Photographing ADT, pt 1: The Shoot
I recently had the chance to travel back to Boston to photograph the MIT Asian Dance Team. They perform a mix of kpop, traditional chinese dance, and a couple of contemporary pieces. This is my 9th time photographing the show, and the latest in a pretty long line of dance performances I’ve shot. I thought it might be interesting to distill my experience photographing dance performances into a pair of blog posts - this is the first in the series, dedicated to photographing the show itself. The second in the series will be dedicated to editing.
Before photographing the show, you need to prepare your equipment for the show. Sounds obvious, but people forget all the time. The particular things to watch out for here are camera selection, lens selection, and making sure you have sufficient memory cards and battery capacity.
Camera + Lens selection
Dance shows tend to be rather dark, so the primary consideration in the camera selection should be ISO performance. I’ve photographed with a D700 with battery grip, D800, D800e, 5Ds, and 5D mkIV. Of these, the D800 and D800e are clear winners on the ISO front, with the two Canon bodies lagging slightly behind. The D700 with battery grip had by far the highest burst rate, but as I’ll cover later, this is rarely an important metric for a skilled photographer at dance shows.
In terms of lens selection, there are essentially two valid standard options, plus a handful of wildcard options: the 24-70 or the 70-200 are both excellent choices depending on the situation, while other lenses, like the 14-24, a fisheye, or a tilt-shift can occasionally be used to achieve very interesting results.
The 24-70 is a great lens that, in most dance venues around MIT, will typically net a mixture of full group shots on the wide end and full-body individual shots on the tele end. Conversely, the 70-200 yields full-body individual shots on the short end, and chest-up close-ups on the long end. I’ve used both, and gone back and forth between them, but have ultimately settled on the 70-200 as my personal favorite lens for ADT. As ADT has grown over the years, formations have gotten more crowded, and photos from the 24-70 tend to turn out busy. The 70-200 also requires more skill (and strength!) to wield successfully - it’s less forgiving on framing, shutter speed blurring, and situational awareness. It’s relatively easy to just keep the 24-70 at the wide end of the zoom range with a view of the whole stage and just click the button when something interesting happens. It’s significantly more difficult to be aware of what’s happening on stage and still selecting individual photograph targets with the 70-200. The 70-200 is also heavier. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of holding a 2.5 kg camera system up to your face for 2 hours straight.
The other lenses I mentioned are definitely special-use only, and I’ve never used them to photograph a live show. My friend John Chow has used these lenses to photograph dress rehearsals, where he could move around the space more, including moving onto the stage - effectively utilizing an extreme wide-angle like the 14-24 or the fisheye requires getting extremely close to the subject. The tilt-shift additionally can be used to isolate certain subjects in a difficult environment, but as a manual-focus, fixed-zoom lens, it comes nowhere close to being a general-purpose dance lens, and really can only provide a small handful of photos per shoot before the effect becomes tiresome.
Memory cards + batteries preparedness
Making sure you have a sufficient stock of memory cards and batteries and an efficient swapping schedule can, as the articles always berate, be the difference between getting the shot and missing the shot. As a rule of thumb, I shoot a bit less than 100 photos per individual dance, which nets out to about 1500-2000 photos over the course of the performance. That may sound like a lot, but I try to deliver between 5 and 10 good photos of every individual dance, so I’m hovering around a 5% keep rate, which seems pretty typical. On a D800, that’s about 70-90 GB of photos. I always shoot in extended card mode, where the camera will automatically switch from the primary to the secondary when the primary fills up, which usually gives me some level of warning and buffer as I fill up the cards. I make sure to swap out between dances if I’m getting close to the limit.
In terms of batteries, it’s hard to give solid advice. No Nikon has even come close to requiring a battery swap in the middle of a performance, but the Canons have gotten close enough that I tend to grab a spare battery when I’m shooting with them.
If possible, previewing anything about the show can be helpful - the venue, the songs, or even seeing a dress rehearsal will all make it easier to previsualize shots.
Seeing the venue beforehand can help with lens selection - I wouldn’t consider a 24-70 if I were sitting more than about 40 ft away from the performers, even if I wanted to focus on group shots, but contrarily, if I’m sitting less than 15 feet away I would consider passing over the 70-200 even if I wanted to focus on individual shots. Awareness of the general lighting setup can also be useful.
Familiarity with the songs beforehand can also help tremendously - if you know the song, you can anticipate exactly when the impactful moments will be, which are usually linked up with big dance moves, like jumps, spins, etc. If you can preview the entire show by seeing a dress rehearsal, you’ll of course know even better when the impactful dance moments will be. Frankly though, I haven’t bothered with either of those things in a while, but they were incredibly helpful the first two or three times I photographed ADT.
