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Aerial Dance Photography: Tips for Capturing Stunning Shots

Photography has a symbiotic relationship with a variety of art forms. Much like painting can go hand in hand with music, photography goes hand in hand with dance. Aerial dance is one such dance art form that is a true treat for photographers to capture! Like the name implies, aerial dance is choreography that doesn’t require the dancer to touch the ground. 

They key to capturing aerial dance is all in ensuring the right moments are photographed. Much like a critic watching a performance, form and structure is very important in aerial photography- especially since photographs are rather unforgiving in that regard (you can’t hide an imperfection in still images like you can in actual movement). Ensuring the lighting is dramatic and emphasizes the intensity of the performance is another key tip in photography aerial dancers well. 

What Is Aerial Dance?

“Aerial modern dance is a subgenre of modern dance first recognized in the United States in the 1970s. The choreography incorporates an apparatus that is often attached to the ceiling, allowing performers to explore space in three dimensions.” writes a quick Google search on the topic. 

In short, aerial dance is a form of bodily expression and movement on objects such as hoops, silks, and other tools that allow the performer to appear to be in flight as they are lifted off of the ground. This stunning artform is further complemented by being a fantastic photography subject! 

Gear, Gear, Gear

Efficiency all comes down to gear, doesn’t it? Here is what you’re going to want to have if aerial photography is on your radar. 

The Camera

The camera is the heart of the photography equation, and the one that operates a motor that powers the lens. As such, for aerial photography, what you need to pay attention to when selecting a camera is frames-per-second. Every camera has something called FPS, or Frames-Per-Second. What this discloses is how many pictures a camera can snap per second of shooting. Because aerial dance is an action-involved subject, ensuring that you are able to shoot quickly with high FPS will help capture every moment of the routine. 

FPS also goes hand-in-hand with ISO and low light capability, something a lot of photographers don’t consider correlating. Before we express what the relationship is, let’s chat about ISO. 

As a photographer, all you need to know is that the lower the ISO number, the less ‘sensitive’ the camera is to the light. This means that images will generally turn out a bit darker. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera is to light. Aerial photography sometimes happens in a dance studio, sometimes outdoors, and sometimes in an arena. Wherever they happen, you need to be ready with a camera that can handle lower light (as that will likely be what you are up against the most). 

Low light capable cameras can bump the ISO a bit higher and have less noise. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive the camera is to light (but the less noise the photograph has). The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera is to light (but the more noise the photograph has). 

Now, this is where FPS comes into play. You can actually keep your ISO at a slightly lower value than before if you have a fast camera. By activating FPS, you can actually keep your shutter speed at a lower value than expected, which successfully lowers your ISO value. You see, ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture all pertain to the Exposure equation, and much like math, if you adjust one variable the rest are affected. In this case, a fast camera equals lower values all around which helps remedy noise. 

If you have to use a slower shutter speed due to low light but still want to freeze the action, set the speed to something higher than 1/50 and then make sure your camera is in Burst Mode / High Speed Continuous Shooting. If you keep firing off and taking advantage of the FPS, at least one of the images will be perfectly still with no motion blur solely because of how fast the camera is able to take photographs! 

Ideal FPS would be around 30 frames per second, with the minimum being 20.

The Lens

As for the lens, we can’t tell you exactly what lens to get. The lens you use really depends on your location and your proximity to the aerial dancer. If you are further away because the performance is higher up, a telephoto or zoom lens works excellent. If you are closer, you can use a standard lens. For interesting perspectives, a wide angle is great! 

What you may want to look into are lenses with wider apertures, however. Aerial dance locations can be a bit distracting or not very flattering. Wide apertures pertain to depth of field, the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. What this means is that a shallow depth of field will have the subject in focus and everything else blurs away! This helps isolate the subject from the location and make sure that all of the attention is directed to what you’re photographing. 

Look for lenses with an F/2.8 or wider (such as F/1.8 and F/1.4). These tend to be fixed lenses for the most part, or lenses that do not zoom.

AI Continuous Focus

This is important- switch your camera focus mode to continuous! By default, your camera is set to One-Shot right out of the box. You need to switch your camera over to Continuous Autofocus (AI Servo in Canon, AF-C in Nikon, Continuous AI in Sony, etc.). Continuous Focus is when the camera’s focus keeps refocusing on the subject as it moves. 

This allows you to follow an entire dance routine without losing focus

Now, cameras aren’t always 100% accurate, so do remain diligent in checking your focus and simply refocus if the subject gets ‘lost’. 

Long Exposures and Fast Exposures

Because aerial dance photography deals with movement, you have two choices in how you express that motion: freezing the action, or allowing the motion to blur into a fluid line. 

A long exposure is when you allow the action to blur, allowing an image to have a sense of movement to it. Long exposures are created the shutter is open for a long period of time, therefore your shutter speed is slowed down tremendously.

To ensure that your aerial dancer’s face is still clear but the legs and arms blur with movement, it’s a good idea to set the shutter to something around 1/50 or 1/60! Slow enough to blur faster movements but fast enough to freeze slower movements. 

If you want to freeze the action, this is where you speed your shutter up significantly. To be on the safe side of motion being frozen no matter what, going higher than 1/4000 is recommended, with 1/8000 being the maximum. Many sport photographers shoot at 1/8000. 

But that being said, lighting may not always be ideal and you’ll often need to go to a somewhat lower shutter speed in order to maintain proper exposure. The shutter speed you need to freeze action depends on how fast your subject is moving. 

For aerial dancers, the minimum should be around 1/500! 

Select Your Poses (And Your Moment) Carefully 

As photographers, our job is to ensure our subject looks their best. For dancers, this really means selecting poses, moments, and perspective carefully to accentuate beautiful features. 

It’s best to choose poses that photograph well, such as extensions or back pulls. Look for poses that show the lines of the body the best, and won’t get distorted in a still image (as some poses require a sequence to make visual sense). 

For aerialists, choose the poses that will really show flexibility and strength as that is what the genre is known best for. Equally, suggest to your dancer that they choose poses that allow them to conserve energy. Photo shoots tend to last longer than dancers expect, so having them select poses that they can rest in aids in that. A professional dancer suggests that saving energy is simply planning an array of poses that doesn’t target the same muscle set. Just something to keep in mind! 

In conclusion, aerial dance provides rampant opportunity for incredible images. Ensuring that you capture the dancers with dramatic lighting, elegant poses, and captivating moments will keep them booking you time and time again! 

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