1,2,3 AND… SHOOT

JIM MARKLAND’s dance photography is something far from a supporting act. Hipping cappuccinos in Cheltenham cafe, Jim Markland pulls out his portfolio and a whole rainbow of colour jumps off the page. This isn’t just taking a drunken snap of your family doing the dad dance at a wedding, this is elegance, style, control and knowing when to press the shutter. As with all photography, this is essential, but even more so with dance. When viewing these images you don’t know whether it is technical expertise or just a pinch of good luck that captures those breathtaking moments. As a retired petroleum economist Jim longed to take up a creative hobby to keep him occupied after pastures new, where the people he met were a world away from his previous day to day job. With his foot set in dance photography Jim has expanded his portfolio across a whole spectrum of genres from Tango to street, showgirl to ballroom. Six years on and he has shot for the English National Ballet, the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, recitals at the Royal Albert Hall, along with a mix of personal studio work and on location shoots. "On one of many visits to Argentina before I retired I decided to shoot Tango, that was the first time I shot dance, and it gave me the idea that these guys knew how to pose and I didn’t have to direct them," Jim laughs. "The key to when I first started was to capture a moment, how to remove all the time delays as soon as you press the shutter, and also how to remove motion blur. Although photographers use motion blur in an artistic form, when you are first starting out you need to know how to control the image. And to control it you need to know how to remove it," he continues, talking about his amateur to professional journey. TECHNIQUE Of all the technical steps needed in dance photography from the lighting to directing your subject, starting off with the in-camera basics is essential to eliminate any bad habits such as accidental motion blur. "Whenever you shoot the general aim is to have the capture duration, whether that shutter speed or flash duration in the studio, to be the equivalent of 1/2000 sec,”Jim says about the optimum shutter speed. Dance photography is rarely easy, you need to work with different lights, have a high shutter speed to freeze the movement, you need good quality equipment with high ISOs and wide aperture lenses. The Nikon D700 is a great camera for dance photography because of the electronic shutter and high ISO, which allows you to capture images quickly. I don’t have lens lower than f/2.8, quite a few of them are f/1.4 in my kit bag, ”he continues, mentioning what gear is the best with a particular shine to the quick-reaction Nikon. Camera settings for this genre need to accommodate for different locations and conditions as dance is an activity that can be pursued anywhere, from dancing in the street to in a studio, centre stage at the theatre or even on a plane as Jim has proved. It is the lighting in these locations that determines the settings, not necessarily the pace of movement. "In a studio you need a high speed flash with lights such as Bowens QuadX to capture the image at its sharpest, to do so I shoot at 1/2000sec, f/8, with a f/2.8 lens,” he says. "However I prefer to shoot outdoors on a sunny day. On a dull day it is hard to freeze images whereas in bright sunlight it is easier to achieve, but then you get to worry about shadows so a reflector is needed to eliminate them. Otherwise I would tell the dancer to look towards the sun and lift the chin to avoid catching shadows,” Jim tells me about his approach to shooting outdoors, enabling him to get creative with locations out of the ordinary. Shooting at a minimum of 1/2000sec with a f/1.4 lens to take advantage of a shallow depth-of-field, he occasionally uses a ND filter to kill external light and showcase the dancers. Entering the realms of the theatre is a whole different matter when it comes to lighting and requires patience and some technical know-how. "One of the problems in shooting in theatres is not just getting the lighting right, but getting the colour right too. Modern theatres often have mixed technologies such as LED lights which make it difficult for cameras to record colour properly. Also you could be working in a dark theatre where you can see the camera controls so you need to be able to shoot blind," he advises. Jim is lack of control when working with stage performances means he has to sacrifice everything for speed, when push comes to shove. This is when your high ISO camera comes in handy with Jim opting for ISO 3200, and ISO 6400 at times, wide open at f/1.4 or f/2.8 lens at 1/500sec. "I accept a little noise because I can post-process this, but I can edit motion blur," he confirms. To ensure that pin sharp finish to his images Jim relies on his trusty tripod, complete with cable trigger in the studio to deliver the stills of the moving art form. "Everything is manual and as direct as it can be, there is no autofocus because it is remarkably slow for dance photography. I do not use radio triggers because they often have time delays, so I use a cable to trigger the flash. When I am out and about it is just hand-held because I am travelling and do not want to hoard a tripod around. So when I am out on the streets I find a mark on the floor and focus the camera to that I then set the shutter speed and let the camera work out the aperture." SETTING THE STAGE The vibrant, energetic and emotional connotations of dance require not just a subject that can make the right moves, but an environment that personifies