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Dance Photography

Updated on May 5, 2010

As a subject for the camera, dancing shares all the problems of photography of fast-moving subjects by poor light and it has certain limitations, some of which are common to theater photography. Straightforward flash-photography may be employed for factual records but ballet and other dance-forms call for a more sensitive interpretation. The work of the professional dance photographer is mostly confined to ballet, although many of its problems apply equally to other types of dancing.

A series of ballet pictures should convey something of the atmosphere and theme of the ballet. Lighting should be planned to illuminate supporting dancers, as well as the principals, whilst favouring the latter. Good composition and lighting are very important, followed closely by careful choice of the precise moment for exposure to capture (or imply, in a posed shot) the feeling of the movement. This is of special importance in pictures taken close to the dancers. A knowledge of ballet terms, attitudes and working methods, as well as familiarity with the particular ballet being photographed, is almost indispensable. And permission to take photographs is always essential before commencing.

By Normal Lighting

Stage lighting is much more contrasty than it appears to the eye. If recorded photographically, it is apt to be over-dramatic and not always appropriate to the nature of the production. So as a rule, the general, non-directional, illumination should, if possible, be increased when the stage spots are the main source of light. Under these lighting conditions professional ballet photographers get good results with 35 mm. miniature cameras. Wide aperture lenses and the fastest films are necessary, particularly for taking photographs during a public performance when no additional light can be used. Earlier workers often employed various methods of hypersensitiza-tion and even today the fastest emulsions are only just good enough at the speeds demanded by the action. A shutter speed of 1 /100 or 1 /125 second at f5 can be used with a fairly fast type of film. This gives very little latitude when combined with development in a low energy formula to give fine grain, but this shutter speed and aperture are frequently required for the faster movements of a dancer.

Basic Lighting Plan For Dance Shots

Directional lights at each side of the stage provide the mam illumination, while a floodlamp close to the camera fills in harsh shadows.

Special Lighting. The depth of field required demands an aperture of f8 or f11 at most and this means correspondingly longer exposures. For this reason certain dance movements must be omitted from a series of posed pictures. Professional stage photographers generally bring their own lighting equipment to the theatre. Two 500-watt high-efficiency spotlights, one or two 1,500-watt floodlamps and several 250-watt hand-lamps make a typical collection. With this lighting and careful choice of the "dead moment" of a climax or change of direction in the dance, exposures of 1 or J second may be made. By sensitive handling of these lamps and suitable directions to the dancers before exposure, the expert can recapture the true atmosphere and movement of the dance. With such lighting, and highspeed panchromatic plates or films, there is ample latitude for fine-grain development to a low gamma.

Theatre assignments have to be carried out in the shortest possible time as the cost per hour for rehearsals is high. Only a handful of photographers have achieved success in this sphere.

Synchro-Flash. Reliable and controllable synchro-flash equipment has made it possible to combine the advantages of snapshot technique with the pictorial and practical advantages of the larger camera. While the pressman's flash-on-camera secures only a record devoid of atmosphere, independently mounted flash units coupled remotely to the shutter contacts are capable of much more subtle effects in experienced hands. Some experiment is necessary to be able to predict the precise contribution that the combined flashes will produce; but a photographer with experience can produce in this way photographs possessing much of the atmosphere of the production itself.

The photographer must attend several rehearsals, and take notes of the most suitable moments for the pictures he will take at the photo-call when the company is his to command for an hour or so. The flash lamps are arranged before each scene, and the movements of the dancers are modified, if necessary, to suit his composition. The exposure is then made with the dancers in action, actually performing the particular part of the ballet. With ordinary flash bulbs, the shutter controls the actual exposure by opening for the required interval- e.g., 1/50 to 1/125 second at the peak illumination of the flash bulb. With the electronic flash tube the highest shutter speed— e.g., 1/500 second—may be used, because the duration of the flash is from 1/1000 to 1/5000 second. This is so short that the fastest human motion is too slow to blur the image.

Whether such speed is an advantage in dance photography is a matter of opinion. When there is no suggestion of blur some of the illusion of motion is lost, and many ballet photographers prefer expendable bulbs which, besides being compact, reliable and reasonably inexpensive, permit some control of the degree of blurring of the faster-moving parts of the subject. With properly designed circuits (usually series-capacitor-ignition) there is no limit to the number of bulbs which may be synchronized to fire simultaneously. The lamp-holders, etc., and associated equipment are portable and light in weight; but where large numbers of pictures must be taken, the cost of bulbs becomes prohibitive.

Electronic flash costs little in use, beyond its transportation cost, although this may be considerable because of the bulk and weight per unit of light-output. But the initial cost is high, and at least two linked units of 200 joules output each are needed to cover quite a small ballet group.

In both kinds of flash photography of the ballet the usual flash-distance-aperture factors for the particular materials employed may be used for a start; but the individual worker will have to modify the figures later to suit his own processing technique and the kind of picture he wants to make.

Other Dance Forms

It will seldom be possible actually to pose the dancers in a ballroom, even an exhibition couple at rehearsal. An opportunist technique will be more appropriate, with high-speed film and large-aperture lenses. The shutter-speed and aperture should be set to suit the lighting conditions (which will often be very poor indeed) and zonal focusing adopted, i.e., the focus is pre-set for the distance at which the best opportunities are expected to occur. This decision, and the choice of the most interesting moments in the movement, can be made early in each dance. The exposure is then made when the couple enter that zone for which the focus has been set.

Exhibition dances, by one or two couples only, will offer the best pictures, especially if the dancers are spotlighted.

Folk dancing and national dances are usually performed in the open air, so almost any hand camera may be used. Keeping the traditional nature of such dancing in mind, it is sound to include, as background, such of the surrounding location and audience as is likely to emphasize this, so long as it is subordinate to the main subject. A knowledge of the particular dance forms is valuable, enabling the photographer to anticipate the direction and movements.

Cabarets are frequently dimly lit, and large-aperture lenses with high-speed film are necessary. The characteristic atmosphere may be retained if, in a subsidiary manner, spectators at their tables are included in the picture area. The silhouettes of one or two heads framing the main subject, marginally, can be especially effective.


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