Technique: Dance Dance Revolution.
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Monday, March 19, 2012

It's that time of the night where everyone is relieved... the bride & groom can finally get off of their timeline, the guests finally have implied permission to drink copious amounts of alcohol, and the photographer knows the work day is almost over. It's time for the dance floor to become the center of attention.

Before the alcohol-fueled mayhem really takes off however, there's the final formal moment of the day: The first dance.

This is really one of the most intimate moments of the day. If by intimate you mean standing in a spot light, being watched by hundreds of people judging your slow-dancing skills. That said, you can catch some really tender moments right here, and therefore deserves so much more than just mounting your flash on top of your camera and banging away.

We all have a vision of how this should look through photography however, and there are a couple of considerations to make.

Usually it's intentionally dark during this event, which spotlights the couple. This leaves you with a few choices as to how you approach it. My lighting set up is always the same, though my choice of settings and positioning can produce very different results.

Without exception, I always go for a two light scheme for the formal dances. The key is a boomed 22" beauty dish, and the second flash is always set on a tripod to a height of about 3ft, and angled to about 30 degrees. The lights are triggered using a wireless system.


One of my favorite shots, if not a usual angle. The dance floor was pretty small in a converted hayloft, and as you can see Pete and Jill decided against the usual slow dance. In order to cut down the ambient as much as possible, I went to 5.6 (a heavy aperture for me) and shot at my lowest iso. When the background is particularly cluttered, do as much as you can to isolate the couple with flash, not only will it darken the environment, but will allow the rim to really stand out. The fact they were moving so much meant I needed a relatively forgiving f-stop also. The lower angle was not just a creative decision, but also because the crowd right behind didn't need my fat head in the way. 


The next shot is a much more typical first dance shot for me, again, low iso to kill as much ambient as possible, but definitely a standing, square-on shot. Strong example of using the rim light, this time a little higher, and a good example of using flare for effect. Shooting against a dark backdrop, especially when the subjects are wearing dark jackets or have dark hair, is that the rim really makes the shot work.. otherwise, you have no separation and just a messy shot. By intentionally framing the flash head just out of the shot, you'll get that explosion of light. The only issue is when doing this with flash vs the sun, is that there's no way to predict how the flare will look in the image, so I generally only shoot a few frames, if they work out, it's awesome.

One problem with shooting at low iso's is that you need to power the flash much higher, and if it's a larger dance floor where you're working from close to the perimeter, you're easily shooting at 1/1. Even with the best will in the world, the recycle time and trying to focus in the dark can be problematic.


This image is an example of when I do want to include the background. In this case, cream brick. Also an example of the flash at a lower height, even though it wasn't close to the edge of the frame, there was still some haze thanks to the 800iso. The key, shooting right above my head, was powered down to 1/8th which of course allowed a much faster recycle time.

The above 3 images were all shot with a medium telezoom which I prefer for first dance shots, though I do use the wide angle occasionally. Below is such a shot. Generally with the wide angle, I use it to get the traditional wide shot showing the room, the assembled guests etc. though I don't publish those shots much as well, they're kind of dull. It's easier to show the real feeling and personality when the couple aren't so small and incidental.

This shot, obviously was a little different...


Emily and Chad were very expressive... some of their images were quite hilarious. This shot stood out as the rim light was in the frame. I try not to have it in there so prominently, however it worked well with the drama here as Chad flung Em around the dance floor, and the innate deep DoF from the wide angle managed to keep things relatively in focus.

Of course, as beautiful and sentimental as these dances are, they're the last gasp of grace before it becomes a nasty little rave...

As soon as this kicks off, we need to change equipment. The BD and wireless heads are stripped down and for the first and only time during my shooting routine, are attached to the cameras, albeit on brackets to at least attempt to get off-axis.

It can be difficult to really work in a unique look to this part of the day. One sweaty dance floor looks much the same as another. As such you come up with different techniques aside from your choice of post work to try and build your own look and brand into the work.

As with any part of the day, it's a case of trying to capture not only the look of what's going on, but also a feeling or sense of it. Again, it's a case of trying to involve not only evenly exposed images using the ambient, but also trying not to nuke the hell out of everything. Maybe I overthink it.

That said, a quick run through of the techniques I use for dance floor images...


Straight up available light. Yeah, it can be a little noisy, but fortunately I can pull a decent speed at 3200iso and get very usable images. It's important to get environmental shots like this because it's the true representation of how things looked, not through a concoction of flash and fancy tricks... Usually in post pulling up a little fill light, a little tweek here and there and she's good to go...


This one is a twist on a long exposure zoom, with the flash set to front curtain sync. Usually 5.6, 0.5" and either 200 or 400iso depending on how dark the room is. Almost always on the dancefloor I'm working with the wideangle zoom, 16-50mm. Start at the longest end of your lens, in this case 50mm. As son as the flash fires, rotate the zoom ring to zoom out to get the light trails, which really add a sense of movement, dynamicism and general chaos...


This was a technique I found by accident, but after seeing the result, I really liked it. I briefly mentioned it in the post from Lindsey & Carl's wedding last week. Very simple, but it produces a pretty dynamic, but subtle look. Using the usual ttl settings I would use for a regular floor portrait (when the flash is mounted on a bracket and chord), the hinged backet actually tipped so the unit was pointed at the floor when it fired.. looked pretty sexy, so when I tried it for real, just handheld the flash, bounce card up, and aimed it at the dancefloor..

the result is some great directional lighting using the dancefloor as a huge bounce surface. I'm in no way claiming credit for inventing this, and I'm sure someone does a much better job, but it was an original discovery for me. The one find, as I attenuated the settings, was to remember that bouncing from the ceiling it may be 10 to 25ft... the dancefloor, only about 3ft, so take that into account..

The above shot incorporates a couple of different elements. The most obvious is the use of a Fish Eye UWA lens. There are two benefits to this: the first is that it gives yet another funky perspective. The second is that it includes a greater field of vision, and also helps maintain a deep DoF. Often times you can set the focus to infinity and turn to MF... then you don't have to wait to find focus and miss something great.. just point and shoot.

The second element is the rotation of the camera during the exposure... just like the zoom technique described above, it relies on ambient after the flash has fired to get interesting light effects, this time swooping arcs of colourful ambient. To do it, as soon as the flash fires, rotate the camera to the right, or left. Simple. Very attractive and conducive to giving a sense of dynamic movement, even though the flash froze the dancers for me...

You can also combine both the rotational technique and the zoom technique, by holding the zoom ring as you rotate the camera. Pretty snazzy.

The final method of capture is more of a novelty than the others. It's becoming a standard for DSLRs, and even smaller cameras to be capable of video these days. Though I would never think to incorporate footage of the rest of the day, there are just some things you see on the dance floor that still pictures just can't do justice to, and in the slideshows, it can bring a final little push to really give a feel for what the day was like...

darcdance from Steve Bowman on Vimeo.


Yeah, Darcie has some pretty sweet moves.

The lighting for using the video is actually a pretty powerful little 100 LED mountable continuous light. I sometimes use it for lighting during portraits when flash is going to be unpredictable and I don't have time to work things out, but this is it's main role for now.

Well, there you have it... a quick and dirty guide to some of the techniques used for wedding dancefloors...