Frame The Dancer

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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by Martin French

The proliferation of dance blogging has brought about a proliferation of dance photos all over the web, some of them good some of them bad and a few of them really really pointless. Even the most mundane dance shot can be brought to life however with a little bit of tweaking here and there. We offer up some quick tips to make those shots just a little bit more presentable.

For me there are four basic principles of a good photo; subject matter, focus, composition and exposure.

Your Subject

Obviously the subject matter of your image and whether or not it's of any interest is purely subjective. Me, I hate pictures of boats and birds but some people love that stuff. A quick look through the photo sharing website Flickr reveals thousands of the damn things.

For our purposes we're talking about pictures of dancers, and again, what makes a good dance image is completely subjective. Here at Article19 we prefer editorial style shots that are not set up or artificially lit, unless it's stage lighting.

Sometimes however you need to set things up to get the shot you want, like the picture of All Play Dance Company (Vanessa Cook and Nikki O'Hara) below.

Don't try and get too wrapped up with catching "action" shots of dancers. In a studio or during a performance there's a lot going on, depending on the setting, so look around for different images, look for something quirky, out of the ordinary, something that other people will be interested in seeing.

The image below of the young girl in rehearsal shows a side of the creative process that is about more than flashy moves.

The type of shots you can get depend on the type of camera and lenses you have and catching a particular moment at the right time. In many situations cell phone cameras are taken out back and given a sound thrashing by 'real' cameras that do one job and do it really well, take photos.


When looking at images across the web and in particular on blogs it gets very frustrating when about 70% of the photo is a complete waste of screen real estate because what we, as readers, want to look at is right in the middle of the frame.

Professional photographers tend to do their cropping in the camera when they take the shot but most of them will also trim the excess in post production to really tighten up the image. When you crop a picture you can take as much as 70% of it away and end up with a shot that really holds your readers attention.

Looking at the image below of All Play (Vanessa Cook and Nikki O'Hara) in rehearsal there is very little we can do about the chairs in the background but we can do something about the door on the right.

Cropping the image just to the right of the dancers and a little below them brings the focus of the image to where it should be. We've only cut away about 30% of it but that's more than enough to make the image effective.

Make sure you crop the image first and then scale it down to fit within your blog page.


Composition is about nothing more than where we put things in the cameras two dimensional frame. More often than not putting the subject matter of you photo in the middle of the frame is not the most aesthetically pleasing place.

There are exceptions of course, like the very first image of All Play at the top top of this page, the converging lines of the crops in the field, with the dancers in the centre, focus your attention where the photographer wants it to be.

The above image of Ballet Lorent (Debbi Purtill and Aaron Knight) is significantly enhanced by the main subject of the image, Debbi Purtill, being located to the left of the frame. Your eyes are drawn from the left, across the image, following her arms and to the fabric of her costume.

If the shot was composed with Ms Purtill in the center with nothing but black space around her, as was the case in this particular venue, the photo would lose impact and drama.

If in doubt, knock your subject of center (not literally of course, knocking dancers about is frowned upon) within the frame, your shots will look better for it. The principal at work here is called the 'rule of thirds' you can read more about that in our [ piece on shooting video ].


Exposure is about letting the right amount of light hit the camera's electronic sensor so the resulting image looks like the scene you see with your own eyes. The exposure is determined by the cameras internal light meter and, as you would expect, some cameras are better than others. Even the very best cameras will sometimes get the exposure wrong however but don't fret because you can fix it very easily.

The image below, again of All Play (Vanessa Cook and Nikki O'Hara), was taken outside and the camera got a bit confused and underexposed the dancers.

A quick visit to Photoshop is all that's required to adjust the exposure on the image and bring the dancers back to life within the photo. The corrected image below was achieved using Photoshop's 'levels' tool to change the brightness of the highlights and midtones.

If you don't have Photoshop, or its little brother Photoshop Elements, there are plenty of applications around that can do similar correction functions on images. iPhoto on OSX or Paint Shop Pro on PC's are two examples. There is also Pixelmator, a low cost OSX image editor and there are several online image editors that are free to use. The best of which is called Picnik and it will soon be incorporated into Flickr.

When correcting the exposure of your image try and make it look as natural as possible. You may have to over and underexpose certain elements within your image to get your subjects popping out from the frame.

Focus/Camera Shake

For many photographers a photo is either in focus or it's not, there is no middle ground. 'Soft' images can be sharpened to a limited degree but 99% of out of focus images are a lost cause and should be discarded.

If you are trying to achieve shots where your subject is in focus and everything else is out of focus (called 'depth of field') then the equipment you have and the circumstances where you are taking pictures will all play a part.

The above image of the video camera shows just how narrow the focal plane (the area that is in focus) of an image can be. Just how narrow the focal plane is is determined by the 'aperture' setting on your camera and how far away or close you are to a particular subject. Cell phone cameras and Compact cameras usually have a fixed aperture so there's not a lot you can do to affect the depth of field.

If you want to get fancy then you will need a Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) Camera and a good lens. The Canon Eos400D or the Nikon D80 are excellent, affordable Digital SLR cameras. Even with one of those cameras the lens you are using will determine just how narrow a depth of field you can achieve within any given circumstance. One of the best lenses for shooting in dance studios or at performances is the 70-200mm F2.8. A 24-70mm F2.8 is also very useful, neither of these lenses is what you would call cheap though.

Camera shake is evident when the entire image is a smudgy blur. It's caused by a combination of slow shutter speeds and the camera moving at the point the image was taken. Images taken in low light are particularly vulnerable to camera shake.

The only thing you can do is either brace the camera against a solid object, like a ballet bar, or keep the camera as close to you body as possible, thereby increasing its stability.

More sophisticated cameras have a greater range of abilities when shooting in low light, cell phone cameras are universally useless at shooting moving subjects in low light.

A Word On Equipment.

Cell phone cameras may be a convenient alternative to carrying around a separate device and when you're snapping away for your MySpace or Facebook page they get the job done. In bright light with none moving subjects they are awful, but tolerably awful. Cameras were added to cell phones for no other reason than to bloat the feature list and make people spend money sending useless "multi-media" messages.

If you are taking pictures for your blog or other website and you actually expect other people to look at them and understand what you're going on about then you're going to need something a little bit more sophisticated.

A low cost Digital SLR from Nikon or Canon is the perfect solution for the budding dance blogger to record the goings on within the studio or backstage. They are also relatively small and light so they will not weigh down your back pack all day. If an SLR is too much for you then a dedicated, compact camera is far superior to any cell phone camera. Anything in Canon's Digital Ixus Range or a Nikon Coolpix will serve you well.

Just say 'no' to cell phone cameras!

[ Picnik Photo Editor ]
[ Nikon Camera ]
[ Canon Camera ]
[ Pixelmator ]
[ Paint Shop Pro ]
[ Flickr ]
[ All Play Dance Company ]

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