10 pointers to help you become a better social dance photographer

Pink Jukebox Trophy 2016. Motion blur gives an idea of the grandeur of a competition at the Rivoli Ballroom while still respecting the privacy of the dancers.

Pink Jukebox Trophy 2016. Motion blur and perspective give an idea of the grandeur of a competition at the Rivoli Ballroom while still respecting the privacy of the dancers.

 

If someone tells you that social dance photography is easy, they haven’t thought through what it really involves. Internal architecture, a venue’s features and layout, the changing pace of dancers, milling onlookers and uneven lighting in a mainly dark environment make for challenging shoot. This is compounded if you want to represent the dance form and dancers creatively or in a way that is true to the spirit of the dance. Avoiding or subverting clichés takes the challenge further, and is my current idea of fun.

I’m often surprised that so many people taking photographs in such environments  – especially those who are dancers – don’t seem to be aware of the courtesies and safety issues involved. That’s why I am posting these ten things, all of which will help you become a better social dance photographer.

 

  1. NO FLASH

The only time you should ever use a flash in a social dance environment is for posed shots and these should never be taken within sight of the dance floor. Flash photography disturbs social dancers and is potentially dangerous. The flash can temporarily blind them which is inconsiderate and unsafe, it can also kill the dancers’ moods, cause mis-steps and interfere with onlookers’ enjoyment.

  1. SHOOT TO THE RHYTHM

If you shoot to the rhythm of the music or dance (including the off-beat) the sound of your shutter will be much less disruptive and, since their musicality is expressed through their interpretation of the same rhythm, you are more likely to catch the complexities and interesting aspects of the dance.

 

Milonga Gratis 2014. Depth of field and framing through the bandstand windows turn a tango cliche into an intriguing story.

Milonga Gratis 2014. Bokeh and framing through the bandstand windows turn a tango cliche into photographic narrative.

  1. DECIDE ON YOUR STORY

Are you shooting straight documentary photography? If so you need sharp images with a minimum of motion blur, or sharp images with motion blur in the right places. Are you telling the story of one dancer or a dancing pair? In that case think about how to tell their story. Would it involve isolating them in the crowd, showing one or more of their signature moves, their relationship or the environment? If you haven’t thought about the things you want to show, you’re unlikely to get them.

  1. PRACTICE

Practice in similar conditions before the shoot. Get familiar with obtaining the effects you want in the dark by practicing with things that move at the same speed. This need not be dancers; cars, children, animals or anything that moves in the same type of light will be fine.

  1. GET PERMISSION AND RESPECT PRIVACY

You are a guest. The event is not for photographers. It does not need your photographs for publicity because it is already running without you. Any photographer worth their salt will be recording the real atmosphere and not one they have contrived with extra lights or flash. Ask the organisers before taking a single shot (I ask them in advance of the event) and if the dance is not an open, public event find a way of getting all the dancers’ permissions too. I find it easier to know who doesn’t want their photographs taken and then make sure they are either not in frame or are motion-blurred out. If I am unsure that I’ve managed to exclude them I might shoot them on my mobile for reference. I then refer to it and can delete any shots where they accidentally show while processing images. Respect peoples’ privacy or you’ll find yourself barred from taking photographs in the future.

 

Encuentro Una Mirada 2014. Panning combined with the high ISO necessary for low light photography isolates this dancing couple, making the shot more romantic.

Encuentro Una Mirada 2014. Panning helped exaggerate the fuzz of the high ISO needed for this shot isolates this couple and makes the narrative romantic.

  1. COMMUNICATE COPYRIGHT

This is a hard one, but you need to make sure that the people you are shooting understand how copyright works. They shouldn’t expect your work for free unless you have agreed something specific up front in return for the shoot (if you do this don’t undervalue yourself). I talk about copyright whenever I can and link people back to relevant posts in my blog where necessary.

  1. NEVER INTERRUPT THE DANCE

Never get in the way. Knowing a dance form helps you predict the moves and the routes social dancers may take on the dance floor.  If you don’t know the dance, take some time watching the dancers and work out the rules. Argentine tango has strict lines of dance, swing tends to be stationary or travel around in a zig-zag, stylish Cuban salsa stays mostly in a limited area while cross-body New York salsa takes up a longer and only slightly thinner space. Hip hop dances depend on the environment, but you should never ever shoot from inside a battle circle. When concentrating on one or two dancers, don’t forget everyone else, and as a general rule it is better to stay off the dance floor than accidentally get in the way.

  1. IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE DANCERS

Be conscious of audience and management at all times. They also make good pictures. Never forget that you are a guest (see 5). You have no right to obscure anyone’s vision, and if you must you should minimise the disruption by popping up just for a few vital seconds, having set up your shot in advance.

Álvaro Guarnido Munoz, 2014. The expression on the dancers' face and the darkness between him and the barely seen audience creates a narrative of aesthetic isolation (or of duende, depending on your background) in the middle of a crowd.

Álvaro Guarnido Munoz, 2014. Composed off-centre to be disturbing, the expression on the dancer’s face and the darkness between him and the barely seen audience creates a narrative of aesthetic isolation and suffering.

  1. LOOK AROUND

Think of the whole story. You wouldn’t just shoot the bride and groom on a wedding shoot, and you shouldn’t just shoot the people dancing in a social dance shoot. Whether documentary photography or art, the project, value of your images or money you might earn can be reduced as a result of the limited scope of your thinking. I’ve been asked to provide photographs of ballrooms, light fittings, hands of dancers, bangs (fringes) and even pony-tails. Had I concentrated on conventional dance shots I would have lost out.

  1. GET THE NAMES

Get the names of the dancers, of the event, of the organisers, of their helpers. Write down the name of the location and venue. If you’re really working the event write down the names of the sponsors too.

 

I hope this helps. It should put you on the right path. If you are interested in more, then contact me or follow me on facebook or twitter as I give dance photography workshops and help people build dance photography portfolios when I can.

This is part of a series of posts on how to improve your photography which I’m posting every Wednesday.