The direction of light

How I typically hold my camera, as demonstrated with my Nikon F100 film camera and SB-600 flash.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Why does John hold his camera funny? Why does he ask people for hairbands that he can borrow? What is that black foam thing doing on top of his camera?” Well, here’s where I spill all of the secrets. I’ve got the perfect picture from Show-Me Blues (just recently uploaded) to demonstrate why I shoot the way I shoot.

When I first started shooting dance pictures, I had no clue as to what I was doing. My only experience was shooting fast-moving cars in bright sunlight, something very different from shooting fast-moving people in dimly lit basements, bars, and dance floors. I looked online for help, but while I could find a smattering of dance photographers who shared their work online, I couldn’t find much in the way of EXIF data that I could sneak a peek at or a blog with a how-to for taking decent dance pictures. Either dance photographers are a secretive bunch (unlikely) or there just aren’t that many of us (far more likely).

After much searching, I finally stumbled upon a website that would give me a running head start: the website of photographer of Neil van Niekerk. Wedding photographers have to deal with many of the same challenges that we dance photographers face. Even better, many of them, such as Neil, are educators who post helpful guides, how-tos, and behind-the-scenes stories to help broke, idiot photographers like myself. If you browse his Tangents blog, you’ll quickly see that the style of shooting that I have adopted is pretty much his.

The beginning

One of my earliest photos, taken with the pop-up flash on my camera.

I started doing dance photography with a Nikon D5000 camera body and the kit lens, a slow f/3.5-5.6 18-55mm zoom. Surprise of surprises, this combination didn’t fare well indoors when pressed to freeze action. I quickly discovered that the only way to get a dance photo on the social dance floor was to use a flash. At first, I used the pop-up flash on my camera and it worked with slightly unflattering results.

Take a look at the photo on the left. This was one of the earliest dance photos I’ve ever shot. I froze the action and got a nifty shot of a dip, so the content of the image is all fine and dandy. But the light is not flattering. There’s light reflecting off of the lead’s sweaty face directly into the camera as well as a heavy shadow cast on the wall. All in all, a nice image that would have been better had I created better light.

Shot with a shoe-mounted flash with the head pointed straight up at the ceiling.

The next step was to put a flash on top of my camera. At first, I started with a bare-bones flash, the Nikon SB-400. It’s a tiny little thing that takes only two AA’s and has a reflector that can be rotated vertically up to 90 degrees. It provided decent results when I had things in focus, but the camera would frequently need help focusing in low light. So I stepped up to a Nikon SB-600, which did have an autofocus assist light, and now I could consistently shoot flash pictures in low light.

Pictures like the one on the left. Now that the light is effectively coming from the ceiling (because I aimed my flash head to bounce the light from directly overhead), the light melds away into the ambient and you get a very nice looking photo. The light is very even across the entire frame. You can tell that the flash was bounced straight up thanks to many clues littered around the picture: the shadow behind the follow’s face that is cast upon the lead’s right cheek, the shadow underneath the follow’s arm, etc. Still, a very nice picture that I’m sure would receive few complaints from fellow dancers.

The here and now

My old camera setup, consisting of a Nikon D5000 body, a f/2.8 17-55mm zoom lens, a Nikon SB-900 flash, and a piece of foam held on with hairbands.

When I started reading Neil van Neikerk’s website, I was amazed at how incredible his photos looked. The photos made it appear like someone had brought along a flash and a softbox and placed it just outside the frame of the picture — but they were in fact lit with an on-camera flash. I hadn’t been able to reproduce that kind of light with my setup. How to do I do that?

Fortunately, Neil reveals all in his many blog posts. He is always talking about the direction of light. Light that comes from directly above the subject is frequently too flat, too boring, too… unremarkable. Photography is all about shaping and painting with light, and it is possible to do that, even with an on-camera flash. The secret? The infamous Black Foamie Thing.

The Black Foamie Thing is the piece of foam that you see strapped to the top of my flash using hairbands. It is there to keep light from the flash from directly hitting the subject (and to keep from blinding dancers around me). I point it away from my subjects and bounce it from the direction that I want light to come — which these days is rarely ever from directly over my head. I much prefer to bounce the light off to the right and behind me, which makes the light come from the top right corner of my pictures.

Why? Just a matter of preference, really. In swing dancing, when a couple is dancing in closed position and facing towards me, the follow is on the left and the lead is on the right. I choose to light for the follow, first and foremost, and since she’s angled towards my right, that’s where I’m going to put my light. (Sorry, guys.)

Knowing that, you’ve probably now figured out why I hold my camera funny. To get the flash pointed up and to the right without the use of a cumbersome flash bracket, I cradle the camera side grip, lens mount, and flash mount with my left hand which leaves my right hand free to operate the shutter button, which has now rotated to the bottom. (The picture at the top of the post shows how I hold my camera.)

The result

This is one of my favorite pictures from Show-Me Blues. With the high ceilings and a relatively spacious dance floor allowing me to aim my flash at extreme angles, I was able to get some fantastic directional lighting.

Not only was the moment caught a good one, but I love how the light and shadows fall across the follow’s face and body. If the light was bounced directly above me, you’d lose the shape-defining shadows that emphasize her smile and visually separate her head from her neck. There’s also a fantastic symmetry in the photo, with the right side lit and the left side falling into shadow.

I love this picture. That weekend, I printed out an 8×10, first to see how it looked in my hands, and second, to give it to the follow.

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