One of my early experiences shooting dancers was on the great dunes of the rugged northern California coast, far north of my San Francisco dance photographer domain on the streets of my favorite city in the world. It was familiar, yet concurrently somewhat new territory since I had shot landscapes all my life, and had 20+ years experience shooting models, but without the movement of dancers. It was, however, the real beginning of my love for dance photography.
My approach to shooting the dancers on the dunes was based almost exclusively upon my knowledge of shooting landscapes. The dunes are almost like living creatures that change in shape based upon the almost constant winds that influence the topography of the Pacific coast. In order to achieve the finest dance photography images, I knew that three factors needed to be present… (1) The elusive sun needed to be shining, rather than the very common fog that often guards the coast; (2) We needed to shoot late in the day with the sun at a low angle to the dancers in order to create the highest level of contrast across the wind’s striations in the sand; (3) I needed to be working with an assistant to handle my 6 ft. reflector to bounce the low angle sun back into the dancer. Oh… I guess there was a fourth factor worth mentioning… I needed to be working with dancers who were unafraid of the sometimes cold and inhospitable conditions on the most northern portions of the California coast.
In order to create dance photography images that would also be worthy of being classified as “fine art”, I knew that I needed to compose my images with a broad view of the landscape, and have the dancer be a secondary, but complementary element. Like all good landscape images, there are elements in the foreground that lead the viewer into the image, and it should be no different for these dance photography compositions.
As is always the case, attention to detail in advance can save substantial time in editing to correct avoidable mistakes. I was very careful to have the dancers approach the dunes from the side farthest from my camera and out of view from my composition. I didn’t want footprints spoiling the clean lines of a dune ridge line, or taking the viewer’s eye away from the unique striation patterns cast across the composition. We shot quickly and efficiently, knowing that we were working against the inflexible boundaries set established by the sun’s timetable.
After shooting several sets with the sun at 90 degrees to the side of the dancers, and maximizing the contrast in the sand, we changed direction. With less than an hour to go before the sun would set, I began shooting into the sun, slightly underexposing the dancers in order to have the flexibility of completely silhouetting them against the sun in my final editing, and to hold as much exposure detail as possible in the ever-changing sky.
With two ballet dancers alternating their graceful movement across the dunes with the setting sun behind them, I shot as fast as my camera and cards could digest the 40MB RAW files. In the end, I was hooked and the beginning of my artistic journey as a dance photographer was firmly established.