Shooting Stills, Weapon of Choice!

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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by Martin French

Following our recent feature on shooting images of dancers with stills cameras we thought it might be a good idea to give you a rundown on some good value camera equipment to actually take the photos with. So let us dispense with the pleasantries and get on with it shall we? (if you could! Ed!)

When Article19 is shooting stills at any dance related event, which is either in a studio or in a theatre, there is one very important rule that we must follow or retribution will rain down from on high. That rule is "don't invade the space".

Dancers and photographers don't mix well and the last thing a rehearsal process needs is some chump with a Nikon wondering about the floor causing havoc. Whenever I see a photographer mooching about in the middle of the floor, because the half-wit photog has apparently never heard of zoom lenses, you want to drag him/her outside and viciously assault them with an assortment of desert toppings. Stay on the periphery, you have been warned!

99% of the time, if you want to take well framed images in a dance environment without getting in the way, you are going to need an SLR camera with a zoom lens attached to it. Zoom capable Compact Cameras are OK up to a point but they are nowhere near as capable so I'll focus on SLR cameras for this piece.

SLR is an acronym for Single Lens Reflex which couldn't possibly be less interesting but bear with me. They work by letting light come in through the front of the lens, it hits a small mirror mounted just in front of the digital sensor (showing you the image you see in the viewfinder), once your shot is framed you hit the 'shutter release' button, the mirror lifts out of the way, light hits the sensor and your image is recorded. For our purposes that's all the science you need to know. Let's move on!

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What To Buy?

Prices for Digital SLR cameras range from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand. Obviously the more you spend the more features, speed and, perhaps, quality you will get. We work in dance where money is tight so we'll focus on the lower end of the spectrum.

The Canon Eos400D is the current darling of the digital SLR market thanks to its low cost and extensive feature set. Couple those facets with high quality images and you get a camera that is a favourite among regular users and those with more challenging photography on their mind.

Its small size and robust construction allow it take a beating and keep on shooting. A myriad of photography modes are available ranging from Canons familiar "green rectangle mode", which is basically automatic everything, up-to full manual operation of every setting. The large digital screen on the reverse of the camera provides excellent previews of your images and makes accessing the menus for setting things up easy and fast.

Canon's SLR cameras use the ubiquitous 'Compact Flash', storage medium which is widely available and inexpensive. A 1GB (Gigabyte) card can be bought for just £6 and that's enough space for approximately 250 images at the cameras highest quality setting. High speed professional cards will set you back £15 for a 2GB version.

In terms of features the camera provides a constant shooting rate of 3 frames per second and the internal buffer (where images are stored before they are written to the memory card) will hold 27 images. This means, if you are firing off a lot of shots, the camera will never have to stop because you are waiting for it to write images to the card. We tried very hard to make the camera make us wait to take additional photos but it didn't let us down.

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In the old days of film, yes film is part of the bygone era like or not, you would have different film 'speeds' for different shooting situations. ISO100 was for brightly lit outdoor photos and ISO1600 was for taking pictures of Dracula asleep in his coffin.

The Eos400D replicates these film settings from 100-1600 and that gives you a lot of freedom to shoot images in the often murky world of dance, especially in a theatre. At higher ISO settings, like 1600, there will be some 'grain' in evidence within you images but it is barely noticeable.

There are a huge number of additional features on this camera, too many to cover here. whatever photo situation you throw at it it will be able to cope. It's not as fast or feature packed as its much more expensive counterparts but it's light, solid, small and quiet and will be good for about 3 years of heavy use, if not more.

Nikon's counterpart to the 400D is the D40X, both are very capable cameras. The 400D can be had, body only, for about £365 and the D40X for approximately £420 with a 18-55mm lens.

Lens Action

Cameras are nothing without their lenses, obviously, so what are you options? There are hundreds of lenses available for both the Canon and Nikon, so what to choose?

If you remember our rule from the top of the article, "don't invade the space", then you can probably surmise that a zoom lens is in order. One of the most versatile and beloved of photo journalists is the 70-200mm F2.8.

The 70-200 part is the 'focal length' of the lens, running from 70mm to 200mm and the F2.8 is a reference to the lenses maximum aperture. The aperture is basically the camera's eye. The wider the aperture (and the lower the aperture number), the wider the camera's eye is open and the more light it lets in. So F2.8 is referred to as 'wide open'. The more light that hits the sensor the faster the shutter speed you can take the photo at. Faster shutter speeds help 'freeze' action shots.

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Wider apertures also result in shallower 'depth of field', the portion of the image you are taking that is in focus. Wide open aperture settings are perfect for taking the type of image you see above. Some lenses to not take the best pictures at this 'wide open' setting, they can appear to be a bit soft. If that happens with your lens you should set the aperture to F4 to sharpen things up a bit.

The 70-200 lens gives a wide range of shooting options in both the studio and the theatre. If the zoom range is not sufficient you can add 'extenders' to multiply the focal length by a factor of 2. This does have an adverse effect on the maximum aperture of the lens though and keeping the thing steady when shooting hand held is a challenge.

This type of lens is also fitted with a special rotating collar so you can attach it to a mono-pod, for stability purposes to avoid camera shake, whilst retaining the ability to rotate the lens between landscape and portrait orientation.

Intimate

For getting a little more up close and personal a lens with a zoom range of 24-70mm F2.8 is a good choice. At the 24mm end of the zoom you have a nice wide angle to capture a good overview of any given scene. The 70mm end provides for tight framing of dancers in all but the largest studio environment. Because the lens can shoot at a constant F2.8 setting, no matter what focal length you select, then it is invaluable for low light shooting.

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In terms of pricing this is where things start to get interesting. Canon and Nikon's own lenses are, in some cases, painfully expensive. A 70-200mm F2.8 lens from Canon is a eye watering £1,200 and the 24-70 F2.8 is £770, depending on where you shop.

Cheaper versions of those lenses can be had from Sigma for about half the price but what about the quality?

There is no doubt that Canon and Nikon are two of the best camera lens makers in the world. If you have the money then you should get the 'name brand' lens for your camera. The Sigma alternates however are a good compromise if your budget won't stretch to the expensive glass from the big guys. Your images will not be as 'sharp', especially at the 'wide open' settings but you can still make superb images with the Sigma lenses.

Photographers will argue for weeks about the merits of particular lenses but when it comes right down to it, photographers make pictures, the camera just helps. Using either the Canon or Nikon cameras mentioned above in combination with either Canon, Nikon or Sigma lenses, and with a bit of practice, you could seriously improve the standard of your photos for your blog, website or publicity material.

[ Canon Eos400D ]
[ Nikon D40X ]
[ Sigma Lenses ]

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