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Lighting with Flash: Capturing a Dancer in Motion

Lighting notebook: A dancer in action


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Lighting with Flash: Capturing a Dancer in Motion

with David Hobby

Video: Lighting notebook: A dancer in action

So this is going to be a little bit involved, but let's jump right into it. This is our lighting diagram for Stephanie Yezek, our dancer on blow-away white. A lot of things are consider here. And the first thing we consider is we want to give ourselves as much room as possible in this dance studio. It's a decent size, but I could deal with a higher ceiling, and you can always use more room. So we decided to approach the room on the diagonal, which gave us the longest lens throw, which was very important because if we can back up and use a telephoto lens you start compressing those objects, and by those objects I mean Stephanie flying through the air, and are full-width seamless.

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Lighting with Flash: Capturing a Dancer in Motion
1h 38m Appropriate for all May 17, 2013

Viewers: in countries Watching now:

In this installment of the Lighting with Flash series, photographer and Strobist.com publisher David Hobby demonstrates using strobes to freeze action while capturing the strength and grace of a dancer in motion. After working through the lighting challenges of a dance studio, David sets up a white, seamless background and shoots some test shots, adjusting the flash units to create a white "blow-away" background that will enable the photo to be easily composited. Next, he photographs the dancer, working with her to capture a relaxed expression as she leaps and strikes various poses. After the action shots, David lights and shoots a portrait.

Topics include:
  • Assessing a space and setting up a background
  • Lighting a background to create a "blow-away white"
  • Working with umbrellas and ring light adaptors
  • Lighting to show musculature and form
Subjects:
Photography Cameras + Gear Flash Photography Lighting
Author:
David Hobby

Lighting notebook: A dancer in action

So this is going to be a little bit involved, but let's jump right into it. This is our lighting diagram for Stephanie Yezek, our dancer on blow-away white. A lot of things are consider here. And the first thing we consider is we want to give ourselves as much room as possible in this dance studio. It's a decent size, but I could deal with a higher ceiling, and you can always use more room. So we decided to approach the room on the diagonal, which gave us the longest lens throw, which was very important because if we can back up and use a telephoto lens you start compressing those objects, and by those objects I mean Stephanie flying through the air, and are full-width seamless.

So we have a better chance of keeping her contained within that seamless. So that distance is important and turning the room on its diagonal helped us do that. The other thing it gave us from the opposite corners is it gave Stephanie the longest possible approach route to get to her mark, where we wanted her to be in the air. So just a little thing, but it basically made room bigger for us and capitalized on what would have been a little bit of wasted space. So I am going to be shooting back in the hall, and I am shooting with a Nikon D3s 70-200.

And again this going back as far as I possibly can, and shooting with a long lens is going to help that compression. It's going to give me more background to work with. And that's the reason that you didn't see me working at what would have been a normal distance actually in the same room with Stephanie. I am back down the hall, getting every bit of distance I can possibly get. So the first thing we are going to do--and you have to think of a blow-away white picture which is what this is, blow-away white or silo some people call them, or a dropout picture, pure white, you know whatever you want to call it.

There are two zones here. The first zone is going to be the white background paper, and we want that lit exactly to a certain level, and we want that lit as evenly as we can possibly get. So one trick is to take--we've got a couple flagged Nikon SB 800s and where we've got little flags or gobos on the front of them, and it's actually a Honl Shorty Snoot, a five-inch snoot, Dave Honl five-inch snoot. And we have those on the front just so that light won't spill back into the front camera, because it might be fairly close to where Stephanie is jumping in.

If it's right at the edge of the frame, it would flare into the frame if we didn't have a go boat. As you can see--and this is actually drawn to scale--those flashes are each pointed at the opposite side of background paper. So you got a little X thing happening there where flash on the right is pointed at the side of the background paper on the left and vice versa. What this is going to do is account for the feather of each light, and it's going to give you a fairly even overall light across that paper, much more so than if you aim either light at the middle and certainly more so than if you aim the left light at the left and the right light at the right.

It's just a simple little trick. It just costs you a little bit of light because it throws longer, but you get it back in evenness, and it's very much worth doing. So let's bring Dave Kyle, the always- trusty Dave Kyle in front of the background. And this is a straight out-of-camera picture, and you can see just how evenly that background light is lit. This is a little bit of a math problem to work out here, and we're doing it primarily without a meter, because a meter is not going to help us that much. Here's the thinking.

I'm going to put these flashes on one quarter power and I'm going to--I am going to take my light and fire it, even it off at the paper, and I am going to open my aperture until I see that I have got a nice white paper that doesn't quite blow out. And I can check that by looking at my histogram and seeing that I have got all my tones for that square stacked up against the right side. So what I want is a piece of paper that's almost pure white, but not quite, because I don't want it to bleed through any loose hairs. Stephanie's hair's going to be flying around; with Dave it's not that much of a big deal.

But I want to hold those hairs. I don't want it to flare out. I don't want that contrast to go away. So once I get--I find the aperture that I can shoot at and get a nice clean white but still hold a nice silhouette on Dave, then that tells me the working aperture that we are going to have for this whole shoot, and I am going to try to light Stephanie to hit that aperture, and once I do that, all my problems are solved. So we are going to take a Westcott 43-inch shoot-through umbrella, and again fly it from a little bit of an atypical position. We are going to dangle it right out over Stephanie, up high in the air, because we know that she's going to get some vertical extension, because I've seen her jump before, and this lady pretty much can defy the law of gravity any time she wants.

