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Archive 2013 · Dance Group Shot Preparation

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p.1 #1 · Dance Group Shot Preparation


I am looking for help from those who have done similar jobs before. I am shooting portrait and action shots for a dance group (mostly kids and their parents). Here are the details:
1. Maximum people in a group shot is 8 (4 x 2 rows)
2. Client asks for pure white background
3. There may be individual action shot requests (leaping ... etc)
4. The shoot will be in a local community centre gym.
5. Would like to have a semi reflective tile if possible (not mandatory but it's nice to have)

Here is what I have and plan to do:
1. One 9' white seamless paper background
2. I have 5 PW TT5. My plan is to have 2 PW with 2 SB900 on camera left high in a 7' umbrella as key. 1 PW with 1 SB910 on axis (or camera right) in mid-size umbrella as fill. 1 PW + SB900/SB700 on each back side of the background (in mid-size umbrella) to blow out the background.

I know there are more than one creative way to do this. Just wondering, in terms of power and stressing the flashes, is it a good enough setup? Clients (parents) would order max print size of 8 x 10. I have a D4 which I would shoot in ISO1600 if needed to have a faster flash recycle time. Any other suggestions/tips?

Thanks for you help.

Feb 11, 2013 at 01:16 PM
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p.1 #2 · Dance Group Shot Preparation

As it sounds like you've not done this kind of undertaking before, I'd advise doing some "test shots" ... a few days before the venue.

You'll learn much from getting inside the venue and doing a "dry run" ahead of time ... then you'll have a better idea what you'll need for "gap analysis" or that others can advise for changes. Things like blowback and spill can be tough to gauge from cyberforum words alone. Your test shots will be very valuable for both information ... and your confidence going into the shoot.


Feb 11, 2013 at 03:39 PM
Steve Wylie
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p.1 #3 · Dance Group Shot Preparation

You're on the right track, but you're going to have two possible problems. First, a 9' seamless may not be wide enough to cover your group, unless you can get way back and shoot with a long lens. If you can, good, but then you have to worry about getting enough fill from your umbrella, which may be in the way of your shot, unless you can move it in close and boom it across your frame. Second, I don't know if your speed lights will do the trick on the back. If you can wrangle a couple more, that would help. Be sure to flag them off from the group members and the camera. I use large panels between the umbrella (or in my case large strip boxes) and the camera. The problem you're going to face is even coverage across the entire back. I agree with Kent above. Before you begin shooting, do a bunch of test shots without subjects to dial in your exposure and flash placement for the back. Even coverage on the back will be key, or you'll have more work in Photoshop than you want. Get that done, and then bring in a subject to test your key light (the subjects will be the easy part).

How many of these are you going to shoot? Is it one group of eight, plus individual shots of each of the eight? You might get away with that. If it's a day-long gig with many groups, I'd be worried about frying your speed lights. (I do these all the time with dance studios, shooting as many as 150 kids a weekend. So I use moonlights.) Putting two speed lights in your key will be good for flash conservation, recycle and stopping power. But your others will be struggling to keep up.

As for the reflective tile, when I want this effect, I use tile board, available from Home Depot (do you have Home Depot where you live?). It gives a nice reflection, and I use two, overlapped a bit, to give me a decent reflective floor.

Hope this helps.

Feb 11, 2013 at 11:43 PM
Steve Wylie
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p.1 #4 · Dance Group Shot Preparation

Some additional thoughts for you about your 9' seamless.... How big are your dancers, and what kinds of action shots do you anticipate? If you think they're going to be doing horizontal leaps (grand jetes), you're going to struggle with keeping them on the seamless without extending feet off the edges. That's a nightmare to try to fix. Same with height. It's easy to have arms, hands, and fingers go over the top of the backdrop, especially if you shoot to close to her, or from a position that's too low.

