part of the picture
(the background, or some part of a dancer's body like a foot planted on the ground) is sharp but
other parts are not sharp, you've got subject motion blur. In the "King at
1/6" photo below, the King is standing in the wings. It is very
dark, necessitating a shutter speed of 1/6 second. It looks like
the King is standing perfectly still, so does that mean the problem is camera shake? No--we can tell it
is subject motion because the edge of the purple wall beside the
King is very sharp. The wall stayed still; therefore the camera
stayed still and the King moved.
King at 1/6: Subject motion
Pan at 1/40: camera motion
Camera shake/motion: if everything is blurred (and the closer things
more so than the distant ones), that suggests the camera moved during
the exposure. In the "Pan at 1/40" picture above, we can tell the
camera is moving because the background is not sharp, nor is the
boy standing at attention. The camera does a pretty good job of
panning with the running dancer at left, but that means the two
dancers in the background, who are running in the opposite
direction, are doubly blurred (subject motion plus camera motion).
Misplaced plane of focus: In the photo labeled "Misfocus"
below, the camera's autofocus system locked on the dancer in the
second row, leaving the dancer in the foreground out of focus.
Crop of Misfocus
Noise: Sometimes there is no motion blur, focus is spot-on, but digital
noise steals away all the detail. The image labeled
"Noise at ISO 1600" is an example of this. (At a shutter speed of 1/40, subject motion is also a contributing
factor.) This image was taken with an older generation of camera
(2003). Nowadays, most cameras do much better with noise, so this
will be less of a problem for you.
Noise at ISO 1600
Crop of Noise at ISO 1600
Concept: Ansel Adams said "There is nothing worse than a
brilliant image of a fuzzy concept." And indeed, if you don't have
a good idea of what you are trying to show, and know how to compose
the shot, the concept will be fuzzy even if the details are sharp.
The first picture on this page suffers from fuzzy concept (along with all the other flaws).
On the next page we will take a detailed look at
the first four types of blur, and at the basics of exposure.
(Coverage of the fifth type is deferred to the third page.)