Greatest Photographic Challenge Ever?

On the weekend I went down to the coast with a whole lot of amazing, gorgeous dance friends. We had a wonderful weekend of relaxing and socialising by day, and dancing by night. However, social dancing is, from my experience, one of the most difficult things in the world to photograph.

Dee and Pat dancing Bachata

Dee and Pat dancing Bachata: ISO2000 - f/1.4 - 1/40s

Social dancing is almost always done in low light for ambience. Low-light photography usually means shooting with high ISO, wide apertures, and slower shutter speeds, except that dance involves fast movements, and to “freeze” the action one needs to shoot with as fast a shutter speed as possible.  If you’re photographing sport in good light, you might choose a shutter speed of 1/125s or 1/250s to “freeze” the action; but that’s simply not possible when you’re shooting subjects in a room lit by a single light bulb!

Dancers lit by a single lamp bulb

Dancers lit by a single lamp bulb: ISO1600 - f/1.4 - 1/50s

Rather than shooting with a fast shutter speed, I have found that shooting dance photography in low light requires a sense of musical timing and an understanding of dance.  As a dancer myself, I’m careful to watch the movement of the dancers I’m photographing, and keep a sense of the rhythm and tempo of the music.  This means I can predict, to some extent, when my subjects will move and when they will stop; and I time my shutter button for those stops.

A natural "freeze" in action: a "drop"

A natural "freeze" in action: a "drop"

The other difficult factor in shooting dance photos is the shallow depth of field resulting from the need to keep the aperture wide open.  At the ranges at which I was shooting, the acceptable depth of field was a mere 10-15cm; certainly almost never deep enough to capture both partners in sharp detail.  Rather, I was forced to choose to manually focus on just one partner’s face – usually the girl’s – and let the rest of the photograph blur with motion and/or depth of field.  The results aren’t that bad – indeed, this focus on a specific part of the image can help to strengthen the composition.

Performing a group "Zumba" routine!

Performing a group "Zumba" routine!

I was able to apply the same techniques to other activities during the weekend requiring low-light capture, such as this shot of social table-tennis:

Social table tennis

Social table tennis

The “easy” way to shoot these subjects would have been to simply use a flash – and yes, I could have; I had my 580 EXII with me, but chose to shoot these in available light to preserve the natural ambience, and to shoot more discretely.  I felt that having a high-powered flash going off would make the photography far more intrusive and my subjects a lot more self-conscious, as well as detracting from the dancers’ enjoyment of the dancing.  Quietly clicking away without a flash meant that my friends wouldn’t feel like they were constantly under scrutiny, and I feel that these shots portray the weekend’s fun in a more candid and natural way than could be achieved with an in-your-face flash-and-big-zoom-lens approach.


~ by Q on June 8, 2010.

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