How I do what I do

It’s been way too long since I’ve contributed to this blog. One of the reasons for this is being too busy chipping away at the huge backlog of photos I’ve managed to take while attending many of the salsa events that have been popping up after a long pandemic induced pause. But, admittedly, I also got a bit lazy about writing. Now it’s time to get going again as there are many topics nagging within me waiting to be written about.

This post is going to be a bit technical. Occasionally I am asked about my camera settings and which lenses I use when shooting social dance photos indoors without flash, so I thought it might be a good idea to write an article describing how I do what I do. Now, I certainly don’t consider myself a photographic guru and there might be better ways to do things, but what I describe here seems to work for me, so maybe it will work for others as well. Here I’ll limit the discussion to how I take the photos. All the interesting stuff about how I creatively edit them will be topics for future posts.

The image above is the LED monitor on the back of my Nikon D850 after activating the Info button, and shows the settings I use mostly when the dance hall is not particularly well lit. I have the camera in Manual mode to keep the shutter speed and aperture from wandering away from where I set them. The aperture I leave fully open. Always. And this is either at f/1.4 or f/1.8 depending on which lens I am using. Having the lens wide open maximizes the amount of light entering the camera, and it also gives such a lovely narrow depth of field. This latter is very important for me, as I definitely want what is in front of and behind the subject of the photo to be blurred. This can be seen in pretty much all my photos such as the two images below. The soft blurriness of the background lends a dreamy look to the image. This blurriness away from the focal plane helps separate subject from non subject. In the photo to the right, both the background and the dance partner on the right side, who is standing closer to the camera, are out of focus, accentuating the woman as the main subject of the photo.

The shutter speed I usually set to 1/325 as this seems fast enough for the quick spins and movements of a salsa dance, see the image below. I find this value to be a good compromise between capturing the movement and getting enough light into the camera and this shutter speed works for me because of the fast lenses that I use and the excellent characteristics of my camera’s sensor. In situations where low lighting is giving me problems, however, or if the dancers are not moving too quickly (think Kizomba) I set the shutter speed to 1/250 instead.

Since the Manual mode keeps both shutter speed and aperture constant, the ISO needs to adjust to give the correct exposure. This is done by activating the auto-ISO mode. The setting for the ISO itself doesn’t seem to matter so I just leave it at some low value. The camera’s metering algorithms will then adjust the ISO to achieve the correct exposure for the shot. Generally the ISO of my indoor images range from 800 to 8000 but in extremely low lighting may reach the maximum that has been set for the auto-ISO mode. For the Nikon D850 I set this maximum to 25600.

The metering mode that I normally use is the one called “center weighted average”. This uses only a central area of the frame to determine the exposure, and allows for a reasonable exposure even when my subject is strongly backlit. If the back light is extremely strong, perhaps coming from a daylight filled window, I might play around by setting the metering to spot mode which uses only a central focal point for the exposure. This can give some pretty neat effects, where the subject is more or less correctly exposed but the background is very blown out as can be seen in image below.

If the indoor dance hall is reasonably well lit or if I am shooting outdoors I will use the same camera settings as described above except that I will put the camera in Aperture instead of Manual mode. I fiddle around with the camera so that it will use 1/325 as the preferred shutter speed, although I haven’t exactly figured out the proper way to do this yet. It seems that if I have auto ISO activated, put it in Manual mode, set the shutter speed to 1/325 and then change to Aperture mode, it works. With Aperture mode, the shutter speed will not go longer than 1/325 (exposure is adjusted by adjusting the ISO) but will go shorter if the ISO is at its minimum value.

I usually have the exposure compensation set to -0.7, even if I am shooting landscapes outdoors. I do this because I find the camera’s metering without compensation is a bit too bright for my tastes. But doing so also helps to reduce the ISO values when shooting indoors.

For focus, I let the camera do its thing when the shutter is pressed. I use back button focusing when photographing extremely slow moving targets such as mountains and buildings, but for dance photos this doesn’t work. I use the continuous AF-C setting, with the priority selection set to “focus” and not “release”. This means that the shutter will not activate if a focus is not achieved. And believe me, this can be extremely irritating in low light situations, but if you forget this setting and leave it on “release” as I did the first time I used the D850 you will come home with a lot of out of focus images. My camera uses contrast to find a focus, and can have a difficult time of it when the light is low and flat. It is quite frustrating to be pressing the shutter button as hard as I can while my subject is doing the most incredible hair flying spins and nothing, but nothing, happens. I deal with this by trying to find somewhere in the room with more directional light shining on the faces. One could also be a little creative. At one event I found a small table lamp on one side of the room, so I laid it down on its side to shine some light on the dancers, and it was enough for the camera to find a focus.

I don’t worry about the white balance or color space settings since I shoot in RAW, and of course I shoot in RAW. Color and white balance adjustments come later in post processing. Someone recently asked me if I shoot in burst mode to catch the salsa spins. I do have the shutter button on the setting “Continuous Low” just in case, but I rarely use this for social dance photography. Over the many years of photographing social dancing I’ve managed to become pretty good at knowing when to press that shutter button to catch a spin or an interesting move. It helps greatly that I am a dancer. I know the music and I sort of know what’s coming.

As for lenses, my favorite at the moment is the Nikon 105mm f/1.4 lens. It is a very high quality lens, and it is heavy. I can one arm it, though, which is important as I usually like to shoot with a drink in my free hand. I love the long 105mm focal length because it lets me stand discretely at a distance from my subjects. They usually do not realize they are being photographed, letting me capture true moods and emotions of the dance. I also at times use the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 lens. Its longer focal length lets me be even more discrete from a further distance away. It also makes it easier for what I like to call “thread the needle” shooting. This is when there are one or more layers of couples dancing between my intended subjects and where I am standing. In this situation I have to time my shots to take into account not only the movements of my subjects but also when the movements of the other dancers open up a clear path to them.

That’s about it for my camera settings and lenses. For taking the shots it’s pretty much how I do what I do. At times it’s a real challenge to get anything at all, or to get anything interesting. For me it’s not just a matter of taking photos and posting them. I want to do something creatively interesting, and since no one is paying me for any of this, I try to please myself with what I do. It’s fun. I love it.

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