A Dance Photoshoot Story




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One of the wonderful things about being an amateur photographer is that every shot is an experiment. Nowadays when I'm out shooting landscapes I usually have a fair idea what the slides are going to turn out like, but at the same time there's always something unfamiliar I'm learning about - a new location, camera, lens or film. Pictures of people I find much more difficult.  I never really have a clue how well things went until the films have been developed!

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I Didn't have much planned for the weekend anyway. Thought I might take the car for a spin to Cambridge, check out the Autumn colours and try out my new camera (a Mamiya 7II). Got an email on the Friday morning from April asking if I could do a photoshoot for her new dance work the next day. Suddenly the Autumn trees seemed less appealing... I was having trouble getting the car started anyway. My "rescue service", Direct Line, had refused to come out and start it on account of Mr Bin Laden and the high concentration of Muslim Fundamentalists in my area of London (honest!)

Not one to pass up the opportunity of supporting a fellow artist (nor that of photographing of a couple of attractive young ladies) we ended up (after a good Pizza in the place above the Dickens Bar in St Katherine's Docks, and also after being told to get lost by a security guard who was over-zealously guarding an iron grate outside the Reuters building from attacks by groups of young adults armed with nothing more offensive than a couple of cameras and a bag of clothing) taking some shots against the background of a canal in Wapping.


I started off feeling confident. I liked the location, the girls looked great, the light was excellent... what more could you need?

Then something dawned on me - I didn't have the faintest idea what I was doing. But then I never really know what I'm doing - I'm only an amateur photographer after all and having to make up most things as I go along doesn't usually seem to matter at work!  I could just shoot lots of film and edit out the crap later. Surely my innate compositional and technical skills would shine through and something decent would come out!

So the girls started dancing and Iain and I started shooting. We had decidedly different styles. Whilst I was jumping around making lots of noise with my motordrive and changing films and lenses, Iain was keeping a low profile, climbing the odd tree and just silently sitting there with his smart new digital camera shooting away and, as he described it, "letting the pictures come to him".

The title of April's latest work is "Talk Less". The idea is that people (even Americans, apparently) can (and perhaps should?) communicate through body language rather than talking. At least that's how I understand it. I'm sure the official explanation will be available on April's website (link at the end). So what we really wanted was a single photo which showed the dancers connecting, communicating without speaking, hopefully portraying movement at the same time.

So maybe I did know what I was trying to do after all, I just didn't know how to do it.

Perhaps the only useful things my photographic experience so far had taught me was how to get the right exposure and depth of field and focus the camera. Apart from that there was very little common ground. Split-second timing and the ability to give the dancers some sort of useful feedback was not something I'd ever had any practice at...

I did make some useful suggestions.  I (eventually) realised that the canal was a much better background than the random foliage opposite, and managed to avoid potential background disasters.  I was probably concentrating on focus more than anything else, and succeeded with that - ended up with very few out of focus shots despite shooting at f2.8 with my f1.4 50mm lens on the Minolta Dynax 600si(using manual focus). 

I would have thought I had the advantage over Iain, looking through the bright, clear viewfinder on the Minolta with that lovely fast lens whilst he "watched TV" on a little LCD screen. But whilst his camera dealt with the technicalities, I only really had time to concentrate on two things - critical focus and the overall shape of the composition. I didn't have much time to look for detail too. And of course I lacked the luxury afforded to digital camera users of being able to see how successful the recent shots had been straight away.

Quite soon I had used up my entire stock of slide film, including a film of last resort, Kodak Elite Chrome. I had bought it in Rome whilst stranded there the last time the MX5 had broken down. It seems virtually impossible to get hold of Fuji slide films in Rome. Even the normal Elite Chrome is rare. (The Romans seem fond of the "extra colour" variety of Elite Chrome - a film so awful that it probably wouldn't even have been the market leader back in the days when the Romans were more interested in building walls to keep the Scots out than taking photos). Fortunately at the same time as shooting the Elite Chrome I was experimenting with something which turned out to be utterly useless, so it was in fact neither a waste of good film nor a waste of time, but merely a waste of bad film in the pursuit of further knowledge!

My experiment was all about trying to capture movement. My instincts told me to use slow shutter speeds to create motion blur, and slow shutter speeds mean you need a tripod, so I dutifully mounted the camera on the tripod whilst trying out a variety of shutter speeds. Of course to get slow shutter speeds you have to use small apertures, meaning large depth of field. So all my pictures involved dancers who were blurred to varying degrees with a wonderfully sharp bush in the background. Absolutely useless!

The turning point of the shoot was after the Roman Elite chrome had been finished off. I loaded up some XP2, and shunned the shadowy bush in favour of the sunlit canal. Everything seemed to come together, I shot more film in a shorter time than I think I've ever done before, and felt great. I felt like David Bailey or something - and was absolutely sure we'd have some masterpiece shots in the bag.

Well, maybe I'm not going to give Mr Bailey any sleepless nights quite yet, but I don't reckon the results are bad for my first effort, and I've certainly learned a lot of things which I'd do differently if anyone were foolish enough to give me the chance to do something similar again.

I came up with an effect I quite like for making the colour shots look more surreal than the black and white ones! After toying with the idea of cross-processing some of my slide films (Sensia 100), I decided it was too risky and decided to develop everything normally and try to achieve a surreal look using Photoshop instead.

What I came up with basically just involved whacking up the contrast and reducing the colour saturation to compensate for the extreme colour graduations caused by the extra contrast. I think it looks a bit like cross-processing and still gives you the option of straight prints.

But what about Iain's digital shots? Much to my annoyance the jammy bastard managed to come up with what is in my opinion by far the best shot of the day!

I think Iain's photo above (currently the only shot on this site I didn't take) elegantly captures the whole "communicating without speech" concept. Somehow the picture has harmony, by which I mean everything fits together in the overall shape of the composition as well as in the details. I think it portrays the dancers "connecting" in some way. There is even a bit of movement blur in April's right hand, showing that this is part of a dynamic spectacle, not just a static image. April's face is in absolutely the right place with her profile given contrast by Susanne's black dress behind it. Even the curve of April's neck is perfectly matched by Susanne's neckline, and of course Suzanne's face is framed by April's arm but also obscured just enough to add a bit of mystery to the picture... I assume I must have been changing films at the time Iain took this!

So, I think the moral of the story, as usual, is that equipment is much less important than compositional talent and timing.  I think it's much more difficult to capture the moment with a point-and-shoot digital camera so all the more credit to Iain for his shot!  I hope I get a chance to do something like this again, and maybe learn from my mistakes and capitalise on the things that worked well.

Check out April's Website - Newness Dance