So we have got to get that above her head height when she's flying through the air on the leap. So we need to be pretty high, and we're using a tall stand and a boom to run that Nikon SV 800 and the Westcott shoot-through umbrella. And we checked our light by just lighting a proxy subject six feet away from the umbrella when it's down at ground level. Once we get that power level that gives us-- I think it was f8 was our working f-stop in this picture, then we can raise that up there, and as long as the umbrella is the same distance from Stephanie, we are not going to have to adjust that light, and we are going to be able to hit our working aperture.

So let's go in and see what this light looks like on Dave all of a sudden now. And he is our stand-in for Stephanie, obviously a very poor substitute, but we will take what we can get. And you can start to see that we are working this light in two different zones. Now we've got our even light on the background paper and we are beginning to have more of a sculpting light in our subject area, and Dave is standing right on the mark. So we are going to have plenty of consistency as we go forward. The next thing we are going to do is to take a couple of lights and shoot them off the back and give a little bit of separation, and this is the one thing that we can't really check with Dave, because Dave is wearing dark clothes and Stephanie is going to be wearing lighter clothes.

It was either just kind of guess the way our separation lights are going to look. And you can see them back there right by the paper, separation lights on the left and right. They are snooted, so they won't flare into the camera badly. And frankly, we had a choice between a rough guesstimate based on the fact that Dave is wearing darker clothes, or have Dave take off all of his clothes and frankly, I'd rather just guess on the lights than see that. So we are going to get our closest guess and if we need to adjust those when Stephanie comes in the frame, that's just fine. We will do that later.

So here's Dave, executing his highest possible vertical leap, and you can see how this umbrella is lighting him from the front. Those separation lights are doing very little on him, again because of the dark clothing that he is wearing. We got a very subtle look on Stephanie later and frankly, it wasn't even enough to show up in his dark jeans and his sweater. But you can see this is zone B light starting to take effect, and there Stephanie up there on the left warming up, which I'm sure is not intimidating at all to Dave. So the last thing we are going to do is we are going to bring in our fill light, which, by the time we finished--it's started out as a ring and this is Stephanie.

That's actually not Dave there. We have changed to a real dancer now. We took that light and we have bounced it right off of that wall near me and made a nice big, broad fill light. So what you have got now is our final lighting scheme where there are two different zones of light, and we are going to go to that in just a second. But the zone that Stephanie is in has a nice high key that's positioned correctly. It's got a couple of very subtle separation lights. And you can see that, especially in her back, just that little bit of skin coming off her back. There is a little bit coming off of front too. But they are very subtle.

I didn't want to make them bright, because the last thing I want to do is have a flare or a specular right next to the white that I am trying to separate her from. The key light's hitting her face, and everything that's not being hit by the face of the rims is being filled in by that -- it's a quasi on-axis fill. It's very close to the camera, bouncing off the wall right near the camera. And what that's going to do is give you a very controlled three-dimensional look. If you didn't have it, you would be at the mercy of whatever this room is going to kick back from all the flashes bouncing around, and it is not going to be a ton of light.

So what you are going to get is something that looks really lit, you know "lit," and I don't know that I like that for this. I want three dimensionality. I want muscle tone, but I don't want super-dark shadows. I want to be able to see everywhere. So here are our two lighting schemes, and it looks complicated. You have got 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 lights bouncing around there, but what you really have are two completely separate and discrete lighting zones. And let's take a look at the first one. The first one is the lighting zone that lights the background, and that is completely independent of the other lighting zone, which is what's on Stephanie.

Now there are four lights on Stephanie, and we could have lit her with one light, but again, like I was saying earlier in the-- while we were shooting, the more lights you have when you're sculpting something on blow-away white the better it's going to look, because you are going to blow two of them if you're doing it right, at least, lighting the white background, and everything you can put on your subject gives you just another option and another ability to the craft that subject three-dimensionally. Yes, you can do blow-away white with one flash. It's a little, it's very restrictive, and it's more of a parlor trick than a lighting technique.

You can do it with two, with one on the background and one on the subject, but you are really giving yourself lots of limitations. If you're coming to do something on blow-away white or pure white backdrop, the more light sources you can bring with you, the happier you are going to be. So let's add in both of them together. And you can see our whole six-light setup there, all speed lines, but still a reasonably subtle light when you look at the final product because we are controlling every light as it's coming in. Again, we built the--we have got the exposure based on exactly what holds the background, and I believe that was at f8 or f7.1.

I can't remember at this point. And then we let our key light match that on Stephanie's face, and then we built the supporting lights on Stephanie to underexpose her to the degree that we wanted the shadows underexposed. So here we are. Here is a triptych of Stephanie flying through the air, and what I really like about this is it's three-dimensional and it's crisp, but it doesn't scream that it's lit. It's not like, hey, everybody, look at my light; ain't I got something cool here? It's a picture of Stephanie. She is a dancer. She has got amazing motion. She has got an amazing dancer's body, and she can just do really whatever she wants to do.

It's just kind of makes me sick just to think about what she can do versus what I can do in that same space. Now we have the two pictures on the right, the key light was coming from the upper camera left and the picture on the left. The key light was coming from upper camera right. This is obviously a composite, but I just wanted to give you a quick little look at the some of the different looks that she gave us. Again, if you look at--let me see if can find one here. Okay, let's look at the picture on the on the left-hand side. Look down at her legs.

You see that subtle shaping that's coming from the rim light that's off to the back camera left? That's what I'm talking about with that rim. Not a lot, just enough to get three-dimensionality there, and we are carving those muscles. You know, she's got just gorgeous muscle structure. So I want to make sure that stands out, but I don't want to do it in a way that makes her look like an over-the- top Nike or Gatorade commercial. So this is what we have. I am really happy with this, due in no small part to her amazing ability. We were just standing around watching and pushing the button. But, wonderful picture.

Very, very thankful to get a chance to work with Stephanie again.

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