Blog: Our Reality Show

Turning Tables Q&A
  • Photography, Art & Dance

    This is an edited narrative of a presentation I gave at the National Dance Society’s annual conference on Aug. 4 in Norfolk, Va. Photos included in this blog entry were taken during classes offered to area students and attendees at the conference. My wife, Jill, also was a keynote speaker at the conference, talking in separate sessions about mental health and bullying.

    The purpose of this session is to talk about the role of the dance photographer so you can capture and promote the work that you do as educators and studio owners. But first, let’s start with a bit of background — the “why” you’re listening to this person on a sunny, summer Friday afternoon.

    Here’s what I’m not:

    • A painter, or sketch artist: I can’t draw a stick figure or a straight line with a ruler — that type of talent skipped from my father to his grandchildren
    • A singer: My wife and oldest son are the singers in the family. I lip-synch “Happy Birthday.”
    • A dancer: My son and daughter have that down, thanks to their mom and her excellent coordination. I have to look down to make sure both feet are moving in the proper order.

    Here’s what I am: A photographer, writer, storyteller, husband, father, and the son of two teachers. I learned my way around a camera out of necessity while working as a journalist and communications professional, and was told I had an eye for it.

    Like many parents, I found myself taking pictures at my kids’ major events, including their dance recitals. The limitations of my camera and lenses made it difficult get much, however, and I did not know enough about dance to capture the proper technique.

    Over the last four years, since going out on my own, I’ve learned how to capture the art of dance, both in performance and in various settings that make up my “Art & Dance” series. This series, primarily focusing on young, pre-professional dancers performing on city streets, in an abandoned church, in a creek, in a subway tunnel, and under a bridge, among others, has been profiled in a Northern Virginia arts magazine and has been the subject of three exhibits at a local art gallery. You can see my photos on my website — http://glenncook.virb.com.

    What I’ve discovered is that these types of photographs are powerful marketing for educators and studio owners. So let’s spend a little time looking at photography, the basic technical information you need to know, and ways you can broaden your audience.

    Getting the Right Equipment

    Photography is, like any art form, both independent and interdependent. Yes, anyone can take a picture, and technology has made it easy to capture beautiful shots with our phones. But if you want to shoot dancers, especially during a performance, your iPhone won’t do the trick. In fact, rather than promoting your brand, it dilutes your impact.

    The reason, not to get too technical here, is cell phones do not have what is known as an SLR, or single lens reflex. This allows you to focus, click and — if your light and shutter settings are correct — stop action. Your phone camera can’t do all of those things at once, especially in dim light, and it can’t do some of them at all.

    So that means you need “a real camera,” and depending on the complexity of what you’re trying to capture, the reality is that a “real camera” and good lenses don’t come cheap.

    Here’s why: Going beyond composition, photography comes down to two things — light and speed. This is where photography is most interdependent. If the two are not in sync, it will be difficult to capture what you want to achieve, even if everything is perfectly composed and in focus.

    In most performance settings, you will need a camera that can handle low light really well. This is where ISO, the setting for how much light you allow into the camera, comes into play.

    If you’re shooting outside, you can normally set your ISO on 100 (brightest), 200, 400, 640 or 800 (getting dim, but still light out). When you’re indoors, you likely will need your ISO settings to start at 1600 (if you’re lucky), 3200 (if there’s good lighting), and 4000 or 5000 (most common).

    Although technology has improved greatly, it’s still hard to find an inexpensive camera that can shoot with the speed you need at ISOs of 4000 or 5000 consistently without too much “noise,” which affects the sharpness of your picture.

    This is further complicated by the speed factor. To stop a dancer’s motion without blur, you need to have a shutter speed of at least 1/200th of a second. Anything less — whether you’re outside or inside — and you will get blur. Sometimes you can get a flash to sync at 1/200th of a second, but I haven’t been to a performance yet where you can shoot photos with a flash.

    So if you decide to take this on yourself, remember these things:

    • Get a camera body that can comfortably handle an ISO of at least 4000. (To do that, you’ll need one that can shoot at an ISO of up to 25600, because that means the camera’s sensor will be able to handle 4000 without too much noise.)
    • Set your shutter to at least 1/200th of a second.
    • Start shooting.

    Shooting a Live Show

    Photographing a live performance is one of the most difficult and demanding things I’ve done. You have to learn how to anticipate the action, and find ways to shoot so that both technique and emotion are captured. Yes, you want the leaps and jumps, but it’s also about telling the story of the work your students are doing.

    This again, speaks to the interdependence of photography. Understanding the story being told on stage is key to capturing the big moments, and the small ones as well. Knowing generally where the performers will be positioned also is helpful.

