Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Music, Dancing, and Photography

(This was originally going to be "Photographing Dance Competitions 2")

(Images are all links to bigger versions)

Try to apply what you know from your own dancing. That is:

  • Musicality basics - breaks, finishing the phrase
  • General vocabulary
  • Air Step basics - tension and prep
If these topics are unfamiliar to you, try taking some dance lessons focusing on the above topics. (Though I know many people reading this are way better dancers than I am and know that stuff better than I do.)

It's really easy to get caught up watching the action and just reacting to when something cool happens. But often I find that knowing the music and/or the dance helps me anticipate and prepare for a shot. Now and then, it also helps to just take a deep breath. But don't forget to exhale.

Musicality basics

Without going into too much detail:
  • Swing music can be divided into 8-counts (not going to get into crazy Swedes doing Lindy to "Take 5")
  • Most swing music can be divided into phrases of 4 8s (6 8s if it's bluesy)
  • A lot of music has a A, A, B, A structure, where each "A" or "B" is a phrase of 4 8s.
  • Within a given song, breaks will usually happen on the same count.
Often times, dancers will punctuate the breaks and the ends of a phrases, like with a big, open pose or a dip. Understanding the music and the dance will help you predict when a shot will happen. Frame the shot and let the dancers walk into it.

If you don't know where the breaks are, study more swing music. In Lindy contests, I've heard these songs a lot: Jumpin at the Woodside, Jeep Jockey Jump, Big John's Special, Opus One, Corner Pocket, For Dancers Only, Rhythm, Shorty George, Flying Home, Gang Busters, Shout n Feel It, and sometimes Bugle Call Rag. But if you get to know music in general, you'll get better at recognizing when the breaks are coming on any song.

Also, just listen to the music - if it's more uptempo, the dancers are probably going to have bigger motions and you may want to shoot with a wider angle to get the whole body down to the feet. If it's slower, then it might be better for shots from the hips/waist and above, and maybe even closeups.

General Vocabulary

By "vocabulary" I don't mean knowing what moves are called. What I mean is: know the basics/core moves of the dance so you have some idea of what to expect to shoot, and how to time it. After shooting a lot of Lindy Hop, I found it difficult to shoot Westie. I don't know the Westie vocabulary so a lot of lifts would take me by surprise.

But here's a few moves you'll probably see at a Lindy competition:

Swing Outs

In a Lindy Hop swing out, the "1" is practically designed to be a picture pose. I like having a side view of this, with them opened up toward me. Sometimes in a performance, they will be lined up with the follower between you and the leader. This isn't the best composition, but you can still make the best of it - on the 1,2, the followers will often look out toward the audience/judges. Also, very often, if you see a stylish swingout, very often they will do another one.

Here's a few swing outs from the US Open 2010: (shot on the "1.")

Stephen & Nikki Mikey & Mary
A Lindy line -great shot if
I was on the other side
Ben rocking swivels
And maybe just a couple more...
Inspiration Weekend
Camp Hollywood

Switches and the Quick Stop

Yeah, who else would I use to
show a Quick Stop? (Jean Veloz)

Another couple signature swing moves to look out for are the Switches and Quick Stop. The lines are actually pretty similar to the swing-out. I like it when both dancers are opened up to me, though this pose is really about the follower, so it's more important to get her from the front. I think this comes on the 6 or the 7, but luckily she holds it for a couple counts.

Turns and spins

I actually find it difficult to capture turns and spins. I think it's that they're more about the motion than the pose at any moment in time. Sometimes, there will be a nice dance line with the arms, but I really struggle to capture whatever catches and loops and complexity that went into making the turn cool as a still shot. Usually, if someone's doing a turn, I'll use rapid-fire mode, squeeze off 3 or 4 shots, and use the ones which have the face visible. I like catching the hair and/or skirt flying out add to a sense of motion. (Though just my observation: some women don't like see their hair flying out as much as I do.)

If the follower spots, there's a better chance of getting a shot of her face-to-face with the leader, which is nice. Though it's not really something you can practically plan for while shooting.


In Charleston, I like trying to get a shot of kicking forward, which happens on the 3 and the 5. For side-by-side, I like the 3, with the outer feet kicking forward. In tandem/back Charleston, either the 3 or the 5 works for me. Then it just comes down to which way they're facing to decide which shot I like better.

Hacksaws, Sailor kicks

Hacksaws - not much to say except I see them come up now and then, and I like catching the extended kick out. The timing is: kick-and-kick-and-pause-pause-kick-and-kick-and-pause-pause...

Sailor kicks aren't as common, but make an occasional appearance. I like the shots where one person is facing me, as opposed to a side view where I might get to see both faces. I just like the shapes better.

By the way... I'm just saying these are some of the poses I've kind of gravitated toward. I'm not saying these are the "right" ones. But what I am saying is: if you know the steps, it can help you prepare and line up a shot.

