We’ve talked about your body positions and the way the camera can warp a 3 dimensional object. We’ve talked about your facial expressions and eye positions. Frankly, this is an awful lot to keep in your head, and trying too hard can lead to stiff, sterile pictures. At some point we have to let go and breathe some life into your images!
In some ways this we embark on a silly, Sisyphean task each time we photograph dance. We’re going to take movement- something designed to take place through time and 3 dimensional space- and squash it into a 2 dimensional instant where no time ever passes. No wonder it’s easy for dance images to start to look posed. Boring. Not everything has to be a big, explosive jump though. Quiet images can still have life and energy- we just have to be sure we’re supplying that life and energy. Sometimes this is as easy as a little breeze through your hair or skirt. Often, it means moving through a position instead of trying to hold it like some big dance statue. Sink into a lunge, reach, fall through, lean, stretch, MOVE. You’re a dancer- dance. It’s my job to freeze your action, not yours.
Hear me first- your safety is paramount. The world of a dancer is already treacherous and tenuous enough. No image is worth injury, and you are the only person who knows what’s going on inside your body. Never suffer in silence.
However, it’s not always our natural inclination to do hard things. Not dangerous things, but difficult things. You have to push yourself. Arch further, stretch more, point your darn toes. At the end of a dance session you should be three things: tired, sore and proud of yourself.
Here are the the first two articles in this series. I hope they help you feel prepared for your session!
We want to make the most of your dance photography session. The more you can practice before our time together, the faster we can get each each image 100%. This will give you a much broader portfolio of images in the end.
When I photograph dance, I coach my dancers through similar situations. In the last article we talked about body position and the flattening action of the camera. Today we’ll go through everything happening on your face, which is super easy to neglect when you’re working through a perfect position or piece of movement.
This is an area where dance training and dance photography collide. Dancers are taught to look up out into the house, to present to the whole audience. But at a session you have an audience of one- my camera. If you look with your eyes too far up, right or left into the imaginary house in the world around you, all my camera will see is the whites of your eyes. This gives you the dreaded “zombie eyes.” Try to look away from the camera a little closer to me. Gazing over my shoulders is a good reference point. Alternatively, you can look “down with your lashes.” Look down with your eyes, not with your chin, and don’t squeeze your eyes shut. Just look down towards the ground. While you’re looking down towards that ground, check your feet.
I call this “thinking face” versus “performance face.” It’s so easy to get wrapped up in these tiny little details that you lose the actual performance of the moment. Just like onstage, at some point you have to let go, trust your body, and give it your all. The nice thing about a photo session is that if something goes wrong we can do it again. And again. And again. There’s no reason to get stressed about doing it again- stressed face is worse than thinking face. “One more time” is a feature, a perk, of a photo session- not a problem. How often do you get to do it again immediately on stage if something goes sideways?
I hope you appreciated this article, and feel ready to practice your performance faces before your session! More idea about how to make the most of your dance photography session can be found in these two articles:
Dance sessions are an investment. They take a lot of time and effort, and so the more we can take care of ahead of your session the better. The quicker we can get each each image nailed, the quicker we can move on to new locations or new pieces of movement. This will give you a far richer portfolio in the end.
When I photograph dance sessions, I coach dancers through similar problems over and over again. Essentially, , the camera takes 3 dimensional space and flattens it into a 2 dimensional image. This creates all kinds of optical illusions that can take beautiful body positions and make them look weird and warped. I will definitely continue to coach you throughout our time together, but these articles will help you mentally prepare to make the most of your dance photography session.
For the purposes of this discussion, the world is our stage. Where you are dancing is your set, and I, the photographer, am your audience. Imagine that the flat plane of my lens extends through space and becomes the flat plane of the proscenium opening. I’ll use stage directions like upstage (away from me) and downstage (towards me) to help explain body positions that are best for photography.
Whatever style of dance you are doing, if your feet are “wrong,” the image is unusable. Beautiful extension, great expression, interesting composition, and you’re not over your box? Too bad, so sad. It’s very easy for both you and me to get so wrapped up in all the other parts of your positions and movements that we forget to check your very foundation- your feet. Check your feet early and often.
Sometimes a position, especially anything in a lunge, can look more like a yoga pose than a moment of dance. Relevé, a forced arch, or rolling over to the top of your foot can help bring it back to the world of dance.
Hips and Shoulders
Here’s where especially classical dance training and photography butt heads. In ballet, things happen on the diagonal. When my camera takes a diagonal body position and flattens it to a 2D image your upstage arm and your downstage leg look short. Likewise, if you bend your spine so your shoulders are heading too far upstage from me or downstage towards me, your neck looks short or your head looks huge. Instead, we either want to square your hips parallel to the flat plane of my lens, or turn them 90 degrees perpendicular to my lens.
If your hips are parallel to me, you might face upstage or down, with your shoulders also square. If there’s too much twist in your shoulders, then your arms start to head up and downstage, appearing short. Your head can float on top in any direction from hard left to right (chin in line with your shoulder).
If your hips are perpendicular to me, you’ll either keep your spine extending along that same line so that you’re in profile to me, or twist your shoulders to open your chest to the camera. Again, your head can move in any direction.
Of course things won’t stay in absolute 180 or 90 degree positions, and there are lots of interesting images that break these “rules,” but I believe this gives us the best possible starting point. Then check your feet.
Once your hips and shoulders are set for a movement or position, we want to be sure that your arms and legs continue along those same long lines. It’s very easy to, say, open your chest only to pull your arms behind you, upstage, making them look short. This happens a lot with jumps, especially with a leg in attitude. Point your toe straight up to the sky- don’t let your leg rotate too far upstage.
Likewise, we want to know that you have all four limbs- no Tin Soldier action. It’s very easy to hide your upstage arm behind you- we don’t have to see all of it, just know that it’s there. Similarly, we wouldn’t have you perform a pas de chat in a long skirt- you’ll look like a floating Pac Man ghost. Again, there are interesting images that break these “rules,” but when this goes wrong it’s really noticeable. Know what else is really noticeable? Bad feet. Check ‘em.
Your dance teachers have told you this for years, and it’s still true. Your hands need to extend along the same lines as your arms. If your hands bend from the wrists like you’re waving, you end up with weird tiny or giant hands. This is true onstage as well, but it’s really apparent with the flattening action of the camera.
We want your hands engaged as well, but not too engaged. If you’re holding on to something for stability or as a counterweight, by all means hold on, but try not to white knuckle death grip the thing. If you’re pressing against something like a door frame, move your hand to the very downstage edge and press flat. This will let us see your hand, help you twist to open to the camera, and it will keep you from getting a weird claw grip around the edge of the frame. Then check your feet.
I hope you found this useful, and feel ready to tackle your session! More information about making the most of your dance photography session can be found in the next two articles: