Pictures from Ecuador…and How to Get Great Action Photos

This week I’ve been preparing for our upcoming Ecuador Photography and Spanish Immersion Expedition. And in the process, I came across a few pictures of Ecuadorian musicians, dancers, and shamans you might like.  (I’ll include them below.)

Dance performances and rituals are sometimes difficult to photograph.  So, I asked professional photographer Rich Wagner for a few tips on how to get them right.

Scroll below for his advice…

-- Lori

Lori Allen
Director, Great Escape Publishing

August 13, 2010
The Right Way to Travel

By Rich Wagner in Farmington Valley, Connecticut

Freezing Motion

Photo by Bonnie Caton

Most people know me as a fine art/landscape photographer. But my second love is photographing performance art. I've shot dramatic plays, musicals, jazz singers, street theater, dance, concert pianists, the Hartford Symphony in concert, and more.

Photographs like this have one requirement -- you want to convey the performance in action. There's a lot of talk about the "decisive moment" in the art of photography. Nowhere is that concept more important than in shooting performance art.

You have to follow the action closely, anticipating what is about to happen, the camera always at your eye, your finger resting lightly on the shutter. Working like that, you have no time to make camera adjustments. And precious few second chances if your exposure is off. Here are a few tricks to make capturing that decisive moment a lot simpler…

** Setting up your camera

Photo by Rich Wagner

Your camera set-up is fairly simple. Put it on shutter priority -- meaning that you’ll decide the shutter speed, and the auto functions of the camera will figure out the rest. (Check your camera manual if you don’t know how to do this.)

The lighting in performance art will range from dramatic stage lights to near candlelight. You’ll need a fairly slow shutter speed to let in enough light and also to get some motion blur in your shots. Take one or two test shots to zero in on the right speed quickly. Use a tripod when possible, or a camera or lens with image stabilization.

I usually work with shutter speeds in the fifteenth to sixtieth of a second range. I also set my camera to “Auto ISO.” That way my mind is on the subject and the camera takes care of exposure. Each of us paying attention to the thing we're best at.

** The Secret to photographing motion

Motion in the photo is defined by something that's blurred. But that's also the definition of camera shake. So how do you make sure that the viewer recognizes the subject is in motion and doesn't think you've had too many cups of coffee?

The secret is that something in the composition must be perfectly still and in-focus while other parts are in motion and blurred.

For example, when a dancer does a pirouette that swirls her skirt, you want the skirt to be in motion, but you don't want the dancer to be a blurred column of light.

The trick:  pay attention to the action.

As you watch, you'll notice that in the pirouette the dancer's head swings around and stops, then the body and the dress follow. Careful timing will show her face still, and her extremities blurred.

Photo by Rich Wagner

Or in this photo how the weaver and other elements in his shop are crisp while the twirling thread is blurred…

Photo by Bonnie Caton

That's the effect you should be aiming for.

And here's another pro tip: To get the shot more often, even when your timing is a bit off (hey, we're not getting any younger), set your camera to take burst exposures, so that when you press down on the shutter, your camera takes shot after shot in rapid succession.

I usually do from three to five in a burst. You'll be amazed how much the movement changes in that brief period of time, and you've increased your chance for the perfect shot five-fold!  (Again, check your camera manual if you don’t know how to do this.  Look for: “shutter burst mode” or simply “burst.”)

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