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Digital Photography 101

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Everything you need to know to create crisp, compelling dance images

By Theresa Smerud

What do designing a website, putting together a registration packet or marketing piece, or writing a press release have in common? They all need great photos to spruce them up. But you, a dance studio owner, are not a professional photographer, so what are you to do? You have a camera, maybe even a digital one—but will it give you the results you need to create compelling images? Have you saved your digital images in the correct format and resolution for each project? If questions like these sound like technological mumbo jumbo to you, you’re about to breathe a sigh of relief. This article will give you essential information about how to capture and save dance images.

The shootout: point-and-shoot vs SLR cameras
First, what type of camera should you use? Most people know what a point-and-shoot camera looks like, but what is an SLR and what are the important differences between the two?

Strong lines create a feeling of movement and energy. (Photo by Theresa Smerud)

A point-and-shoot camera is small—it easily fits in a purse or pocket—and does not have interchangeable lenses. An SLR (single-lens reflex) camera is larger and gives you the ability to change lenses. With an SLR you view the scene through the lens, while most point-and-shoot cameras capture the image through a lens other than the one you view the scene with. Translation: With an SLR, you get what you see, for the most part, and with a point-and-shoot you do not. Both types of cameras allow you to program your desired “film” speed (ISO) and automatic shooting modes, as well as choose a color-temperature setting. But an SLR allows you to shoot in manual mode for more control and artistic options.

Point-and-shoots are great for vacations and most candid shots that do not have moving subjects, but they have a few drawbacks when working with dance imagery. First is the shutter delay. If you ever have tried to photograph a moving subject only to miss the picture you envisioned, you experienced shutter delay. Also, some point-and-shoots do not let you turn off the flash. For professional-looking images, you need to shoot without flash. Nothing screams “Amateur photographer!” more than an image with a washed-out subject with a large shadow behind it, which comes only from using on-camera flash.

The last important feature to consider is the camera’s resolution. Point-and-shoots typically do not offer a resolution higher than 6 megapixels, while professional SLRs can go as high as 22 megapixels. Resolution is a crucial consideration in image quality; the higher the pixel count, the bigger the potential print size. For example, 3-megapixel cameras can produce an adequate quality 4×6 print, while 8-megapixel cameras will produce great prints up to 11×14.

For most school owners’ purposes, a camera with 6 or 8 megapixels is ideal. Anything less is no good, especially for producing images for marketing pieces (and print forms other than newspapers) and enlargements to hang on studio walls. Anything bigger is more than you will need, and storing large images uses more memory on your computer’s hard drive.

To purchase a good point-and-shoot camera, expect to pay between $400 and $600; for a high-end amateur SLR with one standard lens, $600 to $800. Like everything else in life, you get what you pay for. If you plan to shoot the photographs for your marketing pieces yourself, it is worth investing in a camera that can create amazing images.

The nuts and bolts: ISO, color balance, and shooting modes
Now that you have your camera, you are ready to take some pictures. Step one is to familiarize yourself with your owner’s manual so that you can easily locate all the camera’s essential buttons, levers, and wheels.

ISO
Next, choose an ISO setting, which determines your camera’s sensitivity to light (the equivalent of film speed). The higher the ISO, the better the camera’s ability to capture images in low-light conditions; however, higher ISOs produce images with more digital “noise,” which gives them a grainy appearance. The main ISO settings are 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600. (Some cameras let you set an ISO number in between those.)

Since you typically will be shooting indoors using only available light (no flash), set the ISO anywhere between 800 and 1600, depending on the amount of light available and whether you want to stop the motion or allow it to blur. If you are inexperienced at photographing dancers, it is best to set your ISO at 1600 to freeze the motion. (It takes practice to shoot intentional motion blur well.) Though the images shot at this setting will be grainier than images shot at lower speeds, it is a tradeoff you should take. The dimensions of most images for publication will be fairly small, so the grain will not show. It only becomes problematic with images larger than 11×14.

Color temperature
Another control you should set is the color temperature, or white balance. Different light sources have different color temperatures, which show up as a color cast that is especially visible on white surfaces. For example, incandescent household lights have a yellow/orange cast and fluorescent light gives off a greenish cast.

Most cameras have icons for each color temperature choice, such as a light bulb for incandescent light, a sun for bright sunlight, and clouds for diffused light. Most indoor lighting situations will be incandescent, fluorescent, or diffused window light. If you do not want to spend time in the post-production phase adjusting the color, it is wise to set the white balance before you shoot. There is nothing worse than unintentional green, yellow, or blue skin tones.

Beyond automatic mode
Images made in the fully automatic mode are typically not too interesting. However, you can move beyond the auto mode without having to go completely manual. Most cameras have program modes that give you some control over how your final image looks.

Your owner’s manual will list the modes and usually includes photos that illustrate each one. These modes affect the image’s depth of field and shutter speed. The amount of depth of field determines how much of the photo is in focus. In portraits, using narrow depth of field allows the subject to be in focus while everything else in the background is out of focus. Point-and-shoot cameras and some entry-level amateur SLRs have icons that indicate the mode for a portrait, landscape, or close-up shot. For example, a silhouette of a face indicates the portrait mode while mountains represent the landscape mode.

The shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter remains open to allow light to hit the sensor. To freeze movement, shutter speeds of 1/250 or more are desirable. Most point-and-shoot cameras and some SLRs have a portrait mode that favors a short depth of field and a sports mode with a fast shutter speed to stop action. For those who have more photography experience and own an SLR, using the aperture- or shutter-priority mode will give you even more control over your images. With these modes, you can set the aperture needed for a certain amount of depth of field or the shutter speed needed to control the subject’s movement. In both cases, the camera takes care of the rest.

The art and soul of an image: composition
How do you create an artistic, compelling image? By keeping the following pointers in mind, you will dramatically improve your photography.

  • Fill the frame: Fill the viewfinder with your subject so that there is little background or negative space (unless the image is for an ad and you need that extra space for text).
  • The rule of thirds: If you divide your image into thirds, place your subject on one of those imaginary lines (preferably the second third, because we read from left to right). This rule applies to both vertical and horizontal planes. If you divide an image into thirds from top to bottom as well as left to right, you will add impact to your image by placing your subject where any of those imaginary lines intersect.
  • Balance: Asymmetry is always more interesting than symmetry, so don’t try to balance your images perfectly.
  • Mirrors: As they say in driver’s ed., “Always check your mirror before committing.” The same rule holds true in a dance studio. Mirrors are everywhere! Before you take the shot, make sure there is nothing reflected in the mirror that you don’t want in the image—and that means the photographer too! Clean mirrors of distracting fingerprints and smudges.
  • Leading lines: Strong lines, especially diagonals, create a sense of movement and energy. Using lines in your images should be easy, because you have dancers standing in lines or at the barre. And dancers, of course, have great line!
  • Directional light: Pay attention to the direction of the available light. Large windows can be both friend and foe. Avoid shooting toward the window or your dancers will be silhouetted—which might be awesome for some images but not necessarily the effect you were going for. Instead, shoot parallel to the windows, which will light the dancers from the side, sculpting and shaping them. Too much direct sunlight flooding in will create too much contrast, which means that your camera will not be able to capture detail in both the highlight and shadow areas. This type of lighting situation is best left to a professional. However, if you are lucky enough to have a window with north light, shoot away. This is the best exposure you could hope for because it offers even, consistent light.
  • Border mergers: Be on the lookout for garbage cans and coats, water bottles and dance bags, parents, a hand sticking out from behind someone’s head, or anything else you do not want to see in the photograph. Remove them or reframe the shot.
  • Perspective: Look for a new vantage point to shoot from: Lie on the floor, stand on a ladder, or move to each corner of the room. Try angling your camera for an edgy, contemporary look.

Saving files
Check your camera’s manual for the file size options your camera offers and how to set them. Before you start to shoot, set your camera to the largest JPG file option. (If your camera has a RAW mode, leave that to an experienced amateur or professional.) Larger files require more space on memory cards and your computer’s hard drive, but they will give you the highest resolution (which means the best picture quality) for your images. You might have to purchase extra cards if you shoot a moderate amount of images on a consistent basis.

For most print applications, saving your files as a 300 dpi (dots per inch) JPG will do. If you are submitting a file to a magazine or a newspaper, you will need to ask its editor how it should be saved or formatted. (Generally, magazines need high-resolution images of 300 dpi at 5×7 inches or larger, while newspapers can use much lower resolutions.) If formatting files is over your head, ask someone at the publication to talk you through it, or hire someone to do it for you.

The same holds true for images that need to be sized down for the Internet. A 4×6- or 5×7-inch image saved at a resolution of 72 dpi will be small enough to send quickly over the Internet but large enough to be viewed at a good size and reasonable quality. If you submit images for consideration to a publication via the Internet, you will then be asked to send a high-resolution file of the selected images via email, through their FTP site, or by post on a CD or DVD.

Don’t forget to back up your images on CDs, DVDs, or an external hard drive. External hard drives are easy to use and affordable; the cost depends on the amount of storage needed. Image files, particularly TIFFs and PSDs, require much more storage space than text files. If you don’t know which capacity to purchase, visit your local technology store for their recommendation.

If you are overwhelmed by exposure, depth of field, apertures, and shutter speeds, take comfort that you are not alone. This is hard stuff, but it’s not impossible to learn. Many great entry-level books (see “New Products for Business,” page TK) and websites (such as www.photo.net, www.photosecrets.com, and www.goldprints.com) are available to help you. And if you are not familiar with Photoshop Elements or Photoshop, it may be best to hand over your image files to an experienced amateur or professional photographer or graphic artist who can make enhancements and format files in an expedient manner. Keep in mind that you are busy running a dance studio, and your time is best spent doing just that. The money you spend on a professional will be well worth it. Remember: Image is everything!

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