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Seven Features of the Perfect Camera for Dance Photography

I’ve just shot quite a brilliant show – Nikolaus Adler’s Oedipus is Complex. I got some good shots but I missed a lot of the most powerful sections while shooting. Was I not paying attention? No, I was paying very close attention and watching my shots go by while withholding fire.

oedipus is complex nikolaus adler
Boris Nebyla lets loose in Nikolaus Adler’s Oedipus is complex
Shot with Canon 20D and Canon 50mm 1.4 1/160 sec f2.2 ISO800

What happened then?

Shutter noise. Oedipus is Complex was a live event and my friend Jörg was shooting a film version. So what we agreed with producer Nicolaus Selimov was:

  • no shooting in quiet spots
  • no rapid fire bursts (not something I’m inclined to do anyway – I pick my moments)
  • minimal number of photos except in very high volume sections

And following this prescription:

  • the performance was not disrupted by my shooting
  • the photographs are quite good

But I did miss a lot of the strongest emotional moments with the performer alone on stage. And some of the sections which I do have could be even better (but I had a choice of three images instead of ten).

So both inspired and frustrated by this evening I went camera browsing for the first time in a couple of years (I’ve been very happy with my 20D, particularly since I put the Canon 50 MM F1.4 on it). I started by making a checklist for the perfect camera for dance photography:

Here are the camera requirements for dance (or classical concert) photography in order of priority:

  1. Quiet
  2. Very good high ISO (good 1600 ISO is really a requirement to keep your shutter speed up)
  3. Fast lenses (you really want to be shooting at 2-2.5 fstop most of the time to be able to keep your shutter speed up – you won’t want to shoot wider open than that as you won’t have the depth of field you need and the stage lights will all go soft, making your pictures look like glow shots from the 70’s)
  4. Accurate and fast autofocus and/or great manual focus tools
  5. Raw format (no time to be monkeying around with white balance in a changing stage light environment)
  6. Large bright viewfinder as you are working in next to darkness much of the time
  7. Good buffer (so when you take a series of raw shots, the camera can keep shooting)

There’s a lot of excitement out there in the photographic world about the just released Canon 5D Mark II. A lot of tests remain to be done, but what’s clear at this point:

  • inadequate focus remains
  • still too noisy (although it does have a stealth mode which diminishes the problem)
  • mediocre high ISO (disputable, but if the Canon 50D sensor is any guide, the 5D Mark II will not be any better at high ISO as the 5D or 1DS Mark III), i.e. perfectly adequate but well behind the Nikon D3 and D700

Some people are complaining about the slow FPS, but frankly 4 FPS is just fine in dance or concert photography for a photographer who is timing his shots. If you’re not timing your shots, you’re a photojournalist shooting arts and not an arts photographer. Moreover you can’t even use the 4 fps and most dance events as rapid fire burts are just not acceptable except at the highest musical crescendos.

While my current camera – the Canon 20D – is the loudest Canon DSLR out there, apparently Nikons make an even greater racket.

Which makes the otherwise very attractive D700 (great high ISO up to 8000, wonderful autofocus) a non-starter.

Some common photographic traits you can sacrifice for dance photography include high speed bursts (too loud) and a huge number of pixels (the issue is low light performance, not number of pixels).

The main issue is that many DSLR manage numbers two to five on this list (Canon 20D, 30D, 40D, 50D, 5D, 5D MkII, 1D MkIII, 1DS MkII, 1 DS MkIII; Nikon D90, D300, D3, D700; Pentax K20D)

Panasonic is coming on strong with their DMC-G1 which gives up the optical view finder for an EVF (electrical viewfinder) and hence has no mirror slap. But the G1 falls down on two criteria:

  • mediocre high ISO performance (starts breaking up at 800, awful at 1600)
  • slow lenses (the only lenses available are a F3.5 to F5.6 medium zoom and F4 to F5.6 telephoto zoom: the roadmap does not include any fast lenses)

I think here is an area that Pentax and Samsung could steal a march on Nikon and Canon (who are unlikely to make a version of their cameras without optical viewfinder anytime soon. Pentax has the lenses to make a go of a non reflex digital changeable lens camera – the silent camera. Sony is in a similar position and had a near miss with the performance crippled but otherwise quite brilliant R1 (9 seconds to write a single raw image to the memory card? – that is not burst performance even I could live with).

