EM-1 experience with flash and fast social dancing

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Bob Topp
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EM-1 experience with flash and fast social dancing
6 months ago

I have shot social dancing with a Nikon D300/D700 for several years and am slowly migrating to my m4/3 gear.  Last Friday I shot my first full successful dance with the EM-1 and Metz 44 on-camera flash, after sputtering a bit previously, while learning to use the EM-1.

My subject is salsa/bachata, fairly fast, in low, club-style lighting.  Generally the ceilings are low enough and white enough to bounce from.  I shoot in manual mode, starting at 1/45 s, f/5.6 at ISO 3200, making minor adjustments from time to