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The challenge of dance photography


Dancers with the Barbara Ellis Studio of Dance peform "MONEY" during the Colorado Springs Dance Theatre's "Dance, Dessert and Dreams" event at Wasson High School. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Dancers with the Barbara Ellis Studio of Dance peform "MONEY" during the Colorado Springs Dance Theatre's "Dance, Dessert and Dreams" event at Wasson High School.
Every year I’m invited by the Colorado Springs Dance Theatre to photograph their marquee event, "Dance, Dessert and Dreams."

It’s a performance sponsored by the non-profit and takes place in Wasson High School theater. This year, the event featured 10 dance studios from the Pikes Peak Region.

If you’re not familiar with dance in Colorado Springs, you’re really missing out. Dance has a great history and proud tradition locally. Our local dance studios are some of the finest in the state and the region. They offer training in everything from hip-hop and modern to classical ballet.

Dance, Dessert and Dreams showcases all of these styles in back-to-back performances. It’s a fantastic showcase of young, talented dancers.

Taking pictures of dance offers its own set of challenges.

The first is exposing for the stage light. Wasson's theater has dramatic stage lighting that changes throughout the performance. The light is not very bright, and in order make a good exposure I have to increase my ISO (camera’s light sensitivity setting) compensate for the light.

The second challenge is getting a shutter speed fast enough to capture the movement of the dancers. Dance, after all, is like a fast moving sporting event that happens in a dark theater! I need a shutter speed of 1/200 of a second or faster to make certain I can capture the movement of the dancers.

The third piece to make this work is the right lens. Without a lens that allows me to photograph using a shallow depth of field (ideally 2.8 or faster), the combination of high ISO and fast shutter speeds will make the images look too dark.

My favorite lens to use for this situation is my Canon EF 70-200 mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom lens with image stabilization. It’s a professional lens that's ideal for shooting sports in low light and allows me to shoot “wide open” and capture the dancers with a fast shutter speed.

The final challenge is making sure the dancers are in focus and that I haven’t cut off any limbs! I have to take a lot of pictures of each performance to make sure I get a few images that work.

This year's performance lasted roughly an hour. I made nearly 3,000 exposures - roughly 50 images a minute. Ultimately, I edited this down to 600+ images.

To illustrate this column I’m posting a few of my favorites from the performance in the slideshow below. 

Sean Cayton is a wedding photojournalist of 19 years and operates a successful, award-winning wedding photography studio in Colorado Springs. He's also an award-winning photojournalist. Sean is happily married to the love of his life (also his business partner) and is father to three beautiful children. When he’s not working, Sean can be found outside flying kites with his kids, hitting golf balls or casting a fly rod to hungry trout.

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