“Spray and Pray” is a Legitimate Technique When Photographing Dance Concerts

Shooting action in low and constantly changing light requires the acceptance of some compromises.

Shooting action in low and constantly changing light benefits from fast frame rates.

I’ve been photographing our local high school dance program for just about a decade, and I still consider this twice-a-year gig as the toughest photographic challenge I face. I rarely create anything I would consider a good photograph, but I’ve gotten good at producing the keepsakes and documentation the students love and the teacher needs.

I got seven chances to photograph this young man's flip, and this is as close as I got to a good photo. It's difficult!

I got seven chances to photograph this young man’s flip, and this is as close as I got to a good photo. It’s difficult!

This spring I attended seven rehearsals and 3 performances, and shot over 15,000 frames, or approximately 1500 per session. In all other forms of photography, I’ve learned to shoot less and get more, but with dance, I’m not afraid to shoot like crazy. For one thing, even as I’ve gotten better at predicting action, it’s fast action and there’s no way I can accurately predict the apex of a leap or the instant when all of the lights are going to change. Moreover, focus is a crap shoot in these conditions, and believe me, I’ve tried every focus mode and adjustment over the years.

I have many frames of lower kicks, misaligned kicks, etc. But I also got this.

I have many frames of lower kicks, misaligned kicks, etc., but I also got this.

Back in the film days, I bought a motor drive for my Canon A1 and went to the Santa Barbara Zoo to test it. In my excitement, I pointed the camera at an elephant and shot a 36-exposure roll of film in six seconds. I got 36 identical images of an elephant. But I can shoot a dance or stage performance at six frames per second and get six discreet expressions and positions within each second. And yes, I’m considering a Nikon D500 so I can shoot 10 frames per second next year… This is what it takes to shoot action.

I used a Nikon D610 and a Nikon D7100, neither of which is stellar at focusing in low light.

I used a Nikon D610 and a Nikon D7100, neither of which is stellar at focusing in low light.

Decades ago, when police departments around the USA began replacing revolvers with high-capacity semi-automatic pistols, many of us condemned the “spray and pray” mentality that followed, as adrenaline-fueled LEOs emptied 17-round magazines without hitting the intended target. Spray and Pray is a bad policy for firearms, but an excellent strategy for photographing fast-moving dance performances in ever-changing but always low light.

Shooting in six-frame-per-second bursts increases the odds of capturing a hat in mid-air, which is always a worthy goal!

Shooting in six-frame-per-second bursts increases the odds of capturing a hat in mid-air, which is always a worthy goal!