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Shooting Video of a Dance Recital: Lessons Learned

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I recently shot video and sold DVDs of a dance recital, and I thought I’d share some of the lessons learned from the experience. My hope is that this post helps anyone who might be getting into this particular type of videography.

This was my first time dealing with this particular type of job. Usually the type of work I do is paid for as a “services rendered” type of deal (such as a wedding). In this case though, while I was technically hired to do the videography work by the dance studio, any income would come from DVD sales. This was completely new to me, but ultimately it worked out rather well.

So here are the lessons learned from shooting video of a dance recital:

Lesson 1 – Shoot all of the performances!

If there is more than one performance of the show, definitely record all of them! In this case there were two shows, plus a rehearsal. I was given access to the rehearsal, which was great. I was able to calmly dial in all my settings, test camera angles, practice camera movements and get an overall feel for what to expect during the actual performance. If you have access to any type of rehearsal, absolutely take it! For the show itself, there were two performances on two nights and I recorded both of them. I had planned on shooting both shows just for the sake of having a lot of footage to work with, but the real blessing in disguise here was the fact that some of these performances involved some very young kids. And generally if very young kids are involved, that almost always means that someone is going to end up crying. Sure enough, on both nights (during the same performance!) there were some kids with some pretty bad stage fright. A different kid on each night, in fact. One of the kids actually bailed and left the stage during the first night’s performance, so not much could be done to salvage that footage (she didn’t appear at all on night two). On night two a different kid was crying, but stuck it out throughout the performance. She was fine the night before, so I had plenty of footage of her without any crying. I was able to use footage from both nights to carefully edit the performance to make it appear as if she was happy throughout. Without having recorded both nights, I never would have had that option.

Lesson 2 – Use more than one camera (preferably three)

I shot the first performance with two cameras mounted on tripods all the way in the back of the auditorium and quickly realized that I would have been better off with three. My plan was to use one stationary camera with a permanent wide angle (more on that in a bit) and one more camera to zoom with and follow the action. What I discovered after shooting the first night was that I really needed a wide shot, a medium shot, and a super close-up shot. So on the 2nd night, I had my wife man a third camera that was extremely close to the stage. The purpose of this camera was to grab as many close-ups of each of the dancers as possible. I used the 2nd camera as a “medium shot” which I used to zoom in only as far as seeing the performer’s full body (not just their face). For the most part though, this camera’s job was to get all the performers in one nice, tight shot. I had the stationary camera set up once again as a full wide shot, which simply shot the entire stage. I figured at the very least, I could always just fall back to that camera. This proved to be true.

Here’s a diagram showing my setup. You can see I had two cameras all the way in the back and one very close to the stage.

Tim Ford's Dance Recital Camera Setup

This is the setup I used for shooting a dance recital. Three cameras, one close-up, one medium and one wide.

 

Lesson 3 – Get a tall tripod!

That stationary camera I mentioned earlier? I had it mounted on an old Bogen 3036 tripod, which extends to over six feet via a geared center column. This particular tripod is no longer available and has since been replaced by the Manfrotto 475B Pro Geared Tripod. I’d also recommend grabbing the Manfrotto 502 Video Head. Having a tripod that goes this high can really be a lifesaver. My “medium shot” camera could only be as tall as me (since I was operating the camera), so invariably someone would walk directly in front of me, ruining my shot. Having the tall, wide shot as a backup was great. Having that third “close-up only” camera was even better. I didn’t use the wide shot all that much in the final edit, but when I did use it I was very glad it was there as an option.

Lesson 4 – Get at least a few close-ups of every dancer

I figured going into this gig that it would be important to get close-up shots of every single performer in the recital. This proved to be absolutely true. Every parent that ends up buying a DVD is really buying it to see their kid perform, and to have a lasting memory that can be played anytime they like. If the DVD doesn’t include at least a few nice close-up shots of their kid, you are going to end up with a very unhappy customer. This was the main reason I enlisted my wife to man the “super close-up” camera on night two. Her instructions were literally to just shoot as many close-up shots of each dancer in every single act of the recital. In the end, I was very happy to have these close-up shots during the editing process. I only had one issue with any of the parents in regards to close-up shots, but I was able to resolve it. Remember the crying kid I mentioned earlier? I only had the “super close-up” camera on night two (the night she was crying) so I had to rely on primarily footage from night one if I wanted anything with her in it. That meant that any footage from night two was carefully cut so that as the “super close-up” camera panned towards her, I’d cut away to footage from the previous night. This worked great for the crying kid, but not so much for the kid standing right next to her. The parents of that kid emailed me and asked if I could provide them with a DVD that showed just one camera angle so they could see more close-ups of their kid. I wasn’t able to provide that for them, but I was able to upload all three camera angles from night two on to YouTube (via an unlisted link). This made them happy. Something to consider if you run into anything similar.

