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In The Folly Theater - for Modern Night at the Folly

Mike Strong

Subject Knowledge for

Dance

How shooting dance is journalism

Subject Knowledge is at the Core of All Photographs

In my first (and only) photo class in the summer of 1967 the teacher, Frank O'Neill, was a long time press photographer. He used to tell us about the time he had started as a young photographer on staff. There was an "old" guy who head out on assignment with a 4x5 Speed Graphic and a set of eight or ten film holders. The young guys all had cameras capable of more shots in a minute or so than the entire number of sheets of film for the "old" guy with his 4x5 press camera, by which time maybe he would have one shot taken.

Despite the advantage in the number of exposures the young guys had, they kept losing out a good deal of the time on the top of the front page shot to the old guy.They were a bit flustered but after a while they realized it was that he knew exactly what was about to happen, how to get into position and exactly when to shoot. Compared to him they were "spraying and praying" that they could get the shot. More firepower. By contrast, he was a marksman. He could do that because he knew his subjects.

One word before we get going on dance photography.

What it is not.

Dance photography is NOT motion photography. You are not racing to hit the shutter to catch motion. Pointing the camera at dancers does not make it dance photography. When you hit the shutter you should be harvesting whatever you've spent you time in rehearsals learning about this piece, this company, this dancer, this music and the character roles. To show the dance, dancer, company and performance "in situ" the requirements are far more specific, detailed and technically difficult than almost any other type of photography you will encounter. It is all about knowing and revealing your subject.


October 2014 - Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing "Memoria" at Kaufmann Performing Arts Center

A Couple of "Rules" - Hints and Tips for Shooting

  1. Shoot musically - use your ears, listen for the beat. The dancers are in the music. That is where you go to find the dance.
  2. Shoot in single-shot mode only. Each shot should be selected.
  3. Attend as many rehearsals as you can, starting in the studio if possible, to learn the piece and the dancers
  4. If you miss a shot, it is gone, go for the next ones.
  5. If you catch yourself shooting franticallly to "catch" the action or you are not shooting on the beat or you are missing shots
    1. stop
    2. slow down
    3. think
    4. listen to the music
    5. breath
    6. see what the dancers are doing
    7. step back into shooting - - on the music
    8. NOTE: if you don't stop you will just miss more shots
  6. No alcohol - zero - dance moments are largely short and done quickly. Alcohol will leave you watching the "moments" go by before you recognize them
  7. No heavy meals - this will leave you feeling as if you can't quite catch up to the actions taking place.
    1. Eat light meals or a salad.
    2. Don't starve yourself. You need energy to remain constantly alert.
  8. Get enough sleep ahead of time. You will need to concentrate and to stay alert.
  9. Shoot the full person, or full space or full ensemble. Forget the closeups because you can't see the dance. Shoot the dance.
  10. Shoot the character the dancer is playing. Dance is very like mime, or like a silent movie.
  11. Along with that, shoot the meaning, the theme, of each piece.

Typical Shooting Conditions

If you are shooting everything in a studio with fully controlled lighting you can use very low ISOs and fast shutter speeds and/or electronic flash for long tonal scales and great, clean detail. This is the technical standard your work will usually be judged by and compared to, even though you will be shooting under very different technical conditions which will make the long tonal scales and marvelously clean detail all but impossible to get.

Most likely you will be on location where lighting and shooting conditions are not under your control. Your pleas for "more light more" will probably be ignored. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether lighting designers deliberately make lighting on stage lower and lower just to make it tough on me.

You will have low light which is constantly changing in quantity, color, direction and is usually high in contrast. You will also have lots of motion with constantly moving subjects changing from soloists to large groups (ensembles). You will also have a situation in which you have to avoid being a distraction and may or may not be limited in where you can shoot from. You job will be to accurately show the work and the dancers in that work. These are conditions in direct conflict with each other and dealing with those conflicts will determine your equipment needs and a few other items regarding how you approach the shoot.

