Shooting Girl Jam

Posted on April 29th, 2008.


This past weekend (April 25-28) was Northeast Girl Jam in Rochester, New York. Girl Jam is a swing dancing workshop weekend that focuses on classes for the followers. It was a huge success; we had a lot of people attend and everyone seemed to have a great time. The dances had a ton of energy and the late night parties were wonderful (as always).

I took a bunch of photographs over the course of the weekend, mostly during the performances and competitions. Once I posted them I got a bunch of questions asking me how I did it, so I figured I'd write here about it in more detail. I used different techniques each day so I'll go through them one by one.


My goal for the first two nights was to get images with the dancers sharp enough to recognize but with enough blur to convey the feeling of movement and energy in the room. I started playing with this technique at the blues parties in the past and I think I'm really starting to get the hang of it.


On Friday I only had one of my flashes with me, so I had to make some tradeoffs. I bounced the flash from the ceiling to get more even lighting (directional light from a bare flash is usually too harsh), but since the ceilings in Tango Cafe are so high it took a lot of power. I wound up shooting at ISO 1600 and 3200 for most of the night so that my flash could be on a lower power setting and fire faster. Even at that ISO the noise isn't really that bad since the photos are exposed well (thanks to the flash). This photo was shot at ISO 3200 and I don't think the noise distracts from the image much at all.


I was using a wide angle lens (18mm) so that I could get entire bodies into the frame. One of the things I love about Lindy Hop is that it really uses the entire body which this photo really shows off. Cropping off huge parts of people in every single shot makes that much harder to see. I set the aperture to about f/4 and that gave me enough depth of field to get most things in focus at 18mm. I set the shutter speed depending on the amount of ambient light; it varied from 1/30 to 1/4 or so.


The trick that really made a difference in taking good photos is that once I set the exposure I stopped looking at the camera entirely. I didn't review my shots as I took them and I didn't even look through the viewfinder to compose. Using a wide lens meant that I could just point the camera in the general direction of the dancers and still get them. I took this photo at the late night and the camera was held against my ribs as I did.

Why did I do that? I can perfectly compose an image but if the dancers aren't doing something interesting it's going to be a boring photo. I've been dancing long enough that I'm starting to be able to predict when something cool will happen in a dance, but that only works if I'm paying complete attention to it. Messing with the camera distracts me and I can only get the most obvious moments. Ignoring the camera and watching the dancers means I can pick up more subtle parts of the dance and capture those (as well as the obvious ones).


On Saturday I brought along two flashes to the dance and had Sergey hold one while I held the other (thanks Sergey!). Two flashes means twice as much light, which means I can shoot with recycle times twice as fast and have more even light coverage.


Since I was able to shoot twice as many photos I was able to experiment with getting up close. Using a wide angle lens let me get most of the dancers in the frame when super close and allowed me to play around with really interesting perspectives. This photo is one of my favorites from the weekend. Getting really close to Nina means that the distance between her and Carl is exaggerated and adds to the sense of tension. Once again, the flashes freeze the dancers and the ambient light burns in a bit of blur to add some movement. This photo was also shot at ISO 1600 but the noise is definitely not the main focus of this picture. As long as you don't underexpose noise is usually not a problem in these kind of photos.


Not only did I try getting up close, I also tried varying my angle more than I usually do. I usually brace the camera against my ribs when taking these kinds of photos for a few reasons:

Getting lower and higher gives me different perspectives that can have really nifty results. The problem is that it's much harder to know if the subject is completely (or even mostly) in the frame when the camera is in an awkward position. To get a photo like this I probably shot four or five at strange angles that I deleted.

One other fun thing to notice: you can see Sergey holding the flash right to the left of her hips. I probably could have cloned out the flare in Photoshop but I don't think it really detracts from the image much at all.



On Sunday I shot at a few of the workshops since there wasn't a dance. A workshop has a very different feeling than a dance and so I didn't want to try the same approach as the other two nights. Instead of using flash and a wide lens I switched to a fast normal lens (my 50mm f/1.4). The light coming through the windows was bright enough that I was able to shoot at around 1/60 at f/2 or f/2.8 and ISO 800 or 1600.

Once again the noise isn't much of a problem because the photos are exposed well as this picture shows. The shutter speed is just slow enough to get some blur at the ends of the limbs but not enough to lose all detail.


Since I was using a normal lens instead of a wide angle I had to mostly abandon the idea of getting big group photos and instead try to capture individual people as they learned. Using a wide aperture let me isolate the people from the sea of arms and legs in the backgrounds and gave the images a soft quality that helps reflect the feeling of the afternoon.

I really like the soft-yet-directional light that came from the big stained glass windows combined with the overhead lights. Lately I've been using flash a lot in my photography and it was fun to get back to using natural light. I'm going to try to practice with it more in the near future.


Northeast Girl Jam was awesome. I had a great time dancing and photographing and got to see a lot of old friends (and meet new ones). If you're sad you missed it there's another event in Rochester next month: Stompology. It's a weekend of solo jazz and Charleston workshops and awesome swing dances.

If you'd like to see the rest of the photos I took this weekend I posted them on Flickr. Feel free to comment there or find me on Twitter; advice/questions/comments are always appreciated!