Lesson 5 – Capture good ambient audio

I knew going in that I’d be receiving a CD full of all the music that was used in each act of the recital. I also knew that I’d really need to capture good audio of the audience before, after, and sometimes during each performance. I used a Sennheiser ME66/K6 Shotgun Microphone to capture ambient audio and I was happy with the results. One thing I noticed when reviewing the footage from the first night was that there was a lot of sound emanating from the stage, so on night two I added two more microphones. First, I put the shotgun mic on the “super-close” camera. This allowed me to get great audio from both the audience as well as the stage. Next, I put a Sennheiser wireless mic on the stage itself (off the side, out of the way). I was surprised at how much these additional audio options added to the overall quality of the final product. The sound of tiny feet running across the stage just before an act started, or the sound of the shoes during a tap dancing routine, it all added to the feeling of “being there” when watching the finished product. So I’d definitely recommend capturing audio from close to the stage if you can manage it.

Lesson 6 – Manual focus!

I know it seems crazy to suggest manual focus when shooting a live event, but hear me out. For both the stationary wide shot camera and the medium shot camera I went with manual focus (the super close-up camera was on auto focus). I dialed in the focus settings before the show started and never touched the focus ring again. I did this because the stationary camera was never going to move, which meant the focus was never going to change. The medium shot camera was never intended to zoom all the way in, so the focus on this camera remained the same throughout the shoot as well. Video cameras have a really hard time maintaining focus in situations where the lighting is constantly changing (you’ve probably noticed) so keeping those two cameras in manual focus made the most sense to me. It worked out great. The super close-up camera did struggle with focusing from time to time (since it was on auto), but it didn’t much matter. The footage from that camera was used as needed, so cutting out any out of focus shots wasn’t a problem.

Lesson 7 – Offer more than one way to pay for the DVDs

The way I arranged to have orders placed was to mail 100 order forms to the dance studio, which they would then collect from the parents and hand to me on the night of the performance. I also offered a simple PayPal shopping cart option via this website. The PayPal option was especially useful after the “in person” orders were no longer an option. I had quite a few orders come in via my website weeks after the initial orders had all been placed and shipped. I charged $30 for “in-studio pickup” and $35 to ship the DVDs.

All in all I enjoyed this experience. I made a good bit of money from the DVD sales and I’ve been asked to be the videographer for any future recitals. Sweet!

If you are interested in the process I used for editing my footage,  I put together a tutorial on multicam editing in Adobe Premiere over on my YouTube Channel.

Below is a quick montage of the dance recital.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

  • Mike Chiasson

    Great write up Tim! Thanks for sharing. We own a dance studio and have had numerous videographers and always gotten mixed results. Nobody really likes the wide angle shot of their kids but we really don’t sell enough DVDs to entice videographers to bring multiple cameras. It is an interesting model the per DVD pricing that seems to be the norm in the dance recital world.

  • McKersin

    Was the Canon 40mm your wide shot? And what was your close up

    • The wide shot was a Panasonic HVX-200 P2 camera. The close-up shot was a Sony HXR-NX5U camcorder. I didn’t use any SLR cameras in the recording, mainly because they require a lot more babysitting than a standard camcorder does (batteries die, recordings stop after 30 minutes, etc.). I might try throwing an SLR into the mix in future recital recordings though. If I do, it’ll be a Sony A7R (technically not an SLR, I know).

  • One800dave

    Tim, did you have the iris set to manual, or did you have it on auto? Also, did you have to bump up your gain any? Your demo looks like it was set to manual. I have been shooting recitals for many years and I recently purchased a JVC GY-HM170 4K video camera I will be using this year. I will shoot in 4K and render down to SD DVD, since most of my customers have SD DVD’s yet, although in the future, I could offer a Blu-Ray at a premium price. I use the same pricing model you do and have had pretty good success at it. Video looks good! BTW, I did shoot the recital last year with a Canon 70D in HD mode and it was a pain to stop and restart after 30 minutes. I am really looking forward to using a video camera again.

    • So on the two cameras in the back (two Panasonic P2 cameras) I had everything set to manual – iris, focus, white balance – everything. I went to the rehearsal the night before just to see how the camera would react when in full auto mode and…it wasn’t pretty. The camera my wife was using however (the “super close up” camera) was set to full auto because if something went haywire with manual settings, she wouldn’t have known how to fix it.

      I agree about using video cameras vs an SLR when it comes to long-form stuff like this. I’d love to get some nice, shallow depth of field stuff using an SLR, but it’s just not worth it for the extra hassle of stopping/starting every 30 minutes and the potential for an overheated sensor.