A Few Camera Notes

The technical conditions for shooting productions stills and performance stills in dance are some of the most extreme and marginal conditions you will meet in photography. If you get good at this there is very little which will challenge you as much. After years of reading camera reviews for an inkling of useful-to-me information I have yet to find anyone putting their review cameras through the same kind of situations I run into 99-percent of the time. So, we are on our own when it comes to photographing dance.

Here is a list of checkpoints I have when looking at equipment.
Note that the technical requirements of low light, high movement and tiny frames of time to shoot, very quickly narrow down the potential equipment list.
Advice from store clerks or a review sites are usually not good sources.

Spacing on Stage

If you are shooting a stage production you have a couple of other concerns starting with the difference in perception between any person viewing an image and that same any person viewing a stage. They directly conflict with each other and only partially manage to work for both usages at once.

A camera and a live audience are not the same. Bringing a camera to shoot a stage production does not transform the live stage into a camera stage.

(note. the images below were designed and produced by me using DanceForms choreography animation software.)


Standard stage placement across the width of the proscenium - plays strongly in person, looks wimpy as a picture

Stage spacing works for a live audience by arranging performers left to right (x-axis) across the stage. When you shoot that with a camera you get an image which is perceived as weak, puny and un-exciting. It is a record of what the performers were but it does not convey the performance.

A camera, especially video camera placed high and looking down will look neat when you are shooting but weak and distant when you view the image. It is, however, very useful for seeing stage placement and patterns and works well for a record in order to re-construct the performance later. That same record stinks for video in grant applications which are supposed to show the work as an audience sees it, on the sight line.


Camera Grouping after folding the stage placement (above) in a fore-and-back pattern - single person in front - high-angle view

Camera Placement - single person in front
people of interest front to back
Alternate Camera Placement - two people in front
people of interest front to back

If you take the stage spacing and bend both left and right sides backwards so that the performers are positioned front to back (z-axis) you have spacing which makes a strong image. Just start looking at movies to see how that works, especially Gene Kelly's movies. But good spacing for an image, when placed on a stage just winds up as a hard-to-see huddle of performers from the point of view of a live audience. Getting the director to re-space everything for anything but a few publicity stills isn't going to happen.

In photography you normally try to "fill the frame" and on a stage you do essentially the same thing when you fill the stage width. In either medium keeping the main figures small compared to the space on the frame (photos) or proscenium (stage) tends to make the presentation appear weak.


Camera Grouping - single person in front - in the middle of a full-width stage at eye level (sight line) - looks wimpy on a stage
This is the same grouping and angle of view as the image above on the left. Compare the two.

So you will have to make certain choices in what you shoot and in what you will be able to use. This will also depend on whether you are shooting an article about the production or you are shooting production stills and maybe publicity stills. If this is video is this a stagerecording (placement, entries, exits, etc) or a DVD or video for grant applications or a news story about the production or a purely video work. Because stage spacing is x-axis oriented (left to right across the stage) it drives photographers nuts because this makes it almost impossible to get a strong composition.


Stage placement with a camera shooting across the stage for a stronger image - with the hazard of seeing the wings.

In order to get everyone or, in particular, to get the performers lined up front to back in the image, most photographers will shoot at an angle along the width of the stage, usually from a front (down stage) corner to the opposite wing. This effectively lines up the camera's z-axis (font to back in the picture) close to the stage's x-axis. Photographers like the result while stage directors go nuts because you are 1) messing with their spacing [mis-representing their work] and 2) showing activity in the wings rather than the audience view (sort of like showing their underwear).


This is from the side and we see into the wings where Kelanie's buddies are urging her on. In this case, because it is a solo (by Kelanie Murphy)
most of my shots were angled more upstage into the dark skrim in back. But I loved putting her friends in the same shot as her performance.
Because of the relationship between the dancers it is one of my favorite shots.

