Here it is January 19th and in a week the “Snowball” is upon us again. And I just don’t get it: there are still seats available! Amazing! The Snowball is an annual international dance competition held here in Vancouver. Dancers from all over the world, the best, come here to compete for world standing in International Dance Sport Federation competition. In a country obsessed with Dancing with the Stars why aren’t people lined up out the door and down the block for tickets?
The dance floor at the 2012 Snowball, as always, was surrounded by the audience who are literally close enough to touch the dancers. This makes photography possible from every seat in the room. Looking at the shadow patterns on the floor, you can see the variations in lighting intensity that complicate the picture taking.
In terms of skill and beauty, the popular TV show is a pale shadow of what you’ll see here. These are the very people pushing to make Dance Sport an Olympic event, as it well should be. And here is a chance to see the competitors that will one day be vying for a place on the podium at the Games.
But wait, there is more I don’t understand: where are all the photographers in this city? This event is a photo opportunity like no other. A challenge to be sure, a test of skill and equipment, but the potential for fantastic images is here. Think about it, beautiful young people competing in an event full of grace, motion, color and drama.
The audience is not far from the dance floor and views are unobstructed. All that is needed is a camera that can manage ISO ratings in the thousands; not a very demanding requirement. Backgrounds in these pictures are usually cluttered and so a fast lens with shallow depth of field is an asset. I use f2.8 and shoot wide open. This means that the camera must be able to focus accurately and quickly. What kind of image you want will determine focal length. I have used a 10 mm lens on my DSLR for wide shots of the room (as in the above photo) but normally I work in the range of 80 to 200 mm.
Flash introduces problems that are very difficult to manage. Because of the low light levels and the proximity of the dancers to the audience, flash can momentarily blind the dancers and interfere with the competition. It is not allowed. In any event, I prefer available light for a more natural result. Lighting varies from place to place on the floor so I pick zones with good illumination
and wait for couples to come within them. This means arriving early and taking several preliminary test exposures to scope out the hall and the lighting.
I find I can work with f2.8 at around a 60th of a second with an ISO of about 2400 to 3200. This means that images are grainy and the flowing motion introduces blur. But this can work to your advantage.
But think about what we are attempting to do: we are photographing a dance, a form of motion. Freeze that motion and the result usually looks foolish. Take the music away and you have sawdust. Think about the photos you have seen taken at dances and parties. People frozen in the middle of a dance move can look really strange. We must be able to convey music, motion and grace in a still image. So softness and motion blur are actually tools we can use to capture the grace and flow of the subject. But it is not easy. I keep going back year after year looking for images that convey to me the essence of the dance. Ballroom photography is a cross between sports photography and shooting wildlife but it has to be done in time to music.
And with the pictures you take, Photoshop is a bonus! As I said, backgrounds tend to be cluttered. There is an audience on all four sides of the floor, judges are standing on the edges for the best view of the competition, and your subjects are surrounded by other competitors. There is always something to be cleaned up, usually by way of elimination altogether or judicious use of Gaussian blur. It will be the rare image that can go from camera to print without the intervention of Photoshop.
Did I mention the colors? The the Ballroom competitions the men are in the required black tuxedo but the girls wear the most wonderful colorful gowns that give texture and flow to the images. In the print the colors spill off the page in folds and drapes and flutters, textured, saturated, moving, glorious! The Latin costumes are completely different and …. well, you simply have to go and see for yourself. It is …. Wow!
No, I really don’t understand where all the photographers are. No question you have to be on your game to get memorable images in this venue, but they are there for those that persevere. So what do you need? Well, next week I will be carrying a Canon Rebel XTi with an 18 to 55 mm f2.8 zoom and a 60D with a 70 to 200 mm f2.8. Of course I will use a monopod on my longer lens and spend most of my time with it.
Over the next few weeks I’ll work on a gallery of images from the last several years of Snowball that I have been able to collect. You can watch it develop. In the meantime, check out the “Snowball Classic Website“. If you are new to dance sport it has a wealth of information and links. And if you hurry, you can still get a ticket. In the mean time, keep dancing ….. or rather, keep shooting