Forgive me if this is too elementary, but it's really important, and it's all about geometry. Consider a pyramid figure lying on its side, with the apex being the camera position, and the four corners of the pyramid's base being the extent of your 9' seamless - top right, top left, and floor. Unless you want a Photoshop nightmare, you need to fill that pyramid base with white.

Then, anticipate where the dancer will be in that pyramid, especially as she is closer to the camera position. The closer she is to the apex (the shooting position) the smaller the shooting frame becomes. That's why you should shoot as far back as you can with a lens that can fill the frame with white. Accordingly, larger girls need to be closer to the backdrop (but watch out for your backdrop lights spilling on her), while smaller girls can come forward a bit.

When I set up for a shoot like this, I lock down my camera position so the backdrop completely fills the frame. That gives me the maximum room that my dancer can move in. Anything more than that, and she'd be off the backdrop and out of the frame. So I can shoot this all day long, and know when a jump or leap isn't going to work.

Here's an example. This was shot on a 24-foot-wide muslin backdrop (Westcott Pearl, in this case), which I'll use for large groups. I could have gotten by with 12-foot-wide for this shot, but 9 foot is going to be a bit tight.

Hope this helps.

Feb 12, 2013 at 12:41 AM
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p.1 #5 · Dance Group Shot Preparation

Centered key and light works better for groups and action.

For groups it puts the same symmetrical pattern on all the faces looking at the camera.

Arrange large groups in an arc or chevron pattern to keep all equidistant from light and shoot from above on a ladder. For large groups it's better to arrange the lights like this vs. crossed which creates crossed shadows and uneven intensity on edges vs. center:

For the action shots centered key light prevents a face turned left from being mostly shaded.

Those shot were taken with OCF as rim light from behind / raised single flash (on bracket) modeling the front.

With white backgrounds there I avoid clipping them which makes anything white retaining detail seem darker by comparison. Any white dance costumes will also disappear into background and black ones contrast too much. Clients often realize this until they see the results. Grey is actually better because white and black outfits will both contrast without overpowering the faces, which should be the center of interest that contrast the most with the background. You might do some test shots of white and black outfits on white and grey to convince the client gray is better.

In the shots above I first set the foreground lighting, then raised background so rim lit parts of white towel which are 1/3 stop below clipping to retain detail contrast with the "white" background which is actually around 250, not 255. If the background is 255 in the file you will not see the shape definition the rim light creates:

With a centered key and fill strategy if you have a white background it will wind up an evenly lit tone of light gray if is is about 3-4 feet behind the subject when lights are 8ft from them (inverse - square fall off) as seen in the shot above before I turned on the background light.

I've got tutorials on shooting groups and white backgrounds: http://photo.nova.org/

Feb 12, 2013 at 01:09 AM

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p.1 #6 · Dance Group Shot Preparation

If any are teens 9' is way to small. Height is also a issue. For jumps I would use a wall and attach the seamless double wide (18') and at least 15' high for teens or adults. Very small kids would not need as high or wide. Having to cut out dark hair from a dark background takes a lot longer than putting up extra high seamless to start with. Even if you don't get pure white over the whole background you can brighten it in post. Don't think speedlights will be enough for the size I suggested.

Feb 12, 2013 at 05:30 PM
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p.1 #7 · Dance Group Shot Preparation

Steve, you really shouldn't post shots like that ... you make it look like it's easy.

Totally diggin' the explanation regarding the geometry. IMO, this represents a situation (many abound) where really knowing the nuance of your subject is at least as important (or more) as knowing photography. Good portrait photographers know people ... good dance photographers know dance ... good industrial photographers know industry, etc.

BTW .. what the heck happened to all your bg shadows.

I'm wondering ... instead of doubling up in the key light, what if he doubled up his fill light (moving target / group) instead. Granted it will change the ratio a bit, but the key areas will still be 1+2 instead of 2+1.