dance. With a dash of colour, a pinch of chemistry and a whole lot of atmosphere, where you set your stage this is a key. In the studio it is all about matching the genre. For elegant shots of contemporary or ballet, black and white it is a safe background choice, and you can really use lighting to your advantage to create stunning contrasts. Go bold and bright for high energy dance such as street and disco where you can experiment with colour to amplify the style. To incorporate colour even further, theatrical make-up and materials are a sure-fire way to add pizzazz, but when using fabrics as a prop it can cause difficulty. "When it comes to styling, clothing needs to be lightweight, body hugging and in line with the genre of dance, for example hoodies for street and tutus for ballet. Fabrics are horribly difficult to work with though. If shooting with fabric you need to use them last as it can be hit and miss. You can reliably predict when you are going to get that stunning shot. If the fabric is too heavy it is dropped, it can tie in knots or twist round itself, so a lighter material is best." Moving beyond the confined four walls of the studio "you don’t want a distraction in the frame so choose your location wisely," says Jim referring to his outdoor shoots. From airfields to fountains, Jim’s use of unique locations can make for unscripted moments of photographic brilliance. "In situations like this you can accidentally get a great shot. We did one shoot in Vancouver where a dancer is jumping and, by chance, there is a dog beneath her. You don’t get that in a studio." Despite what others suggest when shooting dance, Jim believes that there is no strict angle to lead from: "It depends on the move, I am more interested in the composition. Some moves make better compositions in a photograph from different angles. It is the lighting that takes prominence, you wouldn’t shoot face on with a harsh light as this will flatten the image but illuminating the dancers with side lighting accentuates the lines of their body. Saying that, in the theatre it is the best to shoot centre stage or from the wings," Jim suggests. MOVE TO THE BEAT Using his failsafe technique of 1, 2, 3, and shoot Jim has responded to the call of dancers with timing and has grounded to their level with synchronised rhythm. This simple method ensures that the dancer is poised and ready for action as soon as the count begins. "When working in the studio I rarely get people to dance, I want them to make a move and do it again and again. They are not here to dance, they are here to create a photograph. When they think of a move I count 1,2,3, and shoot, the dancer needs to be in position for when I press the shutter." Although this seems a relatively easy solution for capturing movement on point, this same technique cannot be applied in theatre work as you need to record the performance as it progresses - giving your quick reactions a run for their money because you can stop the money shot in action on the stage. As photographers, we are fixed on the still image, but extending your senses and using your ears is a great tool when shooting live dance, it is all about listening to the beat. "Your clues come in the music. If you are shooting Tango for example, listen to the beat and watch what they are doing, that will give you a big indication to what is going to happen next. For contemporary there are no clues, listening to white noise to lead the image doesn’t help and you can miss shots because things happen at random," Jim laughs. As dance is an activity performed either in the masses or as one solo act, how is it shooting different groups and sizes? "Images tend to be much more interesting when you have several dancers, especially with ballet. It really helps massively if the dancers have trained together before, so when you are doing a shoot you are not wasting time trying to get it right. But if you have too many dancers it can be problematic, especially with jumps as feet can be in different directions, and it can also cause lighting mishaps in the studio as someone can get in the way." TEACHING OTHERS Synchronising with a dancer is much more difficult than it seems, Jim believes, that’s why he offers workshops covering a wide range of genres sharing his knowledge in such a challenging subject. "The most difficult thing is to capture the moment and learn how to do so because it is tough. It can be hard to pay attention to what you are doing because it is very tempting to get shutter happy, you just need to stop and look. It is the counting business that people find difficult. You have a huge amount to think about. People want to do it their way but actually it is not working, you need to get the basics right," he says. Surprisingly his classes include retired dancers that too take it upon themselves to learn the technique behind the camera. Over the years as a teacher in this field, Jim has picked up on two common mistakes his students make. The first one is they hold the camera too high; when I shoot, the camera is usually knee height to the dancer. Another one is that they have motion blur, but it is not artistic, it is a distraction. But trying to do a long exposure is a different matter, and doing those with a white background is hopeless as there is too much reflection, so you want a completely black space," he comments. With Jim's creative mind longing to venture outside the studio to pursue more location work, he leaves with a plane ticket to Vancouver ready to set flight the following day. Are you dancing with anyone?

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