Strangely what might be the best dance camera out there is also a Panasonic but a pocket camera. The Panasonic DMC LX-3 boasts:

  1. quiet (no mirror)
  2. good ISO (up to 800 at least)
  3. a very fast lens: F2 to F2.8 25mm to 60mm lens (a little bit short actually for anything other than stage wide shots)
  4. good autofocus (needs further testing but there are multiple modes)
  5. RAW format (although LX3 raw cannot be read in Adobe ACR or in Aperture for the moment)
  6. good viewfinder
  7. just adequate buffer (4 shot bursts, but jpeg only)

The other advantage that an LX3 holds is that you can have it with you all the time. I’d still be two stops shy of what I can do with my current setup (20D with Canon 50mm 1.4). Now I can shoot at F 2.2 at 80mm equivalent at ISO 1600. On the other hand, most of the time I can’t shoot at all as the noise of the camera angers anyone in the vicinity and gets a ban.

And an LX-3 in the pocket would mean I could finally retire my wonderful Canon Powershot S45 (one of the last models with raw) for a camera a little bit smaller but with much better high ISO performance.

Basically the LX3 is not really a dance photographer’s instrument as much as a dance critic’s friend. With permission one can get the shots one needs to illustrate one’s articles. The LX3 is also relatively inexpensive. The camera costs about the same as a single decent lens ($500) and you don’t need anything extra apart from a second battery.

I had a similar camera before, the Panasonic DMC-FZ10. While the FZ10 was crippled with poor high ISO an slow autofocus and had no RAW, due to its silence I was able to do some of my best dance photography just due to the superb lens (35-420MM F2.8 constant) and silent operation (I could shoot as much as I liked but after the performance the lady-balletomane who complained about the camera before the performance thanked me afterwards – she hadn’t been bothered at all by my picture taking).

I don’t know if I will bother with an LX-3 as it won’t let me take better pictures than I can can now. But I am waiting for the silent APS-C or 35MM sized sensor camera body with an EVF which will accept first rate 35mm lenses from any of the mount families (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony/Minolta – with a preference for Pentax or Canon as I already own good glass). My preorder is in for whoever builds it first.

In the meantime, I don’t think I will change my Canon 20D for another DSLR. Whatever I buy will still suffer the same principal issue – shutter noise. My photographs are not limited by ISO or image size or even focus at this point. Silence would be golden.


  1. Hi, Interesting thoughts here. I am also a Canonian (Eos 40d) and have had some experience with Pana (have a fz18 which can do some dance pictures indeed, but with some huge limitations and tons of noise to remove). The Canon 50 mm f/1.4 is a dream lens, though the best is to maintain its aperture above f/2.8 if you don’t want to have soft shots (f/4 is already very sharp). I own the 85 mm f/1.8 too which is also inexpensive and extremely sharp. Because of these great lenses, I think I will stick some time with Canon. BTW, Canon promises something really new for next year (read that on Dpreview), so let’s wait a bit…

  2. Hello Jérôme,

    Thanks for your comment. I made a mistake on my notification address so I just got it this week.

    I find that my Canon 1.4mm is much better at 2 or 2.2 than any other 1.4mm I’ve tried. I’m thinking about grabbing the 85mm 1.8 as well, as my fastest lens over 50mm is 2.8 now.

    Still wondering if I should move to the 5d MkII or the 40D that you have, or carry on with the 20D (if I didn’t have a small amount of front focus, I’d probably do that) as I’m able to get amazing pictures already with the 20D.

    Moving to Nikon would be better short term for the low noise at high ISO but in the medium term Canon should be able to match Nikon’s high ISO performance. I don’t really want to learn a new system.

