How to Give Your Dance Photos a Sense of Motion

How to Give Your Dance Photos a Sense of Motion


My favorite part of the wedding day is the reception. After the traditional first dances, and speeches are done, and the wedding party starts to let loose. The party is in full swing and the best man is giving “The Dougie” his best attempt in an effort to win a dance battle against the bride. While capturing these images I want the viewer to feel like they were in there, in the moment.  My goal is to not light up the entire room like a Christmas tree. I want to see the light from the DJ and the motion on the dance floor. This is how I do just that.

The Basics

When dealing with flash photography it’s important to realize that there are 2 exposures happening at the same time. The first exposure is for the ambient light. This is like any other picture you take without flash and relies on your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The second exposure is your flash exposure and this relies on your aperture, ISO, and flash power. The way I get the motion blur from the lights is by taking the image with a slower shutter speed, and while the shutter is open, I swing or rotate the camera. In order to have the subject not blurred, I have an on camera flash that fires to freeze the motion of my subject. Therefore, the ambient exposure is for the blurred lights and the flash exposure is to light and freeze my subject.  

 

How It’s Done

For this effect we need to have a slow shutter speed in order to create the motion blur from the lights, but we can’t let in so much light that the entire image is a blurry mess. The way we do this is to set the shutter speed to our chosen setting and then, use our aperture and ISO to dial in to the desired exposure. The shutter speed you choose is dependent on how long you want the streaks of light and how fast you are swinging your camera. I typically start at 1/10th of second and adjust up or down as needed.   

 

This Image has to much ambient light 1/10 shutter speed, ISO 100, F2.2

This Image the ambient light is under control and we are left with just the streaks from the lights. 1/10 shutter speed, ISO 100, F7.1

 

Once we have our ambient light where we want it, we then introduce the flash exposure. The flash is what makes sure the subject is visible and sharp. For these shots I usually shoot with on camera TTL (Gasp!! On camera direct flash!! The horror!!) so the power of the flash will adjust automatically, no matter the subject distance or chosen aperture/ISO. The problem here is that the flash will also set the spread of light to match your focal length so that the entire frame is lit evenly. For this situation though, I only want my subject lit and the rest of the frame to be dark and blurred. To fix this, I manually set the zoom of my flash to be greater than my focal length. Most of my dance photos are at 20mm or 35mm so I zoom my flash to around 70mm or more depending on how close I am to the subject. The zoomed flash is how I achieve that spot light effect. I can then rotate the flash head as needed so that it’s pointing at my subject.

 

20mm lens with flash set to 20mm

20mm lens with flash set to 70mm

 

Why front curtain sync is better than rear curtain sync

When dealing with longer shutter speeds and flash, we need to tell the camera when to fire the flash. The 2 options we have are front curtain sync and rear curtain sync. For rear curtain sync when you press the shutter button, the shutter will open, the sensor will gather ambient light, and just before the shutter closes the flash will fire. For front curtain sync when you press the shutter button, the shutter will open and right as the shutter opens the flash will fire. The shutter then remains open and gathers light till the time is up and then shuts. Because I am taking images of dancing and want to capture moments, the best option is front curtain sync. It’s not ideal to have to time the subjects actions to line up with the end of my shutter. Instead, I want to press the shutter button and capture the moment as I see it, and then use the rest of the exposure time to create my light streaks.

 

 

How to Swing The Camera

The direction to swing the camera is the difficult part. The more lights you have in the background, the more streaks you have, and the more chances you have of those streaks covering up your subject. I have a ton of moments captured that are ruined by a bad swing of the camera. It’s simply a downside to the technique.

 

 

When swinging the camera, it’s important to know that whatever way you swing the camera, the light will streak in the opposite direction. So if I have a light on the left side of the frame and I swing the camera to the right, the light will streak across the frame to the left. Likewise, if I swing to the left, the light will streak to the right

 

Camera swung left

No swing

 

Camera swung right.

   

We can use this to our advantage by keeping an eye on where our subject is in the frame, in relation to the background lights. In the image below I could see that there was a ton of lights to the right of the subjects and not a lot of light to the left of them, so I knew that I should swing my camera to the left. In other words, we want to swing the camera toward the side of the frame with the least amount of lights.

 

 

Most of the time, however, you are forced to just swing and hope that it tunes out. It’s not a “spray and pray” method though! You are still looking to capture interesting and emotional moments. The more you use this technique, the more comfortable you will be, and the more “keepers” you will have. Sometimes you have to try and capture a moment, and hope that the light streaks don’t mess it all up! Below are a few different examples of this technique along with how they were done.

You can twist the camera to create a spinning effect

You can increase your shutter speed to 10 plus seconds and shake it all around.

You can even get this effect outside as long as it’s not crazy bright.

And you get an extra 10 points if you can make someone look like they have laser vision!

Who is going to give this a try? What do you currently use for reception lighting?

 

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37 Comments

E Port's picture

Especially great when you want to portray how your drunken subjects feel!

"The problem here is that the flash will also set the spread of light to match your focal length so that the entire frame is lit evenly. For this situation though, I only want my subject lit and the rest of the frame to be dark and blurred. To fix this, I manually set the zoom of my flash to be greater than my focal length. Most of my dance photos are at 20mm or 35mm so I zoom my flash to around 70mm or more depending on how close I am to the subject. "

I was curious if using a snoot or gridded modifier on your flash head would work better in this scenario? So that whether you're closer or further away from the dancing subject, you don't have to keep adjusting your flash's zoom (otherwise if you're too close and your flash is zoom all the way in, the exposure would most likely blast the skin or dress into oblivion)

TTL prevents that as it adjusts flash power.

