Ever since I watched Joe McNally’s video about making a stroboscopic shot of ballet dancer Jen Concepcion, I wanted to shoot more dance. Moreover I couldn’t get that shot out of my head. I’ve learnt a lot of from Joe’s books and videos over the past year or so, and never travel without at least 1 speed-light these days (those rumours about me sleeping with an SB900 under the pillow are unfounded though). Of all the shots I’ve watched Joe set up and make, this had to be the most complex in terms of technical lighting. Not in terms of lighting finesse you understand – there are much more subtle arrangements of lights in Joe’s work. But, shot in 3 parts, in camera with 3 commanders and for sheer speed-lightery, this was the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique of lighting – and as time went by, I just had to try it to get it out of my head….
Here’s Joe’s shot :-
Isn’t that brilliant? I’d approached a couple of dancers who were interested in working on this and I had a rough idea how I could arrange the lights. As I didn’t have a garage full of speed-lights though I was looking for cheaper ways to make stroboscopic lighting. I researched endless 3rd party flashguns and I got my ultra cheap YN460-II’s strobing along happily in slave mode with a YN565-EX (this light is Nikon AWL compatible). However, triggering them proved to be difficult as the 460’s “intelligent slave mode” that’s intended to ignore the AWL pre-flash didn’t work, and if I put them in straight slave mode, they drowned out the AWL signalling from the master flash. I probably could have gotten this working by triggering the strobing YN565 by radio and having the 460’s flash along in slave mode, but I was already thinking about where the lights would be, and hauling them down to adjust power and so on didn’t appeal. In the end I bottled it and spent 2 weeks buying used SB-900’s on eBay.
That just left the venue. This looked to be the hardest part, and in the end, the easiest… I had looked for weeks at theatres on the web. Some looked OK, many had very small stages, and some were just too big (i.e. expensive) for my budget. Then on one Google search, the theatre in my daughter’s school popped up and had a page about hiring it. “Well…” I thought.. “duh”, slapped myself a couple of times for not thinking of this earlier and emailed the theatre manager, Paul. I went to see him at the theatre and not only did he give me substantial discount, he also offered to help out rigging the lights. Even better, I got an email from Paul later on that week saying that he and his boss had agreed we could use the place for free. However there was only one date available.
Just as the hardest part became the simplest – now the bit I thought I had covered became a problem – could I find a dancer who could do this specific morning? I sent an email to Becky Hampson at Body Couture late that night. The dancers I’d spoken to were on Becky’s books, however neither of them could make that date. 3 days later however, Becky had found me a dancer: Gabrielle Dams, and it was all set up.. I spoke to a few photographer friends and instantly had a crew of 6. At this point I thought “hey! this might actually work!” :-/
Joe used 3 commanders which he swapped out over the course of the shot and an all-speed-light flash set-up I used a combination of traditional studio mono-block lights fired manually by hand-held triggers and speed-lights for the middle section. I also ended up making longer (wider) shots – not entirely by design 😛 I had 4 SB-900’s clamped with super-clamps to 2 2.4 meter 25mm dowelling rods, suspended on chains so they were about 2 foot below the lighting curtain (needed line of sight to camera). At stage right and left I put a studio mono-block light with a strip box. Taped a line on the stage for Gabby to follow. Then we tested the middle lights for exposure, and settled on f/4 at ISO 500 (shutter speed would be variable and long – 3-4 seconds on bulb). Dialled the same into the studio lights at stage left and right. Lined up the camera at the back of the central “pit” and focused manually on Gabby standing on the line using live view. The Grange Theatre has one advantage over most theatres: it has a flat, seat-less floor area that goes back 20 meters or so. This allowed me to get the camera dead level with the stage floor and eliminate the build up of flash light from the multiple flashes. I taped a 6m by 3m black muslin over the front of the stage to hide the gratings and white stage lip. I mounted the master flash on a second tripod next to the camera so I could turn it on and without disturbing the camera. It was linked to the camera hot-shoe with an SC-28 remote cord.
Dancing Stepladders! Clara made this time lapse of the whole build process which took around 4 hours “does that include set-up?” asked Paul when I first talked to him about hiring the theatre. “Oh yeah” I said 🙂
The sequence of events then to take the shot was…
- Set camera to multiple exposure with auto gain on, 3 shots
- Gabby adopts opening pose
- Open shutter and trigger light to stage right with radio trigger 1, close shutter
- Turn on commander flash (SB-900 on 2nd tripod)
- Gabby starts her move
- I open the shutter around .5 of second into the move – the lights start strobing at 5hz
- I close the shutter about .5 of a second before the end of her move. Wait for the lights to stop.
- Gabby adopts closing pose
- Turn commander flash off
- Open shutter and trigger light to stage left with radio trigger 2, close shutter.
I had Chris and Suzy triggering the left and right lights at first, however, this took too long and the ambient began to blur the images. Chris took over turning the commander on and off and I held the camera remote in one hand and the right or left radio trigger in the other. If I was doing this again there are a few things I would do differently:-
- The colour temp of the studio lights is not exactly the same as the speed-lights – they are slightly warmer. Minor thing though and I can fix this in Lightroom as it has local colour temp adjustments.
- I would mount the triggers on the pass-through hot shoe on the Sc-28 cord (and swap them out), to speed up the opening and closing shots as they are still a bit soft.
- Back the strip box lights off a bit as the contrast is a bit high.
- I would flag the speed-lights on the front as well as the back.
- Play around with the ambient light level more (we used values of 10% to 26% on the 2 white stage lights up above)
- Ditch the skirt, use longer scarfs or tie 2 or 3 together etc.
Cast and Crew!
- Gabrielle Dams – Our Dancer, and make-up – which was amazing – the shot to the right doesn’t do it justice – we ran out of time to do a proper make-up shot.
- Becky Hampson – Gabby’s agent
- Val Dams – Gabby’s mum – and coach.
- Suzy Clifford – chief soft box wrangler and 2nd light trigger
- Chris Steel – 1st light trigger, commander turner on and off’er and catering
- Lorraine Barnard – BTS shooter
- Clara Hewson- time-lapse shooter
- Paul Edwards and Oliver Bamber – theatre technicians. ambient and speed-light wranglers.
Special thanks to Simon Dorset and Paul Edwards at the Grange School, Hartford for generously letting us use the theatre for this shoot, and to Bex at Body Couture for finding Gabby for us, and of course to Gabby for working so hard as the star of our shoot. Thanks to everyone involved in making this happen and Joe for doing it first! – we had a great time doing it, I learned a lot and I’m looking forward to doing some more! See the rest of the shots Here
Kit used on this shoot
- Primary camera: Nikon D800E
- Giottos MTL 8361B tripod
- Slik Mini tripod for the master flash.
- Lens: Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG EX
- Strobe lighting: 3 x Nikon SB900 and 1 Yongnuo YN565EX
- Commander flash: Nikon SB900
- Bookend lights: Coreflash D300 mono-blocks with strip boxes – no grids
- Ambient lights: existing stage lights over head at either end of the stage, flagged with barn doors
- Other bits: radio triggers for the studio flashes, 4 x Karlu photographic clamps (super-clamp clones), 2 dowelling rods 2.4m by 25mm, 4 x cold shoe clamps, stands, SC-28 flash cord, tripods and a remote cord for the camera. 3x6m black muslin cloth. Various coloured scarfs. Gaffer tape, white electrical tape, off cuts of light proof curtain liner to flag one of the strip boxes, Many Jaffa Cakes.