Sunday, September 4, 2016

How to Shoot a Bharatanatyam Arangetram

There is a traditional classical dance in India called the Bharatanatyam.  It takes years of study to perfect it (11 years in this case), working with an accomplished guru.  Every dance tells an epic story, and every movement has significance.  When the guru feels the student is ready, the first "coming out" performance called an Arangetram ensues.  I was hired to take the invitational and "publicity" shots for this event.

Normally this wouldn't be worth blogging about, since these look just like ordinary shots taken in a studio.  But they weren't - I took these shots outdoors, on the front porch, in the daytime.  Here's the setup I used:

This is a basic 3-light setup: The strongest light (the "key light") is on the right, on the left is a "fill" light set for half of the key light.  There's also a 3rd light next to the backdrop called a "hair light", pointing to the back of the dancer's head.  Finally, a thin black cloth was hung to provide a dark background.

Notice that the final results look nothing like what the eye sees, either in the above shot or in the behind-the-scenes video posted below.  This is because I had the camera set to manual exposure, set my shutter speed to 1/160th (the highest flash sync speed for strobes with this camera), f/stop to f/9, and ISO to 100 to ensure that, without the strobes, the ambient light would not register in the exposure.

And it worked!  All of the shots below are .jpgs straight out of the camera:

The manual exposure settings were also responsible for you not being able to see the trees showing through the thin backdrop - because the strobes were much more powerful than the ambient light, and it was the strobe lights I had exposed for.

The only time I needed to photoshop anything was when it came time to take full-body poses.  Because the space was so small, lightstands and walls started showing up in the shot.

In cases like these, photoshop is your friend:

Behind the Scenes

Here's a quick BTS video, taken by one of the parents:

How to Make a Great Lens Shine

For this session, I was using the Sony A7R II, the new G-Master 24-70 lens, and the Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 lens with the LA-EA4 adapter.  As you would expect, the results were amazingly sharp - click on any of the images above to have a closer look.

"Gee, Gary, looking at your BTS video, I see that the ambient light from the porch looked ideal - it was soft and directional.  Why didn't you make use of that instead of futzing with those expensive strobes?"

The answer is if you're looking for "OMG-That's-Sharp!" imagery, strobes will give it to you.  Ambient doesn't always look that way unless you're very careful.  And to prove that, I took a few shots with the strobes turned off and the camera set to capture the ambient light.  (Click on images to see them larger.)

Left: Ambient light.  Right: Pure strobes.  Is one better than the other?
Without pixel peeping, you notice right away that the ambient shot lacks the perceived refinement of the strobe shot.  With pixel peeping, you can see a difference in apparent sharpness:
100% crops from above.  Notice that in the right shot, Eye AF choose to focus on the right eye.  Not the eye I would have chosen had I been using the spot-focus-recompose-shoot method.
People my age won't be shocked by this comparison - every lens has a sweet spot when stopped down, even the new uber-lenses that are supposed to be amazingly sharp wide open (f/2.8 in this case).

The moral to the story: As I've been saying for a long time, good directional light is the key to getting the most out of your lenses - even the super expensive kind.  If you think getting a new lens will improve your photography, try concentrating on better light instead if you can.  (Or my seminar, which is also a great place to start. :-) )

Scholarly notes:

1) "Gary, you own studio strobes?  I expected this to be done via Wireless Flash!"  Yes, I invested in studio strobes during T.E.I.W.S.F.H.T.D.F. (The Era In Which Sony Forgot How To Do Flash), starting with the A77, continuing with the A99's 1/4-second delay, and thankfully ending with the A77 Firmware version 7.  (Things are better now.)  And studio strobes are a better fit for shooting kids or for outdoor applications like this, since the recycle time is usually less than one second.

2)  Is a G-Master lens really that much better?  The answer is I could have used my existing A-mount Zeiss 24-70 f/2.8 lens with an LA-EA3 adapter instead, and the results would have been just as impressive.  (Preemptive strike: the only way to see a difference between those two lenses is to use an optical bench or an electron microscope.  Is it that much better to drive a Lamborghini over a Ferrari?)  However, the G-Master lens has another, more tangible benefit: the Eye-AF feature only works with native E-mount lenses, and in situations like this I find that feature to be extremely handy.

Next Time in f2 Cameracraft

I just finished interviewing Jon Kral, a career photojournalist for 3 daily newspapers and whose entries helped the Miami Herald win a Pulitzer prize.  His lifetime body of work is pretty amazing, but the article concentrates on 3 assignments which I felt were extraordinary: A photo essay in a Venezuelan prison, documenting a neighborhood that has fallen to cocaine use, and covering an U.S. immigrant detention center in the 1990's.

Subscribe to f2 Cameracraft and get the full scoop!

Until next time...
Yours truly, Gary Friedman


  1. Wonderful Gary, can you advise what the latest is in wireless triggers for a99 and two off camera sony flashes. im so confused!!!

    1. Hi, Steve. The normal wireless flash trigger for the A99 is the HVL-F20M "pop-up" flash. Hope this helps! GF

  2. Fantastic photos Gary! I like number 2 and number 9 the best in the out of 13 series. As you know I like anything which conveys ACTION! Great job!

  3. Dear Mr. Friedman, Thank you so much for sharing your experiances ... yout tips have always helped me a lot. We love to see more of your blogs and videos... ( i remember you told last time - time is luxury which you dont have), thanks for writing one - God bless you.


  4. Beautiful work again showing the quality of JPEG in skilled hands

  5. Thank you for sharing your beautiful art with us.

  6. I do believe that I have read Gary's presentations since day 1. I am not a big techie person, but can take from Gary's help often. But, what I want to say here is that I think Gary is the number one motivator on the planet. I notice that after a blog and the sharing of his high quality photos, I take the motivation with me on a photo hunt. He shares photos of his grandchildren, which motivated us to buy each grandchild a camera.
    I share with them what I have learned from Gary therefore, spreading the light.
    Thank You Mr. Gary Friedman.
    Sincerely, Sheila Clapkin

  7. Thank you Friedman! Yours tips are Valuable.
    QQ - you used 2 different soft-box (Left& Right). Is that for any particular purpose?

    1. If I had used only one to one side there would have been a deep shadow on the unlit side of her face - nice for drama, but not the feel I wanted to create here. One strobe was set to be twice as strong as the other for a 2:1 lighting ratio.

    2. The diffusers were different only because those were what I had. They could easily have been the same and would have produced indistinguishable results.

  8. Hi Gary,

    An amazing light up for such a photoshoot, I have been using two light setup on both sides (Godox AD400) but wondering if I can achieve the same with a Godox AD400 and a simple flash light as a filler.

    1. All roads lead to Rome... the flashlight fill might be possible depending on the distance, f/stop used, and ISO of the camera.


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