    In most cases, a photographer will not shoot the actual live performance, but a dress rehearsal. This prevents you from disrupting the paying audience and gives you time, in case anything bad happens, to ensure that you get decent shots. It also offers you flexibility because you can shoot from all areas of the performance space.

    What happens all too frequently is a photographer will set up in the back of the auditorium and shoot from the same spot. This does capture the show itself, but it prevents you from getting those small moments of emotion that help you tell the story.

    So what does this mean for you?

    • Talk to the photographer beforehand. Let him or her know what you’d like to see captured — the big and small moments — but give the photographer the flexibility to surprise you.
    • Let your dancers/performers know in advance that someone is shooting the dress rehearsal and/or show itself.
    • Given that you are capturing a live performance, be prepared for things not to be perfect and know, generally, how that will affect what you choose and use to promote your work.
    • If there is time, consider setting up certain scenes to be run more than once so the photographer can capture the action from multiple angles.

    Storytelling and Photography

    You have millions of ways to tell stories today. Video, stills, audio, the written word. You are in a visual medium, and social networking — despite the political wars many get into on Facebook these days — is geared toward the visual.

    This should be a great match, so why don’t you invest in it? And why do you accept poor quality, or opt for the cheap stock art, rather than focusing on your performers? As you put your shows and performances together, do you think about how you will tell the story to the outside world?

    Folks are interested in process, the “how” of you put something together. Behind the scenes videos, photos, and short narratives are increasingly popular because of the online world’s endless thirst for content. You don’t have to have high production values for these types of stories; simple iPhone interviews often will do.

    As the performance nears, this is where you need to engage a professional photographer and talk about telling your story. Consider having a promotional shoot that can be used for posts — posters, post cards, online posts.

    Finally, as the show/performance nears, have the photographer shoot the dress rehearsal. Let your cast know the photographer has free reign to walk around. Say you want 10-15 shots to use for social media purposes immediately; the additional photos can be sold or made available for download to parents.

    There are many ways to do this effectively, but being willing to partner and plan is key. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked to shoot something at the last minute. The photos turn out decently, but they would be so much better if I had the opportunity to meet and plan beforehand.

    Make It Work for All

    I understand that your bottom line on these types of performances is often razor thin, and photography is the first thing to get cut when finances are tight. But you can be creative and original in ways that are fair to everyone involved.

    This is my pitch/plea to you: In addition to remembering the photographer in your planning, be prepared to work out some sort of financial arrangement for the work he or she does.

    Many photographers I know are willing to go the extra mile for their customers, but free is not acceptable. Think about how you feel, as a business person, when someone constantly asks you to do something without compensation of some sort.

    As fellow artists, we understand the financial constraints you’re under, but you can make it work. Telling a photographer he or she can “sell” pictures in lieu of a shoot fee is, unfortunately, a nonstarter. We are in a share society, not a sell society, where consumers feel like they can get their music and media for free.

    Here are some things you can do:

    • Offer the photographer a shoot fee or a per diem in exchange for the right to sell prints on your own.
    • Add a small extra fee for photo services to your recital fees or master classes to offset your cost.
    • In return, work with the photographer to make a selection of photos available for sharing on social networks. Usually, these will have the photographer’s watermark on them so that intellectual property rights are not violated.

    That’s it, really. If you know your audience, assess your needs, make marketing your story integral to what you do, and work with your photographer and your students to tell it, your audience will be much more engaged in the great work you do.

  • Turning Tables: A Photo Q&A, Conclusion

    Conclusion: Being interviewed by an aspiring teenage photographer — the director’s cut. This section focuses on the “Art & Dance” series.

    What led to the “Art & Dance” series?

    My twins, Ben and Emma, are dancers (as was their sister, Kate, until she was in high school). So, as the family photographer, I found myself taking pictures of their recitals, just like I did with Nicholas and his theatre/music performances in high school and college. For a long time, I had to take hundreds of pictures just to get a few I liked.

    And there are reasons for that.

    First, I shot a lot of pictures indoors, and until I got a good camera body (Canon 5D-Mark III) that works well in low light as well as a number of F2.8 lenses (the expensive ones), I was working at a disadvantage, especially indoors.

    Second, I usually shot performances, which meant that I sat in the same place and tried to capture things on a stage. That was both fun and boring at the same time, because I had to wait instead of create, and I had to rely on lighting that was completely out of my control.

    In 2014, I was looking for a new creative challenge, one that was more conceptual and artistic. I was always told that I had more of a news eye than a conceptual one and, for a long time, I believed that, but I wanted to challenge myself because it was something I hadn’t done before.

