By Jim Zuckerman
During my recent photo tour to India, my group and I had the opportunity to photograph a spectacular display of classical dancing at night. The background was the 13th century Sun Temple at Konark, but depending on the angle of shooting and the movement of the dancers, more than likely the background was the night sky. I got permission for the group to stand at the edge of the stage, below the audience, so we could get top-notch shots without the heads of other people in our pictures.
I explained to the eight people in the group that the main challenge with this kind of situation is exposure. As the dancers move back and forth across the stage, the artificial lighting changes – depending on their distance to each light. In addition, the night sky will fool the camera’s meter into underexposure. What happens is this: meters are programmed to interpret every situation as medium gray (middle toned). When much of the composition is black, the meter wants to do the only thing it knows how to do -- make the picture lighter so it’s middle toned. Consequently, the dancers will be overexposed.
Things happen very quickly during a dance performance. It’s really impossible to access the exposure each second because it changes constantly. Automatic exposure is a big help, but it’s important to understand what will happen if we don’t use our brain to override the meter. I suggested to everyone that they set their exposure compensation dial to minus one f/stop. My rationale was that this would prevent overexposure, and if a dancer was taken full frame with little black sky in the background, then the picture would be somewhat dark – but in the RAW converter, this is an easy fix. With a digital capture, it’s easier to fix a picture that is underexposed than overexposed, so I wanted to err in the direction where we had a simple solution. This is one reason for always shooting in RAW and never jpeg.
Another problem we faced was keeping the dancers in focus. Most of our shooting was done with medium telephotos, and the dancers moved so fast that they would go in and out of focus very quickly (we couldn’t use tripods because it was impossible to follow the action on a tripod, being so close to the stage). Therefore, I suggested that we shoot on continuous focus (also called AI servo and Sports Mode), rather than one-shot. Just like photographing a flying bird or a kid playing soccer, the camera keeps the subject in focus as it moves. This is what we did, and this technique made it possible to capture many wonderful dance poses.
These images look like the dancers were posing for my camera, but in fact very few of them held still for more than a second. All of these images were taken with the Canon 1Ds Mark II and a 70 – 200mm f/2.8 IS lens. I didn't use a flash because I didn't want to destroy the effective stage lighting, and on-camera flash is not flattering at all.