Digital Diary
Photographing Dance

Digital Diary

Photos © 2002, Andre Costantini, All Rights Reserved

With so many new technologies and equipment available it can become overwhelming to know what to use and how to use it. Some have advantages over traditional film and darkroom, which presents exciting new opportunities for image creation. Shooting digital images provides more than just instant gratification. The sensitivity of the high-speed ISOs offers a pleasing image quality and increased diversity, under certain conditions. Recently, I put this to the test while shooting several assignments for modern dance companies. Through the use of high-speed digital capture chips and fast aperture lenses I was able to get some really unique images.

A New Challenge
Over the past five years, I have had the opportunity to photograph modern dance. The first time I used a digital camera for dance shooting was actually in the studio. During the shoot I came across an interesting phenomenon. I had a MegaVision digital back on my Bronica ETR-Si, which was tethered to a Macintosh. As the dancers would perform the movement, I would shoot the image and then everyone would immediately look at the monitor to see the result and everyone would then try to improve. On one level it made the session much more process oriented and drove everyone to try a little harder and continue to work on an image. On the other hand, it changed the dynamic and shifted the momentum of the shoot. It also left out the "mystery" aspect of whether we actually got the photograph we envisioned.

Recently, I have been hired to shoot performance stills for several different dance companies. Because the majority of my dance photography has been in a controlled environment such as the studio, it was a new challenge to shoot in the theater. There is more emphasis on catching the moment rather then creating it. Where traditionally we would set up the movement for an image and then recreate it a dozen or so times, now we often only have one opportunity to get the shot.

Another new challenge is the lighting. No longer could I have the luxury of lighting with flash. Therefore I had to use the tungsten lighting in the theater. Though the quality of this light is quite nice, the intensity was not what I was used to. With strobe lights, your effective shutter speed is your flash duration, often 1/1000 of a second quicker. Using this available light the top shutter speed could be as slow as 1/8 or 1/15 of a second. I needed to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action.

A Quick Combination
Having become accustomed to shooting at ISO 100 for my studio shooting, I knew I would have to adapt a different approach for the theater that would dictate a different look for these images. Under these often dim lighting conditions it becomes necessary to shoot with higher speed films such as ISO 800 and faster f/2.8 lenses. Having done some experiments with the Fuji S-1 digital camera, at its high-speed ISO 800 setting, I was pretty sure that this would be the ideal choice. By setting the ISO on Fuji's S-1 digital camera to 800, and taking advantage of Tamron's fast 28-105mm f/2.8 lens, I had a high enough shutter speed to stop a lot of the action. Most of the time, I got my shutter speed up to around 1/125 or 1/250 of a second.

The Fuji S-1 actually has a rating up to 1600, but I find that sometimes it gets a little noisy, especially in the blue channel, so I try to avoid it when possible. Like using high-speed film, as you increase the sensitivity, you also increase the grain and the contrast. Also under these conditions the amount of latitude consequently decreases and contrast increases. Because of sometimes harsh theater lighting, I wound up underexposing 2/3 of a stop to make sure that I had as much information in the highlights as possible. With higher speed films and higher digital ISOs, the correct exposure becomes more critical.

Other Factors
Because the chip size of the digital SLR is slightly smaller than the 35mm film format, there is a slight difference in the perception of the focal lengths. The Tamron 28-105mm f/2.8 becomes the equivalent of a 42-158mm lens. To determine the focal length in the case of the S-1 the chip size factor is 1.5, so to determine the focal length one multiples the focal length by this factor. There is a chart with the conversion on the Tamron web site ( for most digital SLR cameras.

Clearer Picture
Getting a clear sharp image is so critical because it gives you more options in postproduction. With tools such as Photoshop, no longer do you have to make all of your decisions while you are shooting. With a clear crisp image one has the option to blur, manipulate, and retouch later. Having a clean file allows you to spend the time on enhancing your image rather then trying to compensate for exposure or sharpness.
Nik Color Efx Pro! is a digital filter system that plugs right into Photoshop and gives you the option to add color gradients and grain, soften and shift colors. The interface is designed from the perspective of a photographer adding filters to their lens, making it extremely simple to use. Because all of the filtration is digitally done in postproduction, there is the advantage of practically limitless options. One of my favorite filters is called Monday Morning (sepia). It increases grain and allows for blurring without making your image look out of focus. It also removes the majority of color. The amounts of blur, contrast, and color are all separate so you can fine-tune the effects to your taste and create your own style.

Stylistic Possibilities
Many of my images wind up looking like paintings. The texture that they transmit is due in part to the addition of filters, but it's largely a function of the lighting and grain, and not because I applied a "painting filter." They are unique images that transcend just photographs of people dancing, but their warmth and treatment help emote the tone of the piece. No photograph of dance can tell the whole story. Years ago when Martha Graham was asked to describe her dance, she responded by saying that if she could put it into words then she wouldn't have to dance it.

Dance photography is a dialog that references dance but also focuses on form and frozen moments that never quite do justice to a medium based on time and visceral experience. Additional effects can also enhance the painterly quality with the use of digital filters. With all of the latest and greatest technologies there is a great potential to expand your creative vision.

Adobe Systems, Inc.
(408) 536-4507

Fuji Photo Film U.S.A., Inc.
(914) 789-8100
fax: (914) 789-8653

(888) 324-2580
fax: (805) 683-6690

nik Multimedia, Inc.
(619) 725-3150
fax: (619) 725-3151

Tamron USA, Inc. (Bronica)
(800) 827-8880
fax: (631) 543-3963