    That’s when I came up with the idea of taking pictures of dancers in natural light and in unusual settings. This is not a unique thing; you can find countless images all over the web. But it solved two concerns for me: 1) I wouldn’t have to worry about slow shutter speeds and sitting in the same place all the time. 2) I could see if my conceptual eye (the Art) could match the skills of the performer (the Dance).

    What challenges did you find in doing this?

    Unfortunately, at least at the beginning, I shot the “Art & Dance” pictures the same way as I did the performances. As someone who doesn’t dance, I didn’t understand the “peak” and missed it over and over, as my kids took pains to remind me constantly.

    Things changed for me when I realized that I needed to try different angles. I do that in my other photography, but why not dance? Often when I sit I can capture peaks because my eye is at the same level as the dancer’s jump. And the more I practice, the better I get at it, both the photography and the art direction.

    As a dancer, you have an advantage because you know that part. But you will still need to practice, practice, practice. Photography is a form of art just like dance is, and you can always find ways to improve.

    For the first three parts of this series, go here, here and here.

  • Turning Tables: A Photo Q&A, Part 3

    Part 3: Being interviewed by an aspiring teenage photographer — the director’s cut. This section focuses on starting and running a business.

    Did you always want to own a photography business?

    Growing up in the days when we had film and not digital photography, I never, ever thought I would do something like this.

    I’ve always been primarily a writer and editor. Photography was something that interested me, and I really enjoyed doing it while working for small newspapers in Texas and North Carolina. Traditional studio portraits, however, are often more technical than artistic, and for the longest time I thought that was the only way I make a living through photography.

    When I moved into communications, and became a one-person publishing unit, I started paying more attention to the visual presentation, especially as I took photos. The problem was I did not have the technical skills, or the patience and aptitude to learn those skills in a way that could make me successful solely as a photographer.

    Understanding how to get my camera to do what I wanted so I could capture what I saw was more frustrating than fascinating, especially in the days when post-production was spent inhaling chemicals in a pitch dark room.

    That has been eliminated thanks to the digital explosion, and enhanced by a chance to pay tribute to my dad. It’s also served as an opportunity to explore that I never thought I'd have.

    How did you start your business?

    On a rainy day in 2012, my oldest son (Nicholas) needed headshots for school. Of course, he was leaving that day, so we had to be creative, especially since I didn’t have studio equipment.

    I was extremely nervous about doing them — nothing is harder than getting professional quality shots of your own family — but they turned out well and I found that I liked the challenge of portrait photography, especially without the constraint of being in a studio.

    The next year, I was laid off from my job and became a freelancer. I started offering photography as part of my services when I felt like I finally had the equipment and the skills necessary to make sure my customers would be satisfied with my work. I’ve been fortunate that most of my clients like my work, and the business has grown in new and unexpected ways. 

    What have you learned from running your own business? What are the challenges?

    I learn something new every day. I’ve had to learn how to juggle many different writing and photography projects at once while still trying to raise a family, something that is not unique to anyone who does this even if our circumstances (and skill sets) are a bit different. Like any business, this one fluctuates in a feast or famine way, and that can be challenging.

    My wife is an excellent time manager, and being the one with the out-there creative gene, I’m not. I never have been, so it’s something I have to continue working at constantly.

    Purely from a photography standpoint, I still struggle at times with my technical skills (especially in the area of retouching). They are not where I’d like them to be yet, although I’m getting better. It’s not something that comes naturally, but I’m working at it.

    What have you enjoyed the most?

    I genuinely like meeting new people and working with them on various projects, whether its through interviews for stories or going on a shoot. When you have a chance to work together in a collaborative way, like we’ve done for the “Art & Dance” series, that’s always a lot of fun.

    Increasingly, I’ve learned how to enjoy art directing a shoot. This was something I never thought I would be good at, because I didn’t think I had that level of creativity to create something out of nothing. I find it really fascinating.

    Tomorrow: Concluding with Art & Dance. For Parts 1 and 2, go here and here.

  • Turning Tables: A Photo Q&A, Part 2

    Part 2: Being interviewed by an aspiring teenage photographer — the director’s cut. This section focuses on tips for beginners.

    The question seemed pretty simple: What tips would you give to someone starting out?

    My response: It's all a matter of what you want to do, and how much time you're willing to invest. The beauty of digital is that if you don't like it, you can delete it, and it doesn't cost anything. So go out and start taking pictures.

    Find new ways to challenge yourself all the time. Don’t rest on what you’ve done yesterday. Look ahead to tomorrow's opportunities.

    Think about composition. Don't be afraid to bend down or look around, and take the same shot from three different angles. Keep the ones you like and delete the others. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.

    ••••••

    What does someone just starting out need to know about equipment and lighting?

