Leaping Beauty, Part 1: Their Goals and Mine

One of my favorite shots from last year, but the background required a lot of retouching, and most of the images from this session ended up looking a bit clinical against the white wall.

The next few blog entries could be called “Anatomy of a Shoot.” Last year, a high school dance teacher asked me to photograph her graduating seniors. She wanted the images for an end-of-year concert program, as well as for posters to decorate the theater.

That was my first opportunity to photograph dancers in a non-performance environment.  As regular readers may recall, my biggest challenge at the time was the room itself.  One entire wall of mirrors reflected the tremendous clutter of equipment, desks, and cabinetry throughout the room. The dancers cleared one wall, and that became our background.

I did that shoot with two flashes and a reflector. One flash (SB600) pointed at the back wall to blow out the stains and scratches, although the wall still required a lot of retouching in post-processing. The other flash (SB800) stood above and to the left, with a shoot-through umbrella. I usually placed the reflector opposite the shoot-through umbrella to provide a small amount of fill light.

Some problems with that shoot: I didn’t like the black baseboard between the wall and the floor. The wall included some foam sound absorbers that appeared in many photos. Sometimes I could retouch it out; sometimes I could not. All three flashes spilled light in all directions, lighting the images more evenly, but producing a clinical look.

Working handheld, I struggled to keep the horizon line level, and depending on how I tilted the camera, I also had to deal with distortion and background distractions. Using my own background and a tripod this year did not always solve these problems, but the overall success rate improved; I only required about ten takes per dancer to produce two usable images.

This year, the teacher once again wanted photos for the program and the theater, but some of my goals were different. For one thing, I wanted to achieve a more dramatic look, and I wanted more action.

The situation was also different. The dance program has grown, so I would be photographing between 12 and 15 dancers (Last year there were six seniors in the program). With only 2.5 hours available, we needed to compose, light, and shoot a group photo, then relight and photograph each dancer in a pose and/or action shot. Under these circumstances, I knew I would not be able to adjust the lighting for each shot, so I tried to create an all-purpose set-up that would still produce a more dramatic feel.

I brought a lot more gear than last year, including a nine-foot-wide by ten-foot-tall black backdrop, three flash units (2 SB600s and an SB800), various stands, etc. In a real departure for me, I also brought a tripod.

During the shoot, I learned that solving one problem sometimes introduces two new problems. I also learned that a one-size lighting design does not fit all, and probably never will. Over the next few blog entries, we’ll go through the shoot chronologically to see how I applied what I learned since last year, and how I adapted to new challenges during the shoot. Hope you’ll join me for the adventure.

The first shot from this year's session. As I said, for every problem solved, two new ones seemed to pop up. What I didn't say is that these challenges are one of the chief joys of photography for me.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Dance and Theater, Lighting, Post Processing

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