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Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Let's dance!

Finally, I get round to posting something after two months. Anyone would think I've been busy. In the last eight weeks I've photographed kayaking, car mechanics, engineers, nursery kids, chefs, a theatre, a CEO, food and the Queen!
So I thought it was about time I shot some action again, but in this case it would not be sports action. No, in this case it would be something completely new to me; contemporary dance.

This photo shoot came about through one of my colleagues at Kendal college creative arts centre where I lecture photography to foundation students. My colleague's daughter was studying contemporary dance at a leading London college and needed some portfolio images from some of her routines. Some of the dance moves would be choreographed and some would be improvised, using music and narrative sound tracks. This would be new territory for me but I jumped at the chance because...Well, because I thought it could teach me something useful about movement, about lighting and about timing. All things that are vital for sports photography. And let's face it, dancers are great to watch.

My lighting would consist of three Nikon speedlights, SB800, SB600 and SB28. The SB800 would act as key light, on a stand, shooting through a white umbrella with a 1/2 cut of CTO for warm light, at camera right at about head height. The SB600 would be fill light at camera left, also through a white shoot-thru brolly. This would be gelled with a warm-up CTO too. The back-light for separation and rim light would be the SB28 on a justin clamp, this time with a 1/2 CTB (blue) gel, placed at around waist height or lower. The real key to this set was the dance studio we used, at Kendal college. We had access to proper blackout curtains for background and orange theatre spotlights overhead for some additional ambient light which makes a difference to the overall lighting. Best of all, being a dance studio, the floor was a proper sprung rubber affair which allowed Emmie, my dancer, to really perform.

I  had no real plan for this shoot, and little pre-conception of what would happen. We started with some improvised movement, using some of Emmie's preferred music, which gave me an opportunity to start figuring out camera and lighting angles, lighting ratios and exposure and most important, dance shapes that I thought worked.

Exposure was fairly easy. Shutter speed started at sync speed 1/250th, but I dropped that to around 1/80th to bring in some ambient light from the overhead theatre lights and to introduce some motion blur, which I felt was important with this subject. Getting the shutter speed just right, to convey motion and movement seems an important part of the creative process to me and worth experimenting with.
The f-stop was set at 5.6 to keep the balance between flash recycle time and depth of field for sharpness. A wider aperture would allow for faster, more efficient flash but at the short distances I was shooting at (wide angle 18-35mm Nikkor) DOF was going to be pretty short. Emmie moves pretty quickly and covers a lot of floor-space so I was going to have to stay sharp to follow the action. I was going to need that extra DOF.

Lighting ratio was more difficult. I started with everything set to low power. I use the Pocket Wizard mini/flex system so everything is controlled from the AC zone controller on the camera hotshoe. I start with the AC set to manual rather than auto mode (if you have one of these things you'll know what I'm talking about), and dial everything down to minimum power because I'm shooting in a black dance studio here and I won't need much power from the speedlights. Then I start dialing each one up and test it individually to get the light looking OK. It took a while to get the balance right because Emmie was moving around a lot and I'd get it looking just right on the left but too dark on the right, or vice versa which was frustrating until I realised I couldn't hope to cover the whole the floor. Pretty soon I figured that I should just light a sweet spot on the floor and let the action come to me. Then it just became a matter of timing and moving the camera position around to take advantage of whatever was happening in that lit spot. Then by accident I noticed that I really liked the look of the rim light appearing in the background, looking a little bit like a theatre spot picking out the dancer, so I used that in the background in quite a few frames.

So there we were, shooting frames of improvised dance moves and I kept tweaking the lights a little bit and trying different shutter speeds to see what would happen (most of the pictures turned out too blurred when I dropped the shutter speed below 1/80th). Then Emmie stopped and told me she had this piece that she wanted to do which was sort of experimental, and was more of a performance piece. She was keen to have it photographed. I was surprised to find that the soundtrack was not music - it was a narrative - a taped interview actually, and she didn't dance it exactly, she sort of acted it out and interpreted it in motion and gesture. This was a revelation to me. I had not seen anyone do this before - or not in quite this way. It was quite brilliant. But the real "lightbulb" moment for me was the realisation that I was making really interesting, expressive portraits here.

We finished off with a series of moves and jumps that would really show off Emmies physical control with dance. I changed the lighting a little bit too, as I learned to be a bit more subtle and refined - just backing everything off and taking the edge of the rim and the key. I only really appreciated what a difference this made when I viewed the edits after, on the Mac screen, when I could see how well they were working. It can be really difficult to notice these things in the heat of battle, so I have to try and take note of what works and when the lighting is too heavy handed and remember to apply that lesson next time...

This was a great photo-shoot for me. I learned stuff. I was really impressed with Emmies dance and control of movement. It reminds me of the physical control of rock climbing except it's actually exciting to watch! 

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