The Photograph is Made by You

You are the picture maker, not your camera and not camera-design engineers. In theory you should be able to shoot good pictures with any type of camera, even a pinhole camera. In practice the camera you use will either hinder you (most cameras) or not get in your way. For almost everything in dance you want to shoot you will need a DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) type of camera, a lens with a wide aperture and fully manual control.

The camera can help by not getting in your way or the camera can hinder you.

I have not recommended any brand of camera or other equipment. I learned a very long time ago that camera which feels best to you in handling is the one you will keep using. The camera you keep using is the best camera for you. As far as quality, most top brands are close enough mechanically that the "feel," how it handles, is the real deciding factor.

Shooting Tools, Continuous Drive and Panic/or/Catch-Up Shooting

Camera

You are the picture maker, not your camera and not some camera-designer engineers. Essentially you should be able to shoot good pictures with any type of camera, even a pinhole camera. In practice the camera you use will either hinder you (most cameras) or not get in your way. For almost everything in dance you want to shoot you will need a DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) type of camera, a lens with a wide aperture and fully manual control.

If you are shooting dance you will find that you are in a niche environment. Years of intense reading of camera reviews convinced me that no camera reviewer anywhere routinely shoots dance, nor, I am guessing, the combination of dim-light, high-motion conditions and the need to recognize good form and technique for both individuals and groups. These people all seem to have lots of light and people who stand still while the photographer says, "Watch the birdie" or something like that. Compared to dance, shooting music concerts or other types of stage productions is like rolling off a log. Unfortunately these are often confused and grouped together as all the same.

So, remember the camera can help by not getting in your way or the camera can hinder you. So what specs do we need for the camera? Here, being a dancer may not fill you in with equipment knowledge but being a photographer without dance experience may lead you to think you can use equipment inadequate for dance, cameras which would be fine for something else.

This tends to mean a reflex (TLR, SLR, DSLR) or rangefinder/viewfinder camera.

Continuous Drive

While you are at it, never get sucked into the continuous drive method (what we used to call motor drive). I know it is kind of a testosterone thing (for both male and female shooters). The reason for using continuous drive (usually three or so shots in rapid succession at each shutter click) is because the photographer wants to have a lot of frames in order to ensure enough pictures. What is not realized is that the frames are at all the wrong moments and that the number of frames still produces poor choices if you don't know what to choose.

1 - When the shooter uses continuous drive (motor drive) it is because the shooter doesn't know what to shoot or when to shoot. He or she lets the camera decide. The camera neither hears music, nor sees dance, nor knows the subject. It just has a clock mechanism which clicks to its own timer, regardless of what is happening in front of the lens. Getting "the moment" is absolutely crucial in dance which requires split/split second timing combined with attention (try doing this on a heavy meal -SloooooowToShoot- or a tiny bit of wine -GoesByAndCan'tCatchIt- and see what I mean).

2 - Shoot single shots, exactly when you press the shutter, will give you the right moments. And not just in dance, in anything. It is still up to the photographer's judgement. The judgement is always working with whatever knowledge the photographer has (or doesn't have). You can tell when a shooter doesn't have specific subject knowledge. They fall back on 1) graphics rules of composition, 2) on special "angles" and 3) on big lenses to impress. Used this way these are just gimmicks. These tools and devices need to be determined not by their mechanical usage and rules of composition but in the moment by the subject.

3 - Continuous drive (I call it "spray and pray") makes the selections worse in two ways:
a) because the camera's internal timing device clicks the shutter at a rate independent of and complete unrelated to events happening in front of its lens, any good shots are pure accident which just happen to coincide with a good moment in the dance. Most shots don't coincide. Those moments are very, very short which means the shots are almost always just off of the peak moments, either a tad early or a tad late but almost never right on
b) because the photographer uses this as a substitute for knowing what and when to shoot it means the photographer still doesn't know enough to properly pick the right shots from what is now a huge number of exposed frames. Even when the frames are shot well, a large number of frames can be mentally numbing to look through. And here we have a not-so-knowledgeable photog trying to pick good dance frames. That is why again and again when I look at the newspaper shooter's picks they are just not there. Always I think that surely there just must be another shot which really has the moment, not the one that gets published (and after talking to enough dancers I realize I am not alone in this observation).

