Cassie Wrightson, a photography student from Hertfordshire in the UK wrote to me to ask about the pictures in my Dance Gallery for her written piece on the theme of ‘Time’.  Here’s what she asked, and I sincerely hope the resulting babble I sent back was in some way helpful 🙂

  • My first question is what is the context behind the photos?
  • How did you take the photographs?
  • Which camera did you use and what setting did you have your camera on?
  • How did you get the image so crisp?
  • Why did you choose the colours of what the dancers wear?
  • Is there any hidden messages that link to the photos?
  • And finally why did you choose these 22 photos in particular?


Dancer:  Gabrielle Dams Crew: Suzy Clifford, Chris Steel, Lorraine Barnard, Clara Barnard. Time lapse BTS shoot: Clara Barnard Theatre technician:  Paul Edwards Make-up: Gabrielle Dams Model Ageny:  Becky Hampson, Body Couture Location:  Grange Theatre, Hartford Special thanks to The Grange School.


My first question is what is the context behind the photos?

If there is any idea or thought that runs throughout all of these it’s about showing motion, with a great deal of grace and form in a still image. There are two basic approaches to this: in some of the images, the dancer is frozen in mid-air. Even though she is perfectly frozen by the lights, we know she is moving because she is up in the air. The second approach uses either a continuous light to show motion as a blur path, often mixed with flash or multiple flash images to plot the course of the dancer across the stage.


How did you take the photographs?

The straight action freezing shots are taken in a studio using very fast studio lights. The shutter speed is actually quite low – typically 1/160th of a second. The duration of the flash light though is around 1/3000th of a second and it is this that freezes the motion – the image only exists for as long as the light exists.

Shots with motion blur in also have a continuous light component, and a long exposure – sometimes up to 6 or 7 seconds and I’ll usually trigger the flash light at the start and at the end of the movement to create sharp images in the blur.

For the shots with the trailing red silk, these are shot over about half a second with a flash at the end lighting only the figure. The silk is lit by continuous lights which creates the fire-like blur in the cloth.


The shots with multiple images of the dancer are the most complex and are made in 3 parts – all in camera. I hired a theatre for these shots as I needed a raised stage, to get the camera right down at floor level. I needed the camera right down at stage floor level so none of the floor would be in shot. Light would build up on the floor and blow out. There is a studio light with strip box at either end of the stage, and up above I suspended 4 SB900 Speedlights (flash guns) set to flash 5 times a second. With the camera set in multiple exposure mode for 3 exposures per frame, we took one exposure with the trigger for the right hand light attached, then with the commander to trigger the strobing lights in the middle section and finally, with the trigger for the left hand studio strip-box. The shot comes out in one from from the camera with all three exposures in one image.

Some of the images require a crew of 2 or 3 people to control wind machines, fog and throw fabric and trigger lights. On the strobing dance shoot we had a crew of 6 and it took 4 hours to build the lighting – for 30 minutes of actual shooting time.

You can see more about the motion blur and leaping shot here:-

The ones with the red fabric combine flash and continuous in different zones:-

and the stroboscopic dance shots in the theatre are described in detail here:-

A couple of videos here as well that give some insight into what goes on:-


Which camera did you use and what setting did you have your camera on?

These images were almost all shot on Nikon 35mm DSLRs either a D700 or a D800E. Lenses are mostly either the Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 or the Nikon 70-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR. All of these shots are made using flash, so shutter speeds need to be in the x-sync range. For flash only shots (ie without any ambient component) the shutter speed will be 1/160th of a second. Aperture is usually around f/8 to f/11 in the studio. The cameras are always in manual exposure mode as the picture is made by controlling the lights. For some images where I’m capturing moments in a fluid movement, I’ll shoot on continuous mode as fast as the camera and lights will go (5 fps on my D800E). The images are all shot raw – I don’t use in-camera produced jpegs – ever.

For images with a continuous light component (where you see blur in the shot) the shutter speed will be set to generate the desired level of blur, or if the intention is to cover all of a dancer’s move, the shutter will be on bulb: ie it will remain open for as long as I hold the button and will differ every shot. For these shots, a completely dark studio/theatre is required (ie no light in the room that we didn’t intentionally put there).

For some of the images, the lights used are not too important – any old studio lights will do. However for the action freezing images, I use Lencarta SF600’s which are incredibly fast and at 1/4 power and below, have no recycle time at all. I also use Nikon SB900 Speedlights for the strobing feature.


How did you get the image so crisp?

There are a number of things that contribute to image sharpness and impact. First, to get a sharp image, it needs to be in focus. I will normally use only the centre focus point, in single focus mode (ie not continuous) and focus on the leading eye before composing the shot. If the figure will be moving, I will get them to stand roughly where they will end up, and set the focus on them there. Then, any movement needs to be frozen. For this, it’s the light duration – the less time the light exists, the more frozen the subject will be, and so, sharper.

Contrast plays a big part in the impact – and this is where the quality of the light comes into play – the size and distance of the light source – I like to get the lights pretty close to get a rapid fall-off across the subject, and tend to go for a more contrasty side/backlit style to get good definition on my subjects. Translucent fabric and fog both respond well to back-lighting.

Control of the tone curve in post production is also important – setting the black and white points to maximise tonal range, and introducing contrast overall, and selectively in parts of the image and parts of the tonal range will make the subject stand out. Finally, sharpening is applied selectively to the parts of the image that are meant to be sharp. I don’t apply sharpening to blurred parts of the image.


Why did you choose the colours of what the dancers wear?

For some shots, I didn’t – it largely depended on what they had. For images requiring long exposures though, it is much easier in post production if there is a lot of contrast between the dancer and the background. As the backgrounds are almost always dark, that means light tones on the outfit. On some shots we choose the colours right then and there from the ever growing bag of fabrics 🙂


Is there any hidden messages that link to the photos?

Not that I’m aware of, other than to try and convey the grace, strength, physique and dynamic elements of trained dancers in a still shot.


And finally why did you choose these 22 photos in particular?

Great question:  typically I’ll shoot 200-500 frames on these sessions.  A lot of those are set-up:  ie we test out each lighting component and build the light one at a time.  We then add the rest of the elements one by one:  the move, the fabric, wind and last, we add things that are hard to undo – such as fog.

Then, as with all shots involving a moving subject, there will be lots of iterations the results will be different every time you shoot.   I’ll pick the one with the best framing, and shape presented by the dancer and/or fabric.  I’ll check things like finger and toe extension, expression, sharpness, and any unwanted shadows from arms.  Sometimes there’s only one shot left, sometimes many and I’ll pick one to take forward.

I hope this helps Cassie, and I haven’t waffled on too much 🙂  – just let me know if you have any questions about any aspect of this.

Curtain to Curtain

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