Since I’ve happened to be friends with a lot of the ADT choreographers over the past few years, I’ve had some very slight ability to influence their lighting decisions. For any future choreographers or lighting designers looking to make their dances easier for photographres to shoot, I have 4 simple rules:
- White lights on faces
- Don’t get too close to the strip lights
- No strobes
- Always use hairlights
1 and 2 go hand-in-hand, actually, since as performers stray too close to strip lights, their heads wind up above the illumination of the strip light, and you wind up with a pair of dancing legs. It doesn’t look pretty. White light on faces is crucial for having photos turn out usable, due to the way cameras expose and debayer things - if a face is completely illuminated in red light, it usually winds up as just a red blob, since the camera tries to overexpose, since the average exposure is relatively low (only 1/4 of pixels are being activated at all). The only route for recovery that looks even remotely good is to convert to black and white and give up on color entirely, which completely defeats the purpose of the colorful lighting and makes the pictures look out of place within the album.
3, no strobes, is another pretty simple rule - when dancers are being illuminated by strobes, getting a picture which actually has everyone illuminated is just a coin flip, whether the strobe is on or off (and, in fact, since the strobe is technically usually off, it’s a coin flip with very bad odds). There can be really cool effects done with long exposures and strobe lighting, but no photographer will be able to handhold steadily for the required time period, and adjusting camera settings on the fly is a fool’s errand.
4, using hairlights, is another pretty simple rule - if all of the illumination is coming from the front, there’s very little separation between a dark-haired dancer (99% of ADT), and the backdrop. Hairlights from behind, above, or to the side, are all very effective at giving dancers a halo, which can add an awesome effect and highlights the motion of the hair.
Speaking of settings, I’m invariably asked by less experienced photographers at the beginning of shows what settings I’m using. Since ADT lighting is so dynamic, I favor aperture-priority, and usually lock the aperture wide open at f/2.8. I go with manual ISO, typically around 2000 (cranked up if individual dances are particularly dim), and spot-weighted metering. That last one is important, since I usually have my focus point on a face, spot-weighted metering gives the most reliable metering across the range of outfits, lighting, and compositions. I then twiddle the exposure compensation til I’m happy with the exposure result on the back of the camera, aiming for something which will be similar to, or a bit dimmer than, the final photo I envision. Once all of that is locked in, I check the shutter speed periodically, aiming for between 1/300th and 1/2000th. If I’m consistently on the slow side of that shutter speed range, photos are liable to be blurry (dancers move fast), so I crank up the ISO. If I’m consistently on the fast side of that shutter speed range, I’m in danger of locking at 1/4000th or 1/8000th, depending on the camera, and clearly have some buffer to lower the ISO and achieve a higher quality photo.
Frankly, monitoring this and adjusting on the fly is one of the more difficult technical aspects of photographing an ADT show, and just requires some experience to know how frequently you should be checking these things. Being able to spot that a dance is particularly dim or particularly well-lit is also a good clue. Keep in mind that distance from lights can significantly affect the effective lighting on the performers - dancers near the back of the stage are usually at least a stop darker than those near the front of the stage.
One final setting to switch before shooting is turning off image preview. There are a few excellent reasons to do this for dance shows in particular: first, when the preview pops up, it remaps your arrow buttons from controlling the focus point, leading to an incredibly frustrating experience. Second, chimping your shots can lead to many, many missed followup shots. Third, the flashing of the screen as it previews the image and then goes black again when shooting can be surprisingly visually distracting when you’re operating on reflexes.
Now that I’ve covered all of the things I tend to think about before a show, let’s spend some time talking about what I’m thinking about during a show. It’s a whirlwind, and this is really where experience will shine.
There are two things to be wary of when selecting a shot: being dull, and always pointing at the center, or being dumb, and missing the action happening right in the center. Striking a balance between photographing the front and center dancer versus dancers off to the side or small groups is very important - the best danceers are frequently put front and center, but it’s important to get photos of lots of different dancers, and dancers to the side are given interesting things to do just as frequently as dancers in the center. On the other hand, choreographers also tend to consider this, and try to cycle dancers through so that everyone gets their moment in the spotlight.
These days, I probably split about 50/50 between shots of whatever’s happening directly in the center versus things happening elsewhere in front. I almost never shoot things happening in the back, because the dancers are mostly covered by dancers in front, and the photos basically never turn out usable.
The most important part of a good ADT shot is composition - the lighting, makeup, and costuming are already done and out of your control, as is the posing (other than timing), so composition is the last remaining tool. Shooting a 70-200, I usually go for individual shots, for which the standard portrait compositions work well: full body, belly-up, shoulders-up. Where things get interesting is when extended limbs get involved - extended arms can sometimes warrant a belly-up which is horizontal so as not to cut off the arms, and extended legs can zoom a full-body out wider than it might otherwise be framed.