      I’m also considering offering a Blu Ray option. I’m curious to hear how it works out for you if you go with it!

      • One800dave

        Thanks for the update! Will do!

    • David

      hi there, since getting the JVC GY-HM170, how has it been with regards to lighting in performances? I’m looking at that model, and the XA30 currently. I’m replacing 2 XHA1s HDV (miniDV) cameras

      • One800dave

        I am rather disappointed in low light performance to be honest. On this camera, when you zoom in, pic gets darker as if it doesn’t get enough light. I can correct some in post but I shouldn’t have to. I wish I would have got the xa30. This does well in good lighting but not so good in low light events like weddings or receptions. I ended up using my Canon 70D for reception video last weekend to try and was fairly happy with the results. Since I don’t shoot 4k now, I should have stayed with the xa30 which I was leaning towards in the beginning. Hope this helps!
        Dave.

  • SouthernCaliforniaGal

    Beautiful footage.

  • Greg

    I’m actually considering taking on this venture for my girlfriend’s dance studio. I have limited experience but the pay for the gig allows me to net a significant amount of cash after purchasing cameras and pressing the DVD copies.

    I cannot afford the level of cameras you used. What moderately priced video cameras will provide me with the highest quality footage and longest battery life?

    • Hi Greg – would it be possible for you to rent a couple of cameras? If I were in your position, that’s what I would do. I’d rent a couple of cameras that can record in HD, then if you do this job again in the future you could continue to use the earnings from future gigs to save up for a new camera (or cameras).

      If you wanted to go with a moderately priced camera, I’d take a look at the Canon XA30. It’s around $1600. Here it is on Amazon – http://amzn.to/2lzErWA

      • David

        Tim, do you use the XA30s? or a different model?

        • I don’t. The wide shots were acquired using older Panasonic HVX-200 P2 cameras. The close-up shot was acquired using a Sony HXR-NX5U camera. Both cameras are older technology but still produce great results.

  • David D-Mann Mann

    This is very helpful. Did store footage locally on cards or direct to hard drive. Editing footage later in final cut? On DVD did you lists each routine at chapter ? Thanks in advance.

    • The footage was captured directly to cards on the cameras, then transferred to USB 3 drives for editing. I edited the footage with Premiere Pro. The DVD featured full menus and chapters and was edited with Adobe Encore CS6. Hope this helps!

  • mattf727

    I’m shooting the recital at my daughter’s studio this year. I shot their spring show a month ago and they want me back. I only used two cameras so I didn’t have a ultra close up cam. What I did was used the static wide shot on the bottom quarter of the screen for the entire performance and had the zoom/pan shots in the rest of the screen. The parents really seemed to like that format. It would be a lot better with that close up camera though so I could switch between mid and close. I do have a question though. How do you get the entire show to fit on the dvd with menus and not have the video degrade to “home video” looking quality?

    • I shot everything in 1080p to start, which helped. The show was only about an hour long in total, so I was able to just squeeze it along with menus onto a standard DVD. Since writing this article though I’ve shot a few more of these and I’ve tried a few different things. The biggest change was that I offered a Blu-Ray option for $10 extra. Actually I was so much happier with the quality of the Blu-Ray that the next time I do one of these, I plan to let people pick Blu-Ray or regular DVD for the same price. Blank Blu-Ray discs aren’t that expensive anymore, and the jump in quality is absolutely worth it (and makes me look more professional). Out of around sixty orders that I got last time, only ten of them were for a Blu Ray. I’d rather that at least half of those sales were for the Blu-Ray version, so I’m hoping a price reduction is what makes the difference there.

      The other change I made that might help you out was I had my wife stand on the opposite side of the stage on the 2nd night for the “super close up” angle. That way I had two different angles to pick from (left side and right side) during the editing process. I really like having that extra angle.

      Hope this helps!

  • Gary

    I’ve been shooting dance recitals and high school spring shows professionally for right at about 35 years now. It is just a small part of my video production business that I make available to our local community. There are so many variables on how to actually film them. Each dance recital is different with different lighting, dancer placement on stage, sound, etc. I use a very high end camera with an even higher end lens to capture the show. Many ‘videographers’ think they can shoot these shows with a lower budget priced camera and it ends up getting them in trouble. I’ve seen it time and time again. I use a camera with a super 35mm sensor that delivers the kind of picture my customers are expecting. You need complete control over the amount of light entering your camera with these types of shows. Iris control is a must. Not a ‘step’ iris control but a smooth or gradual iris control. Anyway, this subject could actually be turned into a 2-3 day training seminar with all of the information a videographer needs to do it successfully.

    • Thanks for the comment, Gary. Curious to hear what kind of camera you are using and if you are using more than one camera?

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