Dramatic Dance Portraits: A Tutorial

For a long time, I’ve wanted to do some creative dance photography.  Having grown up as a ballet dancer and taking classes for 15+ years, dance is near and dear to my heart.  I love the movement, emotion, and fluidity of dance.  There’s just something about it that gets me every time.  So when I finally had an opening in my schedule and enough gumption to propose this crazy idea to a willing participant, we went for it!

If you’re curious how we achieved this look, it wasn’t all that complicated!  We gave our model, Brielle, a few inspiration shots to give her an idea of what we had in mind.  We asked her to wear simple dance attire that was form fitting (though, she did bring a tutu and skirt, we ended up not using them) and expect to get very messy.  She was more than willing!

For lighting, we used a 4 light set up.  There are two strip lights with grids on either side for rim lighting pointed at Brielle about 2 feet behind her and right on the edge of the background, a large parabolic umbrella overhead for a bit of background and top lighting (I may skip that in the future), and a medium umbrella light in front for a bit of illumination of her face.  All of the lights used are Alien Bee lights – a mix of AB400 and AB1600.  We used Cybersync triggers, though I usually use Phottix triggers (I borrowed from a friend who was helping with this shoot since my batteries were dead in my Phottix set and I didn’t have any spares at the time).  I was aiming for pretty dramatic light, not quite a silhouette, so that we could capture the shape and form of both the dancer’s movement, and the flour.  And that’s what you see – just regular all purpose baking flour!  We went through about half a bag, but could have easily used more.

Be prepared for a HUGE mess!  We set up the lighting and our grey seamless backdrop on my driveway outside.  We got flour everywhere.  There was flour a good 10 feet away from where Brielle was dancing!  I’d also recommend that if you have the time to build a small wooden platform (maybe a 2 or 4 inch rise?), it’s a bit more forgiving on dancer’s legs for jumps and leaps.  I didn’t have the time or resources to make that happen for this shoot, but would consider it in the future

We metered our lights so that our two strip boxes were at 1/200 f10 and ISO 400.  Our overhead light and front main light (which was really more of a fill light) were metered a bit lower than that, I think around 1/200 f8 ISO 400.  All of these were shot at  1/200 f10 ISO 400 in order to freeze motion and have enough depth of field to capture movement and leaps without much trouble.  All of these were edited in Lightroom, and then I used photoshop to clone and stretch the background a bit.  I recommend shooting on the biggest roll of seamless paper you have – you’ll need the space!

There was a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to release the flour at the optimal time for the best shot.  We had Brielle practice each movement and pose without flour first.  Through a bit of trial and error, we discovered that having quite a bit of flour in her hands was necessary – so grab a handful!  Each movement we usually had to do at least twice just to figure out the release time, but generally to get a nice trail of flour, you have to release slowly.

And yes, we did put flour in Brielle’s hair!  This was towards the end of the shoot when she was already pretty well covered, so she didn’t mind at all.  We just grabbed a ton of flour, and just mashed it all up in her hair.  Putting some flour on top of her head or underneath seemed to add the most to these next two shots.

Overall, it was SO much fun to do this shoot!  Brielle had a blast, and so did I.  I really can’t wait to do it again!

Here’s a little pull back so you can see the light positioning, except for the main light, which is behind the camera where this shot is taken from.

I hope you found this tutorial fun and useful.  Please let me know if you have any additional questions!

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