Learning from a dancing photographer

I headed to a local Ball last Saturday. It was a reasonably posh affair arranged by the Midland Amateur Dancers club, and in a large octagonal hall that I remember being daunting for beginners (right angles are the norm). I was on my own, and unfortunately didn’t know anybody other than my dance teachers. I was probably the youngest attendee – the average age was likely late 50s – which makes it slightly awkward to find a partner. Having said that, it wasn’t really the kind of night for asking strangers to dance anyway1. I ended up having just the one cha-cha, with my teacher.

It wasn’t a total loss, though. When taken to my seat I immediately noticed two enormous Nikons on the table, and the guy next to me turned out to be official photographer for the World Championships(!). I introduced myself and we got chatting. I asked for advice on photographing dances, as I’ve been churning out mediocre results for years. His primary tip was to know the subject – he was a competitive dancer for 40 years, so could anticipate routines and their best photographic moments. He was photographing the night’s competition, and generously made a point of showing me how to handle the situation. It’s actually ok to physically move people into good positions – apparently people’s desire to look good in photos outweighs usual social norms (which sounds vain, but isn’t really).

It also helps if you have a stupidly powerful flash. Dance venues are often enormous and it can be tricky to balance light across the photo. Unfortunately this size offers few opportunities to soften light by bouncing it, so blasting across the floor is the only option. I don’t like direct flash much, and full-frontal light doesn’t do dancers any favours imho – I might work on some wireless off-camera setups, maybe work it into an appropriate uni project at some point.

I was then abruptly asked if I’d be stand-in photographer at a competition in May! Yikes. I agreed as it’ll be great experience, but I’m nervous already. I practiced a little on the night:


Most of my shots came out underexposed, which was deliberate – I’d rather have a sharp, darker image than a properly-exposed shot in which the dancers are blurred. I brought back much of the detail in Lightroom, and my newly-arrived copy of Photoshop got a workout too. Colours are a nightmare, however.

I hadn’t been looking forward to going alone, but it turned out to be a surprisingly interesting and productive evening. I learnt a lot, and I’m very grateful to the Proper Photographer for putting up with my annoying questions.

  1. possibly a rationalisation, but my teachers are normally good at pointing out suitable candidates, and even they were at a loss []