Jason Vinson's picture

I have never used a grid or a snoot for this and it would give a similar effect, but Jonas is correct, using TTL will adjust the power of the flash as needed. You can also adjust your flash compensation if the highlights start looking to hot.

Nissor Abdourazakov's picture

thank you mate!

Michael Holst's picture

I've done this for wedding clients and They LOVED it. It's actually easier than getting a "technically sound" shot and a lot of fun.

Nick Dors's picture

Glowsticks give awesome results and with "light balls" you can make hearts if you make a V movement. This was made last weekend at a wedding party in Greece. Lots of fun ;)

Izedin Arnautovic's picture

I have been shooting partypictures long time ago before i started shooting weddings, i don't like that Overall blur over the People, for me the Picture Looks very amateurish if it is blurry like that.
I would rather enhance the ISO to 800 and shorten the shutter Speed to be between 1/4-1/20 seconds, depending on the ambient light. The People will be illuminated by the Flash.

I'm sure it's just a matter of taste, but that's the way I prefer the Images to look alike :-)

http://www.izedin.ch/wp-content/gallery/menschen/image125.jpg

http://www.izedin.ch/wp-content/gallery/menschen/image135.jpg

Richard Viehmann's picture

Nothing wrong with your photos and to each their own... but I think the idea, at least how I use it and interpret it, are that it showcases the movement. There blurry to allure that something was taking place and help tell the story. Kinda like racing photos sometimes you stop all motion for a shoot and sometimes you pan the image.

Jason Vinson's picture

Agree. When shooting a reception, not all of the images i take are like this. Some are frozen and some have the blur. It depends on the situation. But in general i enjoy the blurred images more.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Man...on a wedding this is something cool to do! Specially when on a dance.

Paulo Macedo's picture

And this is something i'll do tomorrow!!! :D

Jason Vinson's picture

share what you get!

Paulo Macedo's picture

Yeah i will :)

Paulo Macedo's picture

There it is! As promised!! I haven't touched it in Post. This is from camera with the EOS Connect App. I thought about giving it a touch with Snapseed on the iPad, but i'll do it on Camera RAW.

Jason Vinson's picture

nice!

Paulo Macedo's picture

Thank you for the tip and great article!! :D

Alan Wohlgemut's picture

Nice article Jason. I found it interesting that you prefer front curtain as opposed to rear curtain, I feel like I never like my results UNLESS I have it on rear curtain! :) like this one.So funny how we can all have different ways of getting what we like! Nice pictures and explanation BTW. https://fstoppers.com/photo/55445

Wedding PARTY! by Alan Wohlgemut

Wedding PARTY!

Nick Viton's picture

+1 Rear Curtain

Wow, that is a cool shot! I also concur with Rear Curtain sync... that way the subject is on "top" of the light streaks instead of light streaks through them

Jason Vinson's picture

that's how things work when you have your camera on a tripod and the only motion you see is from moving subjects. When taking an image and swinging the camera, you will get light streaks over your subject no matter what curtain you sync with.

+1 Rear Curtain - just because every now and then I get a 'weird' looking shot. It's like taking photos of a race car - it'd look weird if you 'froze' the car then got a trail in front of the sharp image of the car: like it was going in super high speed reverse. Only happens to me like 1/250 shots (if that) so it's not really something to change your method for - plus dance shots hide it better anyway cos it's all random movements!

Jason Vinson's picture

that's how things work when you have your camera on a tripod and the only motion you see is from moving subjects. When taking an image and swinging the camera, you will get light streaks in whatever direction you swing your camera regardless of what curtain you sync too. It's all dependent on the direction you swing the camera.

Orpheus Anonymous's picture

It's nice to see a cohesive explanation of this! I've used this technique a few times and people have always appreciated it. I figured out how to do it with a lot of trial and error though which is not always the best thing to attempt at a wedding (trial and error, that is)

Nick Viton's picture

I use Rear Curtain myself for images like these. I like to have my subjects layered ABOVE the light streaks. In the article sample images, the light streaks are layered over top of the subjects. With Rear Curtain, the light streaks are more appropriately designated to the background, instead of the foreground.

Jason Vinson's picture

that's how things work when you have your camera on a tripod and the only motion you see is from moving subjects. When taking an image and swinging the camera, you will get light streaks over your subject no matter what curtain you sync with.

Justin H's picture

Great Article -- reminded me of one of my favorite shots. Good to understand the technical how to, for repetitions sake :)

Don't know if anyone has mentioned this but best to set your ISO at around 800 because it means the flash needs less power which means quicker recycle times / longer lasting batteries

Jason Vinson's picture

since I'm using direct flash zoomed to 70mm plus and the suject is always pretty close, i never run into any issues with recycle times or battery life when shooting at ISO 100-200

Shannon McGuire's picture

Glad I read this. I usually do a similar technique, plus I add in a couple of strobes in the corners of the room. I really love the look I achieve, but find the recycle time when using TTL frustrating, and the potential for blown out shots when using manual unacceptable. I'll try zooming it to 70mm next time and see if that makes things better!

Photographing weddings in Alaska poses the unique situation of our midnight sun. Often, outdoor or tent receptions end up being in full daylight even when they are late in the evening. Sometimes I just go with it, other times I try and overpower the ambient light with my strobes to create a party-feel that wasn't really there.