Single Shots

Continuous Drive actually decreases your chances of the right shot. You should be able to take one shot on the camera for each action of the dancer, such as the eight fouettes below. I added frame numbers to show that they are sequential shots. There are no deletions and there are no missed fouettes, except after the eighth one when the memory card paused to digest the data.

These are eight turns by Mark and eight clicks on the camera. One after another. No pauses until the card's memory jammed up which stopped my sequence.

It is a handy exercise I like to do a lot with repetitive actions by dancers. It keeps me in "shooting trim" so to speak and helps me gauge how to shoot each dancer. Below is a sequence of pirouettes with frame numbers showing in the upper left of each. She is actually moving down a line of dancers to the left.

You could never do this in "continuous" shooting mode. I have yet to see a camera which can listen to music and respond to a dancer moving within that music. You would miss most of this. Even at six frames per second you would miss 80-percent of the exact right moments. Below is a set of 13 video frames (0.43 seconds) shot at the NTSC rate of 30-frames per second (nominal rate, actually 29.97 fps) of Dena'h Gregory performing a jete.

 

Even at 6-frames per second, with continuous drive you will lose at least 80-Percent of your opportunities

Below, the frames labeled "Click" are the frames shot by the still camera. The frame with the rounded-corner square outline is the optimal frame, the one you should shoot as a still. The other frames would be missed by the still camera. Notice that it falls between the Click-labeled frames.

The leftmost frame is the earliest in this set.
The dancer is moving toward the left in each frame and finishes in the rightmost frame.
The frame in the center with the outline is the best frame.
To be perfect it should have been taken a tiny bit earlier.
The frame to the left is a bit early but okay enough to use.
The frame to the right of the best one is late, still okay, barely, but not one I would normally choose.

At the rate of 3 frames per second the still camera shoots on every 10th frame. You get only a 10-percent chance of getting a good frame, missing 90%.
At the rate of 6 frames per second the still camera shoots on every 5th frame. You get only a 20-percent chance of getting a good frame, missing 80%.
Note that it makes more sense to compare the frame counts as percentages because we could shoot at various video frame rates.

Picking the Shot on the Fly

Supposedly the reason for using "continuous" (what we used to have as motor drives) is to assure us of getting a shot. It does get us more frames but not might miss the shot totally. The other reason is because the photographer may not know what to shoot and hopes to get "something" by using the camera's clock to shoot. The problem with that is that it only produces more frames meaning more work for someone who still does not know what to pick and doesn't know when a shot is truly a good dance shot.

In the sequence above, the very best of the frames on close examination shows a little downward movement on her lead leg meaning that frame is just a tad late. We could use these frames to estimate that to be certain of getting the right shot we would need twice this video frame rate which would be 60 frames per second or more to be certain.

Then there are all the other factors needed. The picture below illustrates what you need to be aware of as you shoot.

As I shot the frame on the left I realized I was early. I had enough time left to correct myself and take one more frame, at the right point. I also realized the two together would make a good example for one of these studies, so I kept the first frame for this illustration (instead of deleting it).

Understanding how much you need to be aware of at the moment you decide to press the shutter button is key to understanding what you need to learn, very little of which is about your camera.

I've sometimes been asked for tips. There are none, At least none you can use until you don't need a list of tips. In the two pictures above I shot one of them early to have an example and then immediately shot the right one. Notice the listed items in the left shot. Poor position (not forward still upright), leg too low, foot barely off the ground, leg / knee bent.Those are items which should keep the shot from being used (though I've seen shots like this used by newspaper who didn't know better). More importantly, look on the right at the good example.