    I’m not a technician by any means, but here are some very basic things you need to know:

    • Digital SLR vs. iPhone: Yes, you can get great shots with many of the point-and-shoots that are out there, and the iPhone's camera is really nice. BUT: A good digital SLR gives you flexibility (faster shutter, no delay, broader range, more settings, different feel in your hand). Your dad mentioned that you received a digital SLR for Christmas and that’s great. You’re off on the right foot.
    • Lenses matter, too, often more than the camera body. This is where you start to spend the bucks. Each lens gives you different abilities/opportunities (sharp foreground/background blur, panoramic view, zoomed in view) and, depending on how much you're willing to spend to make your photos pop, greater clarity.
    • Try different angles. Generally, when you’re taking pictures of people, it’s best to be at eye level, but not always. Take pictures from a long way away and up close of the same subject. Look up, look down, and take several different pictures of the same subject from a variety of angles, then see what you like best. 
    • Fill the frame as much as possible, with an eye toward the crop. You don’t want dead space in your picture. You know those pictures where people stand in the middle of the photo and there’s all this space on either side. Unless you’re trying to do that on purpose, you need to get closer to your subject. (But not too close, because you can lose some things too.)
    • Remember the crop. Most digital cameras produce files with a 4x6 ratio. If you are producing 8x10s, then you’ll need space at the top or bottom to accommodate the crop. Also, if you have to crop the picture too much, you’ll lose quality on the image, so that’s why you need to be as close as you can.
    • Shutters and speed: If you’re trying to capture action (such as sports or dancers), you need to make sure your shutter speed is at least 1/160th of a second. (1/250th or 1/300th is preferable.) Unfortunately, this also means you’ll have to push your ISO (how much light goes into the camera) way up if you’re shooting indoors. Depending on the camera body you have, it can be difficult to push the ISO up to much more than 3200 or 4000 and still get a good picture. Higher end cameras can go to 6400 or 12800 and get something that is acceptable, but still not ideal.
    • Flashes and stopping action: Most flashes operate at 1/60th to 1/125th of a second, and it’s hard to stop action without blur that way, which is why I often am outside for most of my dance pictures. Also, available light is almost always the best way to go because of the way it lights the skin, but that’s just my personal preference.

    Tomorrow: Starting and running a business. For Part 1, go here.

  • Turning Tables: A Photo Q&A, Part 1

    Recently, the father of a 13-year-old girl wrote asking if I could help her with a class project by answering some questions about photography. The dad explained that his daughter — a dancer and a big “Newsies” fan — had started following my work because of my ongoing “Art & Dance” series and had gotten a camera for Christmas.

    As a dad, it’s hard to turn down this type of request, especially when a parent takes the time to ask for help for his daughter. As a photographer, I’m more collegial than competitive, and always happy to help others.

    Answering her questions was an interesting exercise. Since Jill and I reached 50 last year, we both find ourselves reflecting on why we do what we do, what drives us to continue, and what we like/dislike about our roles in this life. As the child of two teachers, this was my teachable moment, an opportunity to explain  the craft I've come to love.

    Over the next four days, I’d like to share edited — and in some cases enhanced — versions of the responses. (Call it a “director’s cut” if you will.) If you follow my writing and this blog, chances are you’ve seen some of this before. But I hope you find it an entertaining read nonetheless.

    What was your inspiration to become a professional photographer?

    My dad was a visual artist who could paint, sculpt, or draw anything that came to mind. I can't draw a stick figure, but I've always had his eye for composition, just not the creativity (or sadly, the fine motor skills) to create something out of nothing.

    When I first went to New York with our son, Ben, in 2009, I thought of my dad often as I was drawn to the visual explosion that is the city. Dad died in 2007 and never visited New York, but in so many ways, the stuff I see walking around serves as a constant reminder of his interests, insights, and influence on my life. Also, when in New York, I spend most of my time on foot as opposed to in a car, so I see things differently when I’m there.

    On a beautiful spring day, I took out my camera, started taking random pictures of the things I saw, and found I have a knack for it. I shared the photos to Facebook, found my friends liked them too, and just continued with it. 

    What do you like most about photography?

    Capturing moments in time, whether it is through the dance pictures, an unusual or visually interesting place, or through portraits I take of people. People seem to appreciate that I can do it and like my work, which is very gratifying.

    Photography also has allowed me to make connections I never would have imagined — such as the one I’m making with you right now — and several folks from far-flung places have said they became interested in picking up a camera after seeing my random noodlings. I've been lucky to go out on photo shoots with a variety of other weekend warriors, all of whom I've learned from and whose talents are greater than mine.

    Here’s what I say to anyone who has an interest in taking pictures: Try it and see what happens. You might find you like it and have a previously untapped talent. It’s something you can do alone or with others. It gives you a chance to be creative in ways you might never have imagined.

    Next Up: Learning the basics.