Ballroom Dance Photography with Wireless Flashes
flashtestdummy | Photo Techniques | Published Jul 24, 2012
I started off with an Olympus E-510 and an FL50R in the hotshoe. A big step up from my point and shoot which got me nothing but "mud" when I say my first national champion couple dance. Although pleased, I made my decision to get a better lens, for travel and dance photography and ended up buying the E5 with the 12-60. It was much better but took some study to make it effective. I soon discovered that I was missing many good shots waiting for the flash to charge up. Or at the very least, underexposing shots often. Then I read a book by Joe McNally, "The Hotshoe Diaries". Up to that point I was aiming for the best low light lenses I could afford. Joe made me realize that natural light is good but strobes can make something look supernatural. So I bought a 2nd and 3rd FL50R, intending to use them for portrait or location shooting. After I tried the new wireless feature in my E3, I decided that I would make a bracket and mount 2 * FL50's up, off camera, on the left and right of the lens. The name flashtestdummy eventually grew from that decision. The Olympus bracket was unavailable and I found nothing to my liking. I did use a store bought camera/flash bracket and rigged it for 2 flashes at first, but I was forced to make my own to place them where I wanted them. Now, after the fact, I have seen a nice bracket available commercially, which I would have bought in a second, if I had seen it at the time. After shooting several events with 2, then 3 and lately 5 * FL50R's on my 2nd home made bracket I find that the setup has grown to need a decent tripod. No more monopod. I use a fluid head Libec video tripod. It's smooth for panning and dragging the shutter while panning with a passing dance couple, and it is strong enough to trust it with the life of my Olympus E5, Zuiko 35-100mm F2.0, and all 5 of my FL50R flashes. With bracket and batteries, flashes and camera I believe it weighs around 10 pounds. I like Olympus for that reason. The 4/3 format makes the camera and lens somewhat lighter and more compact. The FL50R's all run wireless TTL mode and are quite reliable as far as exposing the shot properly. For batteries I prefer Ansmann more than all others. They never come out of the charger, dying quickly. When they charge up, they won't die for a long time. And they put out power rapidly to get the flashes ready for the next shot. With 5 of them, along with my Zuiko 35-100mm F2.0 zoom, (FF equivalent 70-200mm), I never, never have them firing at full charge. That keeps my batteries and FL50R's cooler. And they can run very hot without malfunction; but that was with fresh alkaline batteries and several minutes shooting so much that the batteries got to hot to hold and later began leaking. That was the night I realized, I needed a 3rd flash on the bracket. And more chances to photograph Miha Vodicar & Nadiya Bychova. With 5 flashes, 3 along the top rail of the bracket and 2 hung down to the left and right of the camera, I get a "beauty ring" effect with very rapid shot to shot times. I generally never miss a shot due to my flashes needing more time to charge. Also, I change my NiMh AA batteries less often too. I have a special case with my batteries in numbered groups of 4, ready for a general dance break so I don't run out of power during the semi-finals or finals. Another nice thing about Olympus 4/3 format, is that (I can't state this from my own experience, having only shot with Olympus) the depth of field is double FF for a given f-stop. It is terrible when a dance couple is only partially in focus. I generally don't want to "bokeh" either person out of the photo. The Zuiko 35-100mm F2.0 is superb for dance photos. Great sharpness, F2.0 with enough depth of field for most shots and enough light so that my flashes (5 of them) only have to do "fill" lighting. That little bit of light removes the harsh shadows and color casts that I see in other peoples' photos. The lights are often of different types at those events so white balance can be a problem. Then there is that sparkle in the eyes, and the real crystal on many of the dresses and the fantastic colours. None of glitters without a little help. All of the following shots were taken with an Olympus E5, Zuiko 35-100 f2.0, three to five Olympus FL50R flashes, the camera on auto white balance, center weighed metering, at wireless TTL auto flash operation triggered by the built-in E5 pop up flash. The very last shot uses the Zuikdo 12-60mm f2.8 - 4.0 ED SWD. I hope these photos show what can be done at shutter speeds between 1/30s and 1/250s while using multiple flashes in wireless TTL auto mode.