On Assignment: I Got Rhythm

I have been photographing dancers for several years now as part of my affiliation with the local arts council. The results were catch-as-catch-can, mostly because of the limitations of flash recycle time, timing, and my not really knowing what to expect from them nor when to expect it.

But a little trick I tried last week changed everything.

First, The Light

Because this is a lighting site, let's hit the lumens first so the people who care about nothing else can leave early.

We spent an afternoon shooting head shots, mood/environment shots and dancing shots in color and BW. I knew I would need more power than my speedlights could offer, mostly because of the working distances for the light.

So I loaded up the cart, which always elicits a bit of a sigh:

Among that pile of stuff on the Rock n' Roller cart is three Einstein 640 monoblocs and a total of four soft light sources. (Two 30x60" soft boxes and two ~1x3' strips.)

The big boxes were chosen because I wanted at least some softness to the light at decent working distances. The distance, in turn, being chosen to give her consistant light levels over a semi-large working area. (If this doesn't make sense to you, refer to Lighting 102: Distance.)

The lighting in the frame at top is cross light on the 45's with an on-axis(-ish) fill.

Here's a top view of the lighting diagram:

The key light is 30x60" soft box (by Paul Buff, here) about 20 feet up and over to camera left. It is denoted as "A" on the diagram. It is racked up as high as I can get it with a (heavily sandbagged) C-Stand.

C-stands are heavy and unweildy, but also incredibly useful and damn-near indestructable. With the attached arm I can rack this one up to over 12 feet high. Which is very important to establish the vertical component of the light, being so far away. Especially considering she is leaping during the photo.

So that's my key light. Since she is wearing black and the background is also black, the separation light becomes very important. That is one of my smaller strip boxes, about 20 feet back and over to camera right. This is high(-ish) on an 8-foot stand. Not as high as the key. I want it to separate her entire camera-right side, not just the top surfaces.

This light, denoted as "B" above, gets the strip light because I want to save the other big sift box for my fill. It is also running a little hotter than I would normally want as a separation light, owing to the black-on-black tones. There's even some flare happening. I liked it, so I kept it rather than gobo'ing the camera.

Finally, the fill. This is important because I am working many stops above the ambient. So there will be nothing happening in the shadows without at least some fill light. Normally I might put the big fill light right behind me, or directly to the side of me opposite the key. But in this case my key is all coming from up high, so I put my fill on the ground to push up against and into the shadows left by the vertical component of the key. Literally, the big fill soft box (denoted as "C" above) is laying on the ground right below/infront of the camera.

How powerful/what ratio for the fill? Couldn't tell you. I just set my key, then my separation, then dialed up the fill until the shadows looked right. We were cycling through situations very quickly. But I am guessing 2 1/2 stops or so below the key.

So that is a fairly detailed look at the lighting, with details specific to this situation. But long story short, it's basically crosslight on the 45's with on-axis fill.

Can't Hit For Average

Okay, so she is dancing and I am shooting. We have music playing over a set of portable speakers because, duh. Seriously, you should always have a set of portables or a Bluetooth speaker when you shoot people. Worst case, you have some ambient background going. Best case, they plug in their own device and you are shooting them in the warm coccoon of their own favorite music. No-brainer.

So she is dancing, and I am shooting—poorly. I don't know what she is going to do, how it is going to develop, or when. And because of the flashes, I am in single-frame mode. No spray and pray. So I am early, late, missed completely—just a damned impressive fumbling klutz on timing.

And this has been a problem a lot for me when shooting dancers. Dancing ain't my thing. I am not a dancer. So I miss a lot.

And worse, you can quickly burn out a dancer by missing a kinetic move for a while as you dial in your timing. So by the time you get what she's doing, she is shot. Not good.

Then a Light Bulb Goes Off

Basically, I do not know what it happening until I see it. And then it is too late. I will never get peak action, which is kinda critical on a leap, right? But we have music, which means we have a shared timing structure.

So we ditched everything she was doing for the moment, except for this leap. And both of us being familiar with music structure, we mapped out exactly when I would hit the shutter release.

Whatever she wanted me to get, all she had to to was to hit the physical mark (a small taped spot area on the floor) and the timing mark (the downbeat of every fourth measure). And there was a 100% chance I would grab it, with near perfect timing.

It was like, "CLICK, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. REST, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight. CLICK, two, three ..... yada, yada."

And I'm literally shouting this out loud, over the music. There was zero confusion as to when she would peak, and when I would shoot.

Instant sync. Our batting average went from crap to perfect in a heartbeat. See for yourself. These are sequential pics, shot in single-frame mode because of the flash recycling times:

We went from hopelessly inefficient to having the luxury of nailing the timing on every single shot. I didn't need to know what she was gonna do. Because I knew exactly where and when it would happen. I could even take into account the shutter lag on my camera (a Fuji X-E2 and a 35mm normal lens, at ~f/5.6) and expose each shot exactly on the downbeat. Which was when she was timing her peak.

It was sublime. Timing issues solved, we could now concentrate on presence, facial expression, where Maddie would be looking, etc. So, not only was our timing efficiency near-perfect, but everything else was much-improved, too.

I doubt I'll ever shoot anyone doing anything that involves repetitive motion and timing again without using this technique.

On Assignment: I Got Rhythm is #170 in the long-running On Assignment series, which can be found here.

Discussion? Questions? Via Twitter, use hashtag #StrOA170—and add "@Strobist" at the end of the tweet if is important that I see it.


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