Part of the Fun is Never Knowing Where Your Camera will Take You.

Rochelle and I were asked to photograph the dress rehearsal for a dance performance last week, and I’ve got to tell you, it was certainly something I never thought I would do.  Dance?  Really?  Spend all day shooting a bunch of kids in a dim dance studio?  Not me.  I’d much rather spend the day shooting landscapes in Yosemite.  But you know what?  It was a blast, and we learned a lot too.Dancers in a line

The first thing I learned is that artificial light, as bright as it may seem to your eyes, isn’t really very bright at all.  And if there’s a mix of sunlight and a variety of man-made lights in the room, your white balance is going to end up being a thousand degrees off from reality.  Light is the very essence of photography, and bad light can quickly equal bad photographs.  I was worried.Break Dancing 1

Add to that a bunch of young, energetic dancers, moving around the floor as fast as their little feet will take them, and you’ve got a real photographic challenge on your hands.  And if that that weren’t enough to drive you nuts, we were shooting in a room that was, to put it nicely, full of junk.  Isolating a scene amidst so much clutter was nearly impossible.  We might be able to fix that in editing, but they needed the finished photos in just a couple of days.  Yikes.

But surprisingly, we ended up with a bunch of pretty darn good photos, and I’ll tell you how we did it.

First of all, we shot in jpeg mode.  I know, if you can’t figure out your white balance, everybody says to shoot in RAW.  But I had my camera set up for burst mode shooting, which on a Sony is a heck of a lot of shots per second, and I didn’t want to wade through all of those RAW files.  Plus, we had to boost up our ISO because of the dim lighting and that would have meant running all of the shots through a noise reduction program (either the one built into Adobe Lightroom, or more likely through my favorite noise-reduction program, Dfine by Nik Software.) Three Ballroom Dancers Instead, we let the camera’s processing engine deal with the noise, and it worked quite well too.  As an added benefit, the jpeg engine added contrast and sharpening.  We’ll get into how we processed these jpegs later.

As I mentioned, we shot a lot in burst mode.  It was the best way by far to capture the quickly moving dancers.  I also used focus tracking to keep a bead on my subject.  Most every camera has some form of focus tracking, and they go by a variety of terms.  The only issue with my fairly basic Sony is its focus tracking is set to the middle of my display. Dancer Freeze That’s great for keeping moving objects in focus, but it doesn’t make for a great composition.  That’s why I shot with a wide angle lens.  I figured I could crop my images to make for a more pleasing composition after the fact.  That worked out pretty well too.

Physically, we were moving all of the time.  It was a dress rehearsal and not a performance, so we were free to use the entire room.  We moved all around the dancers and tried every angle we could think of.  Rochelle even spent some time right down on the floor.  We had never seen the dances before, so we couldn’t anticipate where the action would be, so the constant movement worked well.  That, and having two photographers didn’t hurt either.  A Dance that Tells A StoryIf I missed a shot, Rochelle was sure to pick it up and vice versa.   Our main goal was to capture the “feeling” of the dance and if possible,  tell a story.

There were a lot of dancers and a lot of performances, so we also wanted to make sure we got at least one good shot of everyone in the show.   I did bring my off-camera lighting setup, but with all of the hustle and bustle of the rehearsal, I was only able to do a few “posed” photographs.  However, a few times, we were able to use some natural light that was falling in through the windows, like in this shot of a young dancer.  Rochelle was able to capture some wonderful rim light.Dancer with Rim Light

As you can imagine, the first thing I did was delete all of the out-of-focus and out-of-frame photographs.  And let me tell you, that took some time.  Then, I marked all of the photographs that I thought had potential for editing.  I do most of my color editing in Adobe Lightroom, which has the ability to create “Presets”.  Presets allow you to edit one photo and simply apply all of those edits to additional photos.  What a time saver! Presets work best when you have a lot of shots taken in the same kind of lighting. At the end of the day, Rochelle and I brought home over 2,500 photographs, all taken within a two-hour period.

Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t change the white balance of your shots when you shoot jpegs.  You can.   You might have to push the slider a bit further, and you can’t change the white balance quite as much, but it’s just as easy to “warm up” a cool photograph in a jpeg as with a raw file.  In this case, I had to “cool” my photographs, as the artificial lights gave all of my shots a bit of a brownish/yellowish tint.

Now, back to cropping for composition.  We weren’t concerned about printing, as the photos were going to be distributed to the dancers and their families on a DVD.  Because of that, we were able to “play” with the ratios in any manner we found pleasing. Dancing extreme CropAnd we could do some pretty severe crops as well, because we weren’t worried about saving pixels for printing. I found the square format worked well for me.  If my subject was in the center of the frame, I could at least “fill the frame”.  But sometimes, a long panorama crop worked better. As always, the rule of thirds and finding “threes” worked out well.

As I mentioned before, the performance room was very cluttered, so to diminish the busyness, we used selective blurring and darkening, as well as some hefty vignettes to “hide” the background and put the focus and light on our subjects.

Painted DancersRochelle took her editing to another level by importing several shots into Corel Paint and then painting over the photographs with a variety of digital brushes.  She uses a Wacom tablet for her painting, but how she actually does it is a story for another day.

We ended up with about 80 finished photos each and the feedback has been wonderful.  So after all of my initial hesitancy, I’d jump at the chance to do it again.  And I guess that just says if you have a chance to shoot something new, take it.  You never know what you’ll end up learning in the process.Solitary Dancer

10 Responses

  1. Great Blog Kevin! I agree on trying something new. When I helped Lesie at Columbia Bango & Fiddle Contest this year, I learned new & relearned old photo technics.

  2. Did you use a wide angle lens? I am looking forward to seeing more dancers. These really are beautiful on Flickr as they are larger and I can see more detail. If you just spend time observing the dancers you can anticipate their next move and be ready for it. It’s kind of like a sports photographer who knows the moves of football players or baseball. The same with ice skaters, you can tell when they are about to do a jump or spin. But lots of observation and an understanding of the moves helps a lot to be ready to capture that moment in time.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Yes, most of the time I used my 16-50 2.8 wide. Fortunately for us, they ran through the dress rehearsal twice so it was slightly easier to figure out where to be the second time around. I’m sure if we get to do more of this, we’ll get better at anticipating the dancer’s movements. I think I might post a few more in the Flickr Photo Club group.

  3. You two are such pros! The dancers and their family have to be so thrilled – heck, *I’m* thrilled to see these without even knowing the kids. I never would have thought to switch over to jpeg to improve burst mode speed. Gotta try that on my hummingbirds! Also was very interested that you found you could adjust your jpegs’ white balance satisfactorily in post. These shots are great and of course I always love Rochelle’s art work ♥

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