    The problem with spending a lot of money on photo gear is that makes it even more difficult to take the photos you want as you have to be busy earning money to pay for that gear. I also like that I don’t have to worry too much about lugging my 20D lose without even a cover. The 20D is effectively worthless now (200 euros) so I can take risks to have my camera handy.

    With a 5d Mk II (or Nikon 700) I’d be busy babysitting and protecting it from damage.

  3. Hello,

    Great shots, wonderful job at capturing the emotion. I also like your compositions, they are complex and have many levels to them, which is important in what seemed like a complex performance.

    I read your article and I find it interesting. Your views are certainly bold and unique and I aplaud you for them. I don’t know many who would even consider seriously shooting dance with anything like an LX-3 (although it is one of the best compact cams out there). As I am not sure exactly what you are shooting or in what kinds of situations it’s hard to fairly judge but I’ll share a few thoughts.

    First your main complaint about shutter noise is a good one. I used a 20D primarily for 3+ years and it truly is the loudest you can get; however there are ways you can avoid it. First and foremost the best solution is to simply back away from the performance. I often shoot in cat walks, sound booths, light booths, the pit, and even on stage but most often I try to be far enough away where I know my shutter sound won’t bother anyone. If I am using my 20D and I am in ear shot (such as on stage) I mostly do what you do, you plan your timing and get that one shot. Although I usually only shoot onstage during rehersals where the actors are less concerned with outside sound. So during a performance do your homework and try to find some place out of the way and get yourself a fast tele. If you have the money the Canon 70-200 2.8 (with or without IS) is the perfect lens. It’s share, fast, and covers the perfect range which gives you the reach to back out of earshot. Also the IS gives you a bit of extra shutter stops although with high actions it’s usually not a problem. Although for about $600 you can get the Canon 200mm 2.8 prime lens. It’s fast and sharper than the 70-200 but your also stuck that focal length.

    Lastly I’d say that at least for me I have found the perfect camera. It’s the Canon 1D Mark III (non s version). Yes, it’s pricey but it culminates in all you want. The AF is about the best you can get, it’s got great ISO up to 3200 (I only use 6400 in a pinch), it’s got a 30+ raw buffer and 120+ JPG, and at 10FPS I can always get the moment I need to. At 10FPS it is loud (still much quieter than the 20D) but if I am in a light box or something it doesn’t matter. Best of all the Silent shooting mode is nearly that, silent. The initial click of the shutter is barley noticable withing 5ft. and you can wait for the mirror to slap back down(again it’s muted) during a less noticable time. Shooting in the silent mode I have no problem being on stage or near the auidence and getting the shots I need. I would start out with a fast tele and just go from there, experiment and see what you can do.

    Those are just my thoughts and experience. You can see some of my dance shoots on my web site but most of my theater shoots can’t be publicly posted. Take care and good luck! I can’t wait to see what the quality of a compact lets you pull off.


  4. Hello Larry,

    Thanks for your very interesting post.

    In most European theatres, any camera noise is forbidden. That’s the attraction of the LX-3. Although you are right. I’ve reviewed what the image quality I can obtain on my 20D and it’s a lot higher than the LX-3.

    The Lumix LX3 would be a backup for the main DSLR (20D or otherwise) when I am in a situation where all noise is forbidden.

    I’d heard that there are still focus problems with the 1D Mark III – at least in sport (according to Rob Galbraith). Glad to hear that the 1D Mark III focus works for dance at least.

    I have a lot of great 20D shots to get posted in the meantime… I am surprised about how well the 20D has stood the test of time. Apart from a slightly louder shutter and a few pixels, the 20D only cedes two stops of usable ISO (I max out at 800 on my 20D and would stop at 3200 ISO on a 5D Mark II or even a Nikon D700).

    I am glad to hear that silent mode works well, although as you point out, it’s for single shots. We still desperate need the non-SLR digital camera with a big sensor. I might try to hold out for that one. In an extreme case, one could take video with the 5D Mark II and pull stills. That would be just a single mirror slap for 60 frames of continuous action. Small pictures for large printing but fine for many purposes.

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