Feb 12, 2013 at 06:08 PM
Steve Wylie
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p.1 #8 · Dance Group Shot Preparation


I thought about switching the quantity of light between key and fill as you suggest. Ideally, he'd be best off with both doubled up, but if the number of flashes is limited, then you have to make a decision on which is more important. I didn't want to get too deeply into that, but my first thought was that he might need more (i.e. broader) fill than one speedlight in a 7-foot umbrella would be able to produce. I still think that's true, so your suggestion is probably the best way to go.

Feb 12, 2013 at 09:06 PM
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p.1 #9 · Dance Group Shot Preparation

Rental Gear ...

If he's got a rental studio around ... he could get both more gear (i.e. light) from them to augment what he's got, and a bit of "pick your brain" from the local staff how to use the gear. Renting a couple of strobes and/or a background could be a game changer on how he can approach this.

Sure, the rental "eats into profit margin" ... but the results can WAY MORE than make up for it.


Looks like there is plenty available from $25/day for a small mono to sky's the limit for ProPhoto.

$75/weekend gets 1X 600ws + 2X 300ws Elinchrom. Another $50 gets you a 6' Octa ... lots of ways to slice and dice this one. Even one or two pieces can strategically augment what he's already got to give him the "oomph" that he's currently lacking.

RUN ... do not walk ... RUN to your rental house.
Their gear AND their know-how will make you a HERO (priceless).
It's either HERO or Goat ... usually not a lot of middle ground, no matter how polite people are about the latter.

A couple bucks can turn this into an experience you'll remember the rest of your photographic life ... flashing back to how a rental house saved me way back when ... the first time I bit off more than I was ready to chew.

I got "volunteered" into a formal military event when I only owned a cheap hot shoe flash and had never used any studio lighting ever before. A couple strobes, umbrella, softbox, muslin and column props later ... along with some well guided advice from the rental house staff ... I NETTED (i.e. after rental costs) about $225 (1980's $$$) and I "saved the day" looking more like a pro, rather than looking like the hack (i.e. first time formal/event/studio lighting/etc.) that I was. Hero for a day (that people never forgot), then future work followed as well ... definitely an historic case of "fake it till you make it".

GL ... Looking forward to see how it goes.

Feb 12, 2013 at 10:18 PM

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p.1 #10 · Dance Group Shot Preparation

Thanks, everybody. Lots of good tips and it confirms some of my concerns. To tackle each of them, here is my my plan:

1. Action shots ... the dancers are kids and mostly not seasoned dancers. They probably won't be as explosive as the seasoned dancers. I can probably get away with 9' background. The bottom line is that the shoot is primarily for portraits (kids in ethnic dance costume) individually or with family. There may be a group or two with 8 people in the shot. Action shot would be bonus to me (sell more prints maybe). The client never mandates it so I am not too worried about being viewed as failing the assignment.

2. # of Flashes ... I can certainly loan a few more SB900 from my friends. It appears the general consensus is that I need at least two SB900 per light stand to have some breathing room. The problem I have is that I only have 5 PWs. I used CSL before in a more confined environment and it worked very well. Not sure about the reliability/performance in a community hall, especially when I have to flag the SB900s for the background from the camera. My solution is to use the PWs on the background flashes and use SU4 on the two key light and two fill light SB900s. Any flaws in that move?

3. I thought about rental. I even thought about buying a kit outright. Maybe I will 8>. The problem is that the shoot is on a weekday evening (weekend shoot would be so much more ideal) where I will for sure need to rent for two days. I have done a food shoot using Profoto in a studio before. Yes, it is a charm to work with. But I would like to consider rental the last resort if I can get the job done with 8 flashes, a few umbrellas and a couple of bi-fold doors. Unless, of course, if the 8 flash setup is more likely to fail than succeed. Then I will run to Vistek 8> Or I just simply hire Steve 8>

4. Dry run ... Yes, this is a must. Planning to do that once I have the final decision on lighting setup.

5. Key/fill ratio and light placement ... Would butterfly lighting work well in this situation? Any suggestions?

Again, thanks to everybody for chiming in. It's been a great help.

Feb 13, 2013 at 12:36 AM

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