Lifts and Air Steps

A special part of the vocabulary is air steps. In Lindy Hop, you can often see them coming if you recognize some preps. I might not know exactly what move they're going to do, but can often predict they're about to do something.
  • Frog jump / Down, up, down - If you see a little hop and a drop down, on the next count, someone's probably going up. You may see this from closed position or back/tandem/shadow Charleston.
  • If one person lies down on their back on the floor, there's a pretty good chance the other is about to flip over them.
  • Distance with tension - If you see a couple do a couple swingouts and notice the follower is a little farther from the leader than usual, and they've built up a lot of tension, maybe even dropping down a little, there's a pretty good chance that the follower is going up in a few counts.
  • Pancake - has a pretty obvious prep - handstand facing away, grab legs, power sit-up (though I think the Skidoos had a surprising variation to that one year.). I think the best shot is when the flyer is at the peak, but the timing has to be just right and I usually get the moment just before or just after. (Even better if the base and follow are not touching.) Also, I've noticed the handstand generally isn't pretty.
Also, if you see a couple enter multiple contests and they break out a cool new air step in one, they often break it out in other contests.

The following are examples of air steps that I believe had one of these preps, and is something one could prepare for shooting.

That all being said...

The really exciting stuff is what I don't expect, and the dancers just take me by surprise (and they often do). So even if you do know the music and the dance, stay alert! A wise man once said, "BAM. they never see this one comin`."
Sweep the leg!

So far, with this round of posts, I've been writing about camera basics and a bit of what I like and what I think about while shooting. But I think I've at least casually mentioned that I do a bit of post processing (in Lightroom), and I think that's the case with every example photo I've put into these entries. I think with the next entry, I'm going to start transitioning to discussing what I try to do in Lightroom.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Photographing the Awards Ceremony

The more I thought about it, this topic just fits better with the previous post than what I'm piecing together for the next one. I just had a few comments about shooting the awards portion of a competition. The main theme is: try to think beyond the standard shot.

As usual, images link to bigger versions.

The standard (awards) shot

A shot from the Bayside Ball 3
that turned out okay

Most of the time, I'm not assertive
enough to get them to look at me.

At Camp H, I'm kind of far away,
and off to the left.
You know, I actually kind of suck at getting what I consider "the standard shot." You know, either the top three or five winners gathered together in a little clump. It's kind of an expected shot that some people will want for their memories. I've been trying shooting from a low POV, but should probably try standing up or something. Technically, there's not a whole lot of variety but I recommend:
  • Just use a standard 50mm lens and walk up to the point you want the shot. Try not to go under 35mm. Take a few steps back if you want to go wider.
  • Pay attention to the framing - faces should probably be around one-third of the way down from the top(standard "rule of thirds"). If you put them in the center, then you'll have a lot of dead space at the top of frame that you'll probably end up cropping out later anyway.
  • Use rapid-fire mode and squeeze off two or three shots. Inevitably, someone will look to the side or blink. In fact, do a few sets of two or three shots, just in case your autofocus misbehaves.
  • If you're using flash, try to set the flash at 1/2 power or lower so that it will be able to flash for a couple rapid-fire shots.
  • Do as I say, not as I do 1: try to get the attention of the winners and give them some kind of signal. Ask them to stand closer together or "could I get a shot of everyone together?" - just something to get their attention so they know to look at you. Give them a countdown like a "3, 2, 1..." (example on the right of not getting their attention)
  • Do as I say, not as I do 2: if you want this shot, just run out there, front on and take the shot. Generally, there's not that much going on, so you're not going to annoy the audience by blocking something. That being said, once you get your shot, back up and get out of everyone else's shot. (example on the right of both not running out and not getting their attention)
BTW, iif you have the biggest camera in the room and you run out in front of them, you'll probably get their attention. Also, if you notice that you're the only one in the room with an SLR, consider it your duty to get the shot. :)

This all being said, I don't think "the standard shot" is the sweet shot at an awards ceremony.

Other Awards Shots

Maybe it's a just an issue with me, but I prefer taking candid shots to posed shots. Sometimes, there will be a cool pose or just something funny that just happens spontaneously.

In that last one, I think Kim and Dave did 8-10 helicopters in a row - in the awards ceremony, an encore of something they did in a contest.

The run to the stage

And this finally brings me to: my favorite shots that I've taken at awards are actually the run to the stage, and trying to get a shot of the sincere unbridled joy of someone finding out that they placed or won, and their friends around them supporting them.

For this, do a little research. Before the presentations start, scope out the audience and try to locate the competitors. Try to get a feel for where everyone is sitting/standing. At Camp Hollywood, usually I see most of the competitors hang out in the seats on the right hand side of the room (stage left), and a small cluster in the back left of the room. Try to memorize where specific people are, like your friends and/or people that you thought did really well. If you see someone win something, well, they might win again - keep track of where they were sitting.

