I keep coming back to this dance theme. There are a number of reasons. Dancers, especially classically trained dancers hold themselves with a certain grace and poise. (well “duh” I hear the rest of the world say, but well, yes it is obvious, however it is a reason why I’m attracted to dancers as subjects). Next is the movement element – showing movement in a still photograph, whether it be a dancer frozen in mid-leap –where it’s obvious they are moving as they had to be to get up there, to showing multiple positions or a constant motion blur in the image to show the path they have taken. I had shot with Gabby before, to produce a multiple flash image showing her path from stage right to stage left. This time I wanted to explore motion freezing, and getting some blur on.
Gabrielle Dams, my subject for this shoot is only 18 years of age, and yet she dances, she sings and teaches a dance class of12-13 year old girls – who all adore her. She’s very hard-working and always turns in a great performance.
Our venue for this shoot, unlike the last one was a regular studio and not a theatre. This gave some advantages, and took some away – mainly the raised stage and deep light-consuming black curtained stage area with ready made flagged off continuous lights. Now, I say it was a regular studio, however Body Couture Studios in Congleton is my kind of studio – it’s basically a big industrial unit with a concrete floor – no sets, some cloth and vinyl backgrounds and a lot of space. It’s the space that’s normally lacking in most studios for dance and other grand experiments. Intimate little studios with beds, sets and other paraphernalia are all very well however for movement, you need space. Space for the dancer to move in, and space for the lights and camera to back off the set
I’m going to talk a little bit about gear. Normally, for regular studio shoots, who cares what lights you use – as long as you can produce enough of it to overpower the ambient and you can shape it, the rest is just convenience (can you alter the power remotely mostly), and resilience (how often do they break). You can invest in Broncolor lights at a £gazillion per light, through Profoto and even Elinchrom and get more convenience, better build and sometimes better modifiers (Elinchrom’s deep octa or Broncolor’s big Para reflectors for example); however, the light will be largely the same. I hear all the arguments about colour temperature fluctuation, and I say a big “so what?” to that to be honest – a fluctuation of 100K is invisible unless you have another image to compare it to, and is fixed in about 2 seconds in Lightroom – if you can muster enough motivation to move the slider.
So, for the past 3 years or so, I’ve used the 3 Coreflash D300’s from Viewfinder in the picture to the right . They cost £500 and came with a large octa, stands, a trigger, 2 brollies and reflectors and still work just fine today. Sure I have to climb a ladder to adjust the power, and the setting is a guess (although I meter it anyway) but they work. Now when we get to using movement though, another requirement arrives: flash duration. In the studio we shoot on 1/160th of a second to ensure a full open shutter at the time of the flash. The aperture and ISO are set so that the ambient light in the studio doesn’t even register on the image, so the entire picture is made from the flash, and so it is the duration of that flash that replaces shutter speed in freezing the action. My cheap lights are just way too slow at around 1/900th of a second *at best* and probably more like 1/500th of a second.
So until this shoot, I had used Speedlights for action freezing – Nikon SB900’s to be exact. At 1/4 power they are on 1/5000th of a second. Strap 4 together and you’ve full power equivalent at that speed. However, you are limited in terms of modifiers (I typically bounced them all into a 7 foot umbrella or put them all inside a brollie mount octabox, on a Lastolite Quad mount in both scenarios) and of course, you need a load of lights and radio triggers which all takes time to set up. Even then you’re only getting about 75Joules of light. I looked at several options for faster lights – PCB Einsteins are very nice, but pricey and need their own modifiers. They are also very hard to buy or service in the UK. Things like Broncolor or Profoto are definitely out of my price bracket – £3k per light is just nuts unless those lights are earning £3k per month each. The Elinchrom BXR500’s are in fact reasonably fast and the new Elinchrom ELC-HDs are brilliant. They cost £700+ though and I have a load of Bowens fit modifiers – which will not fit on those heads. Ok, anyone thinking “you can buy adaptor’s though” go to the back of the room – adaptors alter the distance of the flash tube to the modifier – the light will be further back. This will render most reflectors and softboxes less than optimal. So, fast Bowens compatible lights? The answer is the Lencarta SuperFast series. As the name suggests, they are fast. Unlike the Elinchrom lights, the Lencarta lights achieve their speed through an Insulated Gate Bi-polar Transistor switch – just alike a speedlight. Rather than the light meandering out of the capacitor until it’s empty, it can turn the flow of energy to the flash tube on and off at will. They can go down 1/20,000th of a second at minimum power, and produce a very useful 1/3000th of a second at 1/4 power. I bought 3 600-SFs.
The lights are made by Godox in China and you can buy a very similar looking light from dealers in HongKong for a lot less than Lencarta’s price. Normally, I buy everything from as direct a source as I can and yet I paid Lencarta £200 more for almost the same units. There are 3 broad reasons for this. One, by the time you add the 9% duty, 20% VAT you are within around £70 of Lencarta’s price. Then there’s the small print in the Hong Kong sellers’ eBay listings – any returns must be received within 7 days of them shipping (wow – so effectively no returns if it turns up bust). I’ve never had a problem with anything I bought from China but even so, this was not really acceptable. The 3rd reason is Lencarta give you a 3 year warranty, and their customer service is legendary. I had a chance to try it out – as one of the units had a slightly noisy fan. I called Lencarta’s customer service – and Garry Edwardes answered the phone, and shipped out another one same day, and arranged collection of the the faulty light. And they’ll do this, for 3 years. That, to me is worth the price they ask for the 600-SF.