I’ll touch on this more when editing, but it’s better if you can give yourself more options than fewer, so I tend to shoot wider than I need. It also helps account for sudden flails of limbs to regions that might be outside of a tight frame. When selecting a tight frame, it’s important to be decisive - a body part is either part of the frame, or not part of the frame. Cutting off hands and feet is unacceptable, but cropping at the upper arm or leg looks far more natural. As an extension, stray arms and legs coming from the edges of the frame can also be very distracting, and I try to crop them out as much as possible. Clone stamping them out of the image is also an option if they’re sufficiently well-isolated.
Timing the moment
Timing the moment of the dance can also be extremely important - dance moves tend to fall into two categories - movements that take you from pose to pose, and movements which are the important poses. It’s important to mentally distinguish between these two modes and adjust your shooting style to match - pose-to-pose movement is much more leisurely, as poses are held for a moment before being moved out of, while kinetic dance requires precise timing to hit the peak of the moment, when the hair is all the way out, the arms are fully extended, or the jump hit peak height.
The flowy object problem
Some of those can be especially difficult - flowy objects, like water sleeves, hair, and some dresses, delay the ideal shot by varying amounts, as the flowy object takes time to reach peak extension. Water sleeves are by far the biggest culprit here, taking up to half a beat to fully extend. I have to consciously delay my photographs to have the shutter fire at full extension for most sleeves dances.
The whack-a-mole problem
One thing choreographers like to do is play whack-a-mole with dancers, where all of the dancers in a formation will be crouched, and dancers will pop up at random to perform a single movement for just a single beat. It looks really cool from the audience, but is basically impossible to photograph. Even when I manage to get a shot of the person that popped up, it’s usually poorly framed and unusable. I’ve taken to just sitting through these segments and waiting it out.
The spinning problem
Dancers, especially in traditional pieces, tend to spin occasionally. These spins can look really cool in photos, but present a unique challenge - at what point in the spin to take the photo? The dancer’s face must be visible and unobscured. That’s not too difficult, usually, except when sleeves are involved. Dancers tend to raise at least one arm above their head, and usually, if spinning clockwise, it’s the right arm, and vice versa for counterclockwise. It may be a bit hard to visualize, but this presents a problem when the dancers are wearing water sleeves - the trailing sleeve from the raised arm (or occasionally the arm itself) covers the dancer’s face when they’re facing forwards. There are two options here - take a photo before the raised arm transits the face, which is occasionally doable if the dancer is facing into the spin or spotting in the right place, or take a photo after the trailing sleeve has transited the face, which is doable when the dancer is spotting forwards.
When staring through a 70-200 tracking the action, it’s easy to lock focus on one particular dancer, follow them through a formation change, and completely miss something really interesting happening elsewhere in the scene. I find this especially common in some traditional dances, where a common formation involves the dancers all moving to the side of the stage save one or a small group. The lone dancer(s) usually get to perform some awesome jump or other move after isolating themselves and getting enough room, and those are frequently some of the best shots. If you’re tracking just a single dancer without awareness of the whole stage, it can be amazingly easy to miss this transition, and then miss the shot. Contrarily, exclusively tracking the lone dancer(s) sometimes leads to missing the shot of some cool “reply” from the big group, copying the fancy move or something similar.
To maintain stage awareness, I employ two strategies: keeping my left eye open to watch the stage while shooting, and moving the camera away from my face entirely to take in the whole scene again. The latter of the two strategies can be dangerous for the same reasons as chimping - it’s very easy to miss followup shots when your camera isn’t pointed and ready to go.
One quirk of the D800 and 5Ds is that the file size is so large that the internal buffer can fill up, locking the camera until it finishes writing images to the memory card. For this reason, plus sanity downloading images later, it’s important to use the fastest available memory card, but even then, when shooting bursts of images, the buffer can still fill. When this happens, it’s important to consciously slow down and be more selective, ensuring you have an open buffer slot for any particularly important shots, such as jumps. Watching the green activity light out of hte corner of your eye maintains a good awareness of the current buffer status, better than the in-viewfinder buffer display in my opinion. Both the D800 and 5Ds have about a 15-shot buffer, which equals about 3 seconds of continuous shooting. With a fast CF card, that buffer can be dumped in about 10 seconds, but with even a 60 MB/s SD card, the buffer writing can chug for 20+ seconds, a significant portion of a 2-3 minute song. This is frequently how I first notice that I’ve overrun the CF card and am writing to the SD card.
That’s all I’ve got for now, and my train ride back from Boston is wrapping up anyway. If you managed to make it through the whole post, congrats! You’ve now heard the vast majority of my thoughts and feelings on the theories of photographing ADT. Hopefully they’ll be of some use to you as a photographer, choreographer, or lighting designer down the road. Part 2 will be coming soon™, so stay tuned for that where I’ll discuss the editing process. That post, at the very least, should come with significantly more pretty pictures.
As always, thanks for reading :)