dance show photography – extreme low light challenges

NIKON D700_28-300mm f_3.5-5.6 G VR_(S125-F4.8-ISO1600-FN)

1/125 F/4.8 ISO1600 Flash OFF

My daughter had her flamenco performance recently, as part of the successful year-end show of Shlomit Weissman’s Dance Academy, so I took my trusty D700 with the 28-300 and Nissin Di-700 (with large bounce card) to cover the event.

The task was much more difficult than I anticipated, and this should make for an interesting post.

First thing’s first, no matter the camera and lens, resolution and size of sensor, zoom reach and so on. Make sure you get close. All the pictures in this post are taken from the 2nd row of the venue. Otherwise you will have to run around the stage, crouch and get weird perspectives. And annoy everybody.

Sitting in the 2nd row only annoyed the people in the row behind me (a lot.. Sorry, folks!!), because every time a performer did something cute, they’d get a BigFlip-It bounce card raised in their view of the stage. And if we’re talking annoyances, I always loved the sound of the D700’s shutter, but in a large quiet venue, 5 frames per second are not that much fun for the people around you who are trying to enjoy the show.

1/125 f/5.3 ISO2000 Flash No)

1/125 f/5.3 ISO2000 Flash OFF

On with the technical stuff now..:)) After you get settled in and check out your field of view, map out the venue if you’re going be roaming around, try to get a feel of the ambient light. Keep in mind that it will always be changing, depending on the stage light. In this case, flamenco performances are very dimly lit so the odds were not in my favour. Because of this I recommend shooting all out Manual.

I always try to stay as low as possible with the ISO, but here I had to go 2000 and above. However, you can burn highlights if you’re not careful, as your subject moves into more intensely lit areas of the stage, so set your exposure for the highlights (and pray you’ll make something of the shadows in post…). There is no way to expose automatically, the lighting conditions change so fast and matrix/evaluative auto-exposure will make a mess. The only way I can think of to measure automatically, is be a Spot metering God.

1/125 /f4-5 ISO1600 Flash OFF

1/125 /f4-5 ISO1600 Flash OFF

In regards to aperture, shoot at the max aperture that  the lens will allow. In dim lit environments, of course having the widest possible aperture is ideal, but there are always ways to overcome equipment limitations. Only when shooting a group you will need to stop down to get more in focus.

In regards to shutter speed, you also need to be as low as possible, but a dance performance can be fast action sometimes. Flash will help with freezing some of the action is certain conditions, but when flash is not an option, it’s spray and pray with low shutter speeds. Here are 2 examples:

Bobby_2014_06_26_0098064_NIKON D700_28-300mm f_3.5-5.6 G VR_(S200-F5.6-ISO1600-FY)

1/200 F/5.6 ISO1600 Flash ON

Bobby_2014_06_26_0098083_NIKON D700_28-300mm f_3.5-5.6 G VR_(S125-F5.0-ISO1250-FN)

1/125 F/5.0 ISO1250 Flash OFF

In the top picture, flash did a good job (under by 1 stop) because the lighting was very dim on the dancer, but on the bottom one, the lighting was stronger and much more even. Flash would have ruined it (faster shutter would have underexposed the dancers in the back and flash would have blown the front dancer) so I took a burst at 1/125, one of them was nice enough to be a keeper.

I stayed at 1/160 most of the time and bumped it up to 200 when things got fast. I went to 1/125 when I felt I needed more light.

Use of flash is an important subject and there are lots to talk about. On large venues or out in the open, you can’t bounce it around because the ceiling is too high and the side walls are far, so direct flash is what you’re left with. That must be used very carefully, we all know what direct flash does to pictures. So I recommend compensating the flash exposure by at least one stop under, and think fill flash. Keep main lighting as a measure of last resort only. Here is an example of a flash lighted picture, because the stage was pitch-black (flash head 90 deg to the right with Demb Big Flip-it bounce card, camera in portait orientation) :

1/160 f/5.0 ISO 3200 Flash Yes, cleaned and WB in post

1/160 f/5.0 ISO 3200 Flash ON

And here is one where flash was used as fill, because the stage was heavily lit in the center and dark to the right:

1/125 f/4.2 ISO2000 Flash Yes

1/125 f/4.2 ISO2000 Flash ON

Another thing worth paying attention to is the auto focus. Since there’s no light, auto focus may have some difficulties locking on. This is the true reason why pros have the huge f/2.8 constant aperture zooms, so the auto focus system will have as much detail as it can get.

Your best chance is always the center point, no matter how sophisticated the auto focus system on your camera is. Use continuous auto-focus (AI Focus setting on Canons) and try to focus on the better lit areas of the dancer you’re tracking. Hopefully that will be the face… With full frame cameras, focusing is much more critical than crop sensors since the depth of field is much narrower, so keeping focus on the face is much more important and recomposing will throw your subject out of the focus plane.

I keep autofocus separated from the shutter button and only on the back AF-ON button, on all my cameras. Half press on the shutter will lock exposure (AE-L). I found this to be very useful on all occasions and in this one in particular, as it enables me to control focus separately from the shutter clicks, track focus with one finger and snap pictures when i feel that the focus is right.

Of course there are no rules of thumb for anything, it will always be trial and error because the lighting conditions vary greatly from occasion to occasion. But I can leave you with a few pointers to think about:

  • Be aware of your camera ISO quality and what is the highest you can live with.
  • Get know the focus performance of your camera/lens combination
  • Shoot in Manual Mode to minimize surprises
  • Shoot RAW, it’s the only way to be sure you can play with highlights and shadows and correct white balance
  • Use flash with caution, paying attention to the way the background is lit
  • Keep the aperture as wide as possible (smallest F number on your lens) and be aware that, as you zoom in, the aperture might close down
  • Keep shutter speeds as low as possible to get the action
  • Change ISO to achieve the exposure you need.

If you think I left something out or have any questions at all, i’d love to hear from you at

Enjoy the gallery. Exposure data is always in the names of all my files. All pictures in this post are post processed using Lightroom only.



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