So, fully equipped with big fast lights that take standard S-Fit reflectors and softboxes we were set to freeze some motion. We also needed a source of continuous light and for that I had a Bowens S-Fit compatible bulb holder. It looks like a very short studio light and just has a power switch at the back, and a heavy duty Edison Screw holder at the front to take very large curly bulbs. I used a 150 watt daylight (flash) balanced curly bulb. They claim this outputs the same light as a 750 watt incandescent light. This is rubbish. I measured it with my light meter and it gave the same readings as the 150 watt modelling lights in my strobes (same distance, same reflector). I knew this was probably not enough, so I packed a £20 B&Q 500 watt Halogen work light as well. Well off colour at about 3300K however I can fix that easier than I can fix a lack of light.
Our first shot was a straight action freezing show against a grey background. A strip box on either side flagged off from the background provided edge light on Gabby. A gridded 1.2 metre octabox in front and off to camera left provided fill. All the lights on 1/4 power or less, to give that short duration action stopping effect. The main challenge with this shot was in timing. Gabby can produce this leap to within inches. However inches was all we had – a 3 metre wide background is barely enough to fit a leaping dancer onto. I shot from as far back as I could get, to make Gabby smaller in comparison to the background (if I get nearer, the difference in distance to her versus to the background is large proportionally, so she gets bigger versus the background). In terms of focus, I had Gabby stand on a mark on the floor, focussed on her and locked the lens in manual focus. You could follow focus on continuous focus mode, however this is just another variable and the framing of this shot was critical. In the final shot below, I have added some space left and right in Photoshop to give a more acceptable framing.
Now, of course thunder-thumbs here didn’t really clock this at the time, as I’d only had these lights 5 minutes, but I could have shot on continuous, as at 1/4 power, these lights will easily keep up with my D800 at 4fps. I’m used to one flash every 3 seconds from studio lights (maybe a bit faster but definitely only time for one shot during a leap).
Body Couture studios has a pitched metal roof. The roof has large skylights, which, quite frankly is a pain. During the day, you can’t make the studio dark, and so any long exposure work gets polluted by the ambient light. However, here I made use of the daylight to generate some motion blur on Gabby as she executed a single pirouette. I set the shutter to bulb, and the flash to rear curtain sync. I started the exposure as gabby started her turn and let go of the shutter button just as her face was coming around to face the camera. At this point the single SF600 pointing directly down from above her head fired for just 1/5000th of a second or so, just before the shutter closed, giving a sharp image of Gabby’s face. The freezing effect is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the strobe, so it falls away nicely towards the bottom of the image.
Note – for reasons I cannot fathom, Canon cameras (and potentially others) cannot do this. That is, they will not do rear or 2nd curtain sync with studio strobes. I can’t find a definitive answer why this is, however my research all points to the Camera sending the flash signal at the start of the frame even when using 2nd curtain sync with Speedlites, with instructions for a delay that corresponds to 2nd curtain sync. Canon Speedlites decode this and fire at the end of the exposure. Of course, studio strobes don’t understand this and so Canon cameras only allow you to set 2nd curtain sync when using the pop-up or a real Canon Speedlite. Nikon cameras just send the flash signal just before the shutter closes. This works even on bulb mode. However! There is a workaround – just fire the strobe manually using the test button on the trigger. It requires a bit of coordination but the results are just as good.
Finally, it got dark outside, which meant we could make it dark in the studio, and focus our continuous lights. A fully manual affair – with both front and rear curtain flash. No camera offers this as far as I know :P, so this one was all down to coordinating the shutter, on bulb, with my right hand, with Gabby’s movement and manually triggering the strobes with a radio trigger in my left hand. Gabby moves as soon as she sees the first flash. The sequence was count 1-2-3, Open shutter and trigger first flash. Gabby moves. As she adopts the closing pose, flash again and immediately release the shutter button to close it and complete the exposure. The middle section is lit by both continuous lights side by side off to the left of this image and flagged off from the background. The image is book-ended by the two strip lights with grids again. Now, you can plainly see the light in the middle section which is all continuous light, is clearly warmer due to the 500 watt halogen work light. I don’t care. In fact I quite like that this gives some colour contrast – some separation to the bookend flash exposures versus the middle section. The whole shot is just under 6 seconds in total.
Now I can’t lie to you – there is a lot to do in post here. We moved to the black cloth background for this shot, with another 6 metre black muslin cloth on the floor to swallow as much light as possible, however with a 6 second exposure and some 700 watts of light flooding into the set, you will always get some background illumination, and plenty on the floor. The trick is to ensure your dancer wears a light toned outfit so it becomes easier to adjust tones in the image by zone. This shot was processed entirely in Lightroom using the radial adjustment tool, adjustment brush and graduated adjustments. Mostly all of them were to dial down the shadows, and increase contrast. I started off by adjusting the tones globally, setting the white and black points, and then added a large radial adjuster to produce a custom vignette – dialling down mid-tones (“exposure”) and shadows. I used the brush to do more of this, and then used more adjusters on Gabby to raise the highlights, and mid-tone contrast (“clarity”). This is all non-destructive in Lightroom, so you can change the adjustments once you have painted on the zones until you are happy. I even made some local white balance adjustments to bring the colour of the lights closer together.
Thanks to Gabby for such a stellar performance and mum Val. To my assistant Sandy who steers the lights and says useful things like “you know we’ve only got 20 minutes left” – 😛 and to Becky Hampson – studio owner and Gabby’s agent – for configuring the studio backgrounds before we got there and arranging Gabby. I can see much more movement on the horizon….