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Creating a Series of Portraits of a Dancer


In many forms of portrait photography, our clients expect more than one great image. Senior portraits and engagement photos require you to shoot multiple different looks and styles. To make things more difficult, these sessions usually take place at one location and only last a few hours. I recently met up with a dancer for some portraits under just these circumstances. Let's see how things developed.

If you have any formal training in photography, you'll know that most of the time in a classroom setting, you're expected to produce a single fabulous image. However, this is usually never the case with real world clients. I've never been hired to shoot one portrait.

Choosing a Versatile Location

When asked to do a shoot like this, you must avoid getting trapped in a boring location. Someone may have a beautiful backyard, but if the only thing that makes it interesting is a big row of rose bushes, then every shot you take will look the same.

If I'm asked to shoot outdoors, I always choose a large park. You'll get ponds, a lot of different landscaping features, possibly even gazebos and bridges.

However, for this shoot, I wanted to be indoors. This meant finding a big enough space that I could create the variety. I chose an open concert venue that I was able to rent cheaply because I was using it in the morning.


I essentially have two set of equipment for portraits. I have a small kit with speedlights and a big kit with monolights. Since I didn't have to drag everything around a park, I brought my big kit.


Because I was doing three different shots, I wanted to keep my lighting somewhat standard. I decided to use two 100 watt second monolights, both in two-foot softboxes.


I also had a small speedlight set up on a light stand just in case I needed it.

Cameras and Lenses

I find myself shooting more and more film these days. I'm not sure if people are starting to appreciate the extra skill it takes or if I'm just happier using it.


For this shoot, I used two cameras. The first is a medium format camera called a Bronica SQ-A, which works in a similar way to a Hasselblad. It shoots 6x6cm negatives. I have a three-lens kit for this camera, but I only used my 150mm f/4 lens for this shoot. This lens is similar to a 85mm lens on a full frame digital camera.

I also brought a Fuji GW690II. This camera also uses medium format film, but operates like a rangefinder. It produces 6x9cm negatives, as a name suggests. The camera has a fixed 90mm f/3.5 lens, which is equivalent to about a 40mm lens on a full frame digital camera.

I also brought along a light meter and my Nikon for test shots.

The Benefits of Film

Film is expensive to buy, tricky to shoot, tedious to process and slow to scan or print. It is not for the faint of heart. However, there are three reasons I chose to use film for this shoot.

First, the size of your sensor or film affects your depth of field. Aperture, distance and focal length are the most common factors that change your depth of field, but bigger sensors or big pieces of film achieve shallower depth of field all other things being equal.


Second, both the Bronica and the Fuji operate with leaf shutters. Leaf shutters allow you to sync your flash at any shutter speed. Most DSLR systems only allow you to sync with studio strobes at 1/125 of a second or slower. With the exception of super expensive digital medium format cameras, very few consumer digital cameras have leaf shutters. The Fuji X100 series is a notable exception.

Lastly, with my film cameras I can use extremely fine grain 50 ISO Ilford Pan F+ film. My Nikon D700 only allows me to use ISO 100, and that's through expanding the ISO settings. 50 ISO film allows me to shoot with a shallower depth of field under brighter lighting conditions.

Image One: Black on Black

All of these images were essentially experiments. We just wanted to see what could be done. Each also had its own technical facet that I'll expand on separately.

For my first image, I wanted the contrast the light skin of the dancer with a dark background and some sort of dark prop. I chose shiny black satin. I knew that with proper lighting I could bring out some interesting highlights in the satin, and at the same time it would also blend into the background in other areas.

For the lighting, I used both softboxes. My left light was on full power and the light to the right was on half power.


I asked the dancer to do whatever felt natural. I concentrated on keeping her in focus and firing the shutter at the peak of the movements. She was having trouble control the four-yard length of satin, so we split it down the middle lengthwise, so she could have a long piece in each hand.


Using Long Lenses Indoors

The interesting technical part of this image is that I was able to use a relatively long lens indoors to achieve a full length shot, the 150mm lens on the Bronica SQ-A. If you're able to find a space large enough for this, your images will have a different look from other seamless portraits.

You can achieve a very low distortion image that works well with dancers as the stretch and point. If I had used a wider lens for my images, the dancer's legs or arms might have looked warped and comically long.

Image Two: Sky High

For the second portrait, I decided to use the floor as the background. This venue had recently put in new hardwood, and I didn't want it to go to waste. This portrait would feature a belly dancer outfit instead of the modern dance attire.


I chose the composition because I didn't want the stereotypical look at a belly dancer. This angle leaves more to the imagination. I used the Fuji GW690II for this shot, which allows me a loose enough frame to utilize the rule of thirds and include the interesting texture of the background.


I used the same sort of lighting setup. A softbox to the left and to the right, but it was more tricky because the floor was reflective.

Shooting into Reflective Backgrounds

I had to treat the floor as if it were a mirrored backdrop because it was shiny. You can see in this test shot, that I was getting some bad hot spots on the floor around my dancer.

You can see the problem I was dealing with in this test shot.
You can see the problem I was dealing with in this test shot.

To solve this, I had to raise the angle of my lights so they weren't pointing toward the floor at all. Because my lights were pointing slightly up, I think had to lower their elevation. This worked out for most of the image, but there is a slightly strange shadow on her face caused by this. If I had more time, I could have used a big piece of poster board to block the light from hitting the floor.

Image Three: Wide Angle Warm-Up

For my last shot, I didn't want to capture the dancer in action, I wanted to do a more behind-the-scenes style shot. This architecture with the big windows, the peeling paint and the old radiator all suggest a backstage feel.


For this shot, I changed up my lighting a bit. I used my standard light and softbox on the left, but I decided to switch my other light to a small speedlight in a big umbrella. Let me explain why.


Hiding Shadows in Wide Shots

This image posed a problem. Normally, the easiest way to eliminate those dark, burnt-into-the-wall shadows from an image is to have your subject step away from the background. In this image, the dancer had to be against the wall to interact with the radiator.

Another common way to eliminate shadows is to use side lighting to move the shadows out of the scene. The wide composition in this shot made that impossible as well.

I decide to use my main light of the left, so most of her shadow would fall on the side of the radiator. Then I used the small strobe, which I could set at a very low power to fill in the other shadows caused by her legs. The umbrella is even bigger and softer and my softboxes.

Exposing for the Window

The window was another challenge to work with. It was very bright outside. However, the leaf shutter in the Fuji GW690II allowed me to use a 1/500 shutter speed, and still sync with my flash. That combined with the 50 ISO film, and I was all set to get a proper exposure outside.

The More Looks the Better

We've covered many different techniques and strategies in this tutorial. The most important thing to remember when shooting multiple looks in one session is that you need a plan.

You don't need to have everything nailed down, but going into this shoot, I knew I wanted to do a long lens portrait on a black background, an overhead shot, and then something using the old architecture elements.


The rest was just adapting to challenges that presented themselves. I hope the tips in this tutorial will make you more confidence the next time you're expected to delivery a variety of images of the same subject.

Questions or thoughts? Leave me a comment!

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