At Camp Hollywood, I'll sacrifice the front-on standard shot and stand off to the left a little to get a better shot of the competitors off to the right, and also keep track of who's off to my left.

Here's some shots from Camp Hollywood 2009-2011 and Inspiration Weekend 2011.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Photographing Dance Competitions 1

Now I'll finally start discussing shooting dance competitions...
(BTW, all images link to bigger versions)

Try "AI Servo" focus mode.

About a year or two ago, Daniel Young (AWESOME photographer, by the way - check out his book, The Lindy Circle) suggested this to me. I used to use one-shot mode, but AI Servo will try to track the subject. I think it was made with sports photography in mind, and is totally appropriate for dance. Seemed to help a bit, so I usually use this mode for dances and competitions. I'm pretty sure Nikon has an equivalent mode, but someone (Vicky C.) warned me that it really drains the battery.

Hold your camera as steady as possible, and consider getting a monopod.

Low light may force you to use longer exposures so take a moment and think about how you could keep the camera more steady.. Even at 1/125 sec, I like to use a monopod(a.k.a. "the stick"*). Here is one like mine on amazon. It doesn't take up as much space on the floor as a tripod, and still lets me have some flexibility in moving the camera around quickly. I've seen some article on the internet about using a string, a washer, and a bolt(about $2 in parts) to make one. It may help a little bit, so consider trying that if you don't want to buy a monopod.

I find that it helps to relax and exhale slowly and hit the shutter midway through the exhale(I think it was Michelle R. who suggested that to me). I've found this much more effective than tightly gripping the camera and holding my breath. (Don't laugh- you might do this too!)

If there's a wall or post to lean against, use that. But for most dance competitions I've been to, I'm just standing out at the edge of the dance floor, so I know that's not often available.

* Not everyone refers to them as "the stick." That's just what I call mine after mocking the first person (Darren K.) who recommended that I get one.

Don't track the action after you've hit the shutter

If the action is moving across the floor, it is really tempting to try to track it, especially in rapid-fire mode. But I find I never track the action exactly, and now the background is blurry too. Do the best you can and just let the action move across the frame. If it gets too close to the edge, completely reposition the camera and reframe, but try not to just smoothly track the action.

Don't limit your shooting to when the music is playing.

Don't wait till the song starts to pick up your camera. Often, competitors will have fun entrances onto the dance floor(like Celina in the image on the right). Sometimes in a lineup, they start goofing off with each other. These are often some of my favorite shots. At the end of the song, sometimes they will do an extra dip or laugh about something, or someone from the crowd teases them and they react, which also make good shots. So... Keep an eye on them.

Use the time between songs to delete photos

A 32 Gig card will hold about 1200 RAW images with a 5Dm2. (more like 4000 on a 30D) That isn't as much as it sounds like. Space on the card is at a premium. Any chance you get, try to delete the bad ones and delete what you can on-camera. If you used rapid-fire, you can pick out the best one, or at least delete the worst one. But try to glance up now and then to make sure you're not missing anything. Try to do them in order - remember the index of the last one you looked at so you can quickly jump back to it.

Shots seem more dramatic shooting from a low POV, looking up

Crouch down, sit, or lie down on the ground if there's space. The problem though is that if it's an all-skate, you won't be able to see past the first one or two couples - that's what I figured out this year. But if it's a showcase, spotlight, or phrase battle, it may be something to try, space permitting.

Shooting prelims and all-skates

Zoom in close for the first couple songs
Typically, a heat in prelims will have 3 songs with increasing tempo. In an amateur competition, the songs will be slightly slower. More than likely, no one's going up in the air for the first couple songs (and may even be illegal in Amateur Jack&Jill). There's probably going to be a lot of closed position, and not a lot of extensions. In short, there's no reason to go wide. It's a great time to go to 135-200mm and get some closeups. The shots on the right are from Camp Hollywood 2009. Honestly not my best shots, but for me, they were the turning point. I thought there was something compelling about them and I realized you don't always have to see a dancer's feet. The closeups made me feel like I was right in there with them.

Go a little wider for the last song
Then the third song is usually pretty uptempo and people will swing out a little wider and you may get more shots where you want the feet in there. Maybe 50-70mm or so. Go just a little taller than head to toe to give yourself more flexibility later in post processing. Maybe go 50% or so taller if you expect an air step.

Now and then, look up at the whole floor
I often get caught up looking through the eyepiece and experience much of the camp through a narrow lens, waiting for something to happen or framing the shot. Now and then, look up and try to spot what else might be going on. Usually, I know half the competitors on the floor and struggle to get shots of even a third of them in the course of one song (usually more like half a song). Some will be hidden, and I try to keep an eye out to see if they get into an opening. Look around and see who's facing you and where the best shot may be.