On the right all the listed items (at least) need to happen at the same time and you, the photographer need to be aware of them in order to make the shoot or don't shoot decision. There is no time to run through a list of hints and tips. The bulleted list below applies only to the picture on the right. There are thousands of possible variations in any number of other poses and moments. You begin to see the impossibility of a list. If you had multiple lists to cover many actions it would be unusable in the moment of shooting.

This all comes together in a fraction of a second and then is gone again just as fast. A mental list would fail. You could never consult it fast enough. You simply have to be actively aware of them as you are shooting as a matter of muscle memory. The only way to get muscle memory is to learn each of those items by itself and gradually allow your brain to turn them into automation.

Don't expect to "see" every last item, especially at first, but you can learn. Dance lessons are the best way. Maybe the only real way. Select as you shoot and select again as you pare down the pictures later.

Panic Shooting

Continuous Drive is first cousin to what I call panic shooting or catch-up shooting. By that I mean rapid shooting because you think things are happening so fast that you just need to shoot rapidly. Maybe you saw something go by in the viewfinder and you didn't catch it so now you are hitting the shutter button as fast as you can on everything you see just to get the pictures.

  1. Stop! NOW! Slow down and breathe, think and most importantly listen and look.
  2. Listen for the count in the music and look to see what is happening in the dance.
  3. Then step back in to the count and shoot only as the music tells you.

This is much like dancing and missing a step. Beginners will try to rapidly step, to make sure they get all the steps they missed as they try to catch up. It doesn't work and looks terrible or at least awkward. The only thing to do is focus your attention on listening to the count and then step back into the dance on the count. The missed steps are gone. Just gone. Period. You step back into the dance where the dance is now. As with life itself. If you miss something in life you can't go back. You go on from here. Likewise in shooting. The best way to be sure of getting a full set of good pictures which represents the dance and the dancers is to take your time focusing your attention more carefully and pick your shots only "when you see the whites of their eyes" as they used to say in the old frontier western movies. In other words when you are certain in your timing.

Dance Lessons - a major part of the "muscle memory" in subject knowledge

We shoot what we see
We see what we know
We know what we do

Actually engaging in an activity provides "sub-concious" knowledge which no amount of reading about or watching videos about or creating checklists can equal. Having waited tables and tended bar, when I walk into a restaurant, I am aware of the service ballet taking place in that room in a way other customers are not. The very structure of knowledge acquisition creates layers of awareness moving between outside knowledge and inside knowledge, from sensed knowledge to the more laborious checklist-correlated knowledge.

Most journalism schools and most journalists consider research on a subject the same as "subject knowledge." That is a start. But. There is no way you can watch enough videos or read enough books and articles to prepare you to actually see dance when you look at dancers. You have to "see" dance - that means you have to recognize, in real time (awareness), what is taking place when you see dancers in performance, or rehearsal. The only way I know to get that is to dance. I came fully to that conclusion after my first tap-dance lessons.

Just prior to the set of classes I had watched a documentary on Gene Kelly. He seemed okay but I really did not know what made him special. I knew that he was special and I thought I knew why. After the set of lessons I happened to pick up the tape again to watch it. I realized immediately that I had an entirely new sense of awareness of what I was watching, and, importantly, how I was hearing dance. It was a whole new world. Not until I had "muscle memory" did I get it well enough to hear those taps and to hear how clean, delicate, consistent and strong his sound was. As much as that was an "Ah Ha!" for me it was just the start.

Each set of lessons added awareness. I could see it in my photos and more than that, I could feel it "physically" as I shot. This sense of what happens as a dancer is also important for musicians, or it used to be. When the Jazz Museum first had exhibits I remember a museum item tag which noted that Duke Ellington didn't just hire musicians, he hired musicians who could dance. That, after all, is who he played for, people who came out to dance. Lots of swing dancers benefited from musicians who could feel how the music felt for their audience.