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Photography: How to shoot dancers in motion

Kris Davidson, the photographer of our Latino Los Angeles feature, explains how she got this shot in a folklórico dance studio

Photography: How to shoot dancers in motion
Folklórico dancers ahead of a dress rehearsal in East Los Angeles

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Shutter speed: 1/60
Aperture: 2.8
ISO: 1250
Mode: Shutter speed priority
Lens: EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
Camera: Canon 5D Mark III

This image was made in a folklórico dance studio in East Los Angeles for a story about Latino culture there. Baile folklórico is a collective term for traditional Mexican dances that emphasise local folk culture with ballet characteristics — pointed toes, exaggerated movements, highly choreographed. The dances vary from region to region, and have a cultural storytelling component.

By the time this particular image was captured, I had already spent two hours with these dancers. We had been shooting outdoors and had just moved back inside. The point is, they were all very used to me and this shows in the final photograph. As I moved around the studio, changing positions and angles, the dancers flew around me without much notice. Once in a while, one would give me a familiar, comfortable smile.

After spending some time trying different viewpoints and compositions with the camera I settled on this scene. I liked the way the black chalkboard filled out the background, providing a clean backdrop for the swirl of colourful skirts. Then, I made the camera adjustments.

I knew I wanted the image to illustrate the vibrancy of the dance — using a slower shutter speed in a situation like this can be a fantastic way to show motion. After experimenting with 1/30 and 1/125 of a second, the 1/60 setting revealed itself as being ideal for both showing motion while leaving select parts sharp. I set my ISO to 1250, which is fast enough for low-light situations. I also set the camera to shutter speed priority, since the main aesthetic goal was to show a hint of motion in the swirling skirts. With shutter speed priority, the photographer sets the ISO and the desired shutter speed while the camera automatically adjusts the aperture.

Once the settings were dialled in, I assumed a low position on the floor and began shooting. I knew that two things needed to happen for the image to be effective: 1) the main dancer needed to have motion in the skirt but not the face or torso, and 2) the remaining elements in the composition needed to fall in a compelling manner. In a case like this, where dancers were moving quickly, and there literally are multiple moving parts, a photographer must make many frames. It’s a numbers game in a way and there were hundreds of frames in which the motion was too much or too little, but I was rewarded with a few stellar shots — like this one.

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Published in issue 6 of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine

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