I’ve neglected this blog for a couple of months—my excuse is that all my time has been taken up looking after a new puppy†. He’s now old enough to stay on his own for a while, so I can get back to taking photos and writing about it.
One thing I really enjoy is taking photos of bands on stage—it’s like the ultimate form of environmental photography, when your subject is totally engrossed in what they’re doing and they don’t see the camera, so their demeanour is not influenced by it. I’ve had a couple of opportunities recently; I’ll talk about the first one another time, but for now I want to mention the second because it gave me the opportunity to photograph something that I’d rarely photographed before: dancers. I had photographed some flamenco dancers the last time I was in Spain, but I can’t think of many other occasions.
A local music venue, the Cinnamon Club, was celebrating its 11th birthday and I’d been invited. I’ve photographed bands there before (thanks to the proprietor, Neil, who’s very accommodating of me), so I knew what the lighting conditions were like. That’s the thing about gig photography—it’s not that it’s dark (although a camera with low noise at high ISO does help), it’s the contrast: the dark bits are very dark and the highlights can be very bright. If your camera’s sensor doesn’t have the dynamic range to cope, then your pictures are always going to be disappointing.
Anyway, the band (52 Skidoo) were in their stride, and I was getting some nice shots, when further entertainment arrived: the dance troupe Swingvasion. Since I was up next to the stage, and the dancers were on the floor in front of it, I had to shoot them backlit (I couldn’t move without disturbing people). Backlighting can be very dramatic, so I saw this as a challenge and an opportunity: manual focus, because it was too dark for autofocus (and they were moving too quickly and erratically), widest aperture to get the fastest shutter speed, and liberal use of that most valuable of tools in a photographer’s armoury: anticipation. Under those conditions, you don’t have time to react to get the shot, you have to be proactive; you have to be able to see the picture a couple of seconds before it happens, so that you can press the shutter at the right time.
The other thing you have to consider with dancers is movement. Dance is all about movement, so a photograph has to reflect that if it’s not to be dull. There are two main ways that you can imply movement in a still photograph…
1) Motion blur. A slowish shutter speed and arms and legs move during the exposure, giving a feel for the movement of the subject. The difficulty with motion blur is that you can lose all definition in the subject and it just becomes a mess. Ideally what you want is for much of the subject to remain stationary with only some parts moving.
Expect a high failure rate.
2) Off-balance subject. A person standing (or sitting) in a balanced way is a stationary subject. Movement, whether walking running or dancing, is about being in a controlled state of constant off-balance. In the absence of motion blur, try for that stance that suggests the motion from one place to another…
..or that suggests the culmination of a movement, so the final dramatic flourish encourages us to fill in the movement that led up to it.
Sometimes, you get to combine the two…
I chose to process the images this way because a) backlighting looks really good in black and white, and b) the whole night had a ’20s theme to it, so I wanted the pictures to reflect the photography of that age.
Technical stuff: Nikon D800 at ISO 6400; Nikon 85mm f/1.8 lens.
† A Patterdale terrier, since you ask.