A lot of people ask my advice about their dance photography, but one of the biggest things I do to improve my own is to regularly look over my portfolio and see how I’m progressing; which images I like the most and why, and if anything hasn’t worked and why. My close friends thing I’m too hard on my work, and beat myself up about little things, but it always keeps me improving.
Why am I writing this now? Well, Bristol Shag Fiesta 2017 was the first-ever dance weekend that I photographed. I figured since I just shot the 2018 event, it’s a good time to publicly cast an eye back over my portfolio of dance photography. I often don’t realise how much my work has come on and changed – but it totally has.
I started on this quest because I hated my job at Practical Photography Magazine. It turned photography from a love to an absolute chore, and I really wanted to inject the fun back into it – so I started taking my camera to a few events and trying my hand at photographing dancers. My first real experiences were mainly surrounding grappling with flash and low light. I was missing a lot of shots, due to waiting for my flash to catch up with me, and to be honest, I really wasn’t happy with the results and my ‘hit rate’ was absolutely shocking. I took hundreds of images and barely got anything useable back. (Now, my usual product is around 170-200 images from an evening social, whereas then I was lucky to get 50.) Some (like this one) even have my absolute dance photography pet peeve. When your shutter speed is too fast for your flash and only part of the image gets lit up. Shocking. (Genuinely a bit embarrassed to post this)
Following that, I made the decision to ditch flash for good – and I haven’t used it at an event since. I’ve talked a bit about my choice to never use flash before, but it’s something I’ll discuss further at some point. With that decision, things started to get better, but I needed to find a way to develop depth in my images and start to read the light of a room.
I did that by actually getting much physically closer to my subjects, shooting with a wider aperture, and actually measuring the light before I started to shoot. I’m not keen on my images from this time, as I feel that the focus could be sharper, and I could have taken a lot more care when it came to timing my shots. This was really the start of my philosophy of shooting on particular beats of the music. They also don’t make full use of the light in the venue.
Around this time, I really wanted space to practice and a larger portfolio of work, so I offered a lot of people for me to shoot for free. Almost everyone either didn’t reply or said no. But luckily, I got a bit of a break with Bristol Shag Fiesta asking me to shoot – and also paying me for my work, even though I didn’t ask for it. Those gals really know how to look after artists. I definitely took some of my best work ever at that event. I also realised just how stressful it is to shoot for 3 days, and the edit time that’s involved. I also realised that for me, I can’t juggle dancing and photographing – it’s one or the other.
After Bristol 2017, the ball really started to roll for me. A partnership with SwingOut Manchester was a start. I did my first ever posed promo shoot with them – at the time, I loved those images. Now, I think that the lines need to be stronger and the poses need to be bolder. I still think they’re nice images, but I’d definitely do things differently now and they don’t really make it into my portfolio showcase anymore. I also wasn’t particularly confident with giving direction – which is something I’ve hugely worked on since then, and although it still isn’t my forte, I’m much better at it.
I can definitely see an improvement and more thought put into poses between these and my John Rylands shoot. (I still cannot believe that I got the chance to shoot at the John Rylands libary, and I hope that one day we’ll get to do it again!)
Doing a shoot with Katie Cobalt has been a real turning point for me and posed images. She really opened my eyes to the importance of lines and thinking of poses and silhouettes. She’s a badass dancer who can hit some amazing poses, and it pushed me to be open to much bolder in my approach and have the confidence to push dancers further.
I’ve definitely seen the influence follow through to future shoots.
I’d say that social dancing has been my focus for the past year, but now I’m really loving working one-on-one with dancers too. Social dancing has been my main volume of work, and the year has brought request to shoot event, after event, after event. Over time, I developed a lot stronger awareness of lighting, and how to spot the best angles for light and the confidence to hold my nerve and just wait for dancers to arrive there.
My focal length of choice for social dancing is 85mm (around 50mm on APS-C), but over time I found myself shooting more wide-angle, and also I found that a lot of my favourite images were wide-angle shots. Part of that decision, was that my prime 85mm allowed me to use a wider aperture, and still not need a flash. But, I made the decision to invest in a really lovely wide angle, fast-aperture lens, and the added wiggle room with light has started to shape my work, and I’m choosing a wider angle more and more often.
To be honest, consciously trying to shoot wider is quite difficult, and I have to remind myself to do it quite often – but I’m loving the results.
I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in photography to keep looking back over their work and see how they’re changing. I’m not a fan of consciously deciding on a style (and it’s a philosophy that I’ve written about for a number of publications), but it’s always fun to look over your creative evolution. I really can’t believe the volume of work that I’ve produced in the past year – I’m excited to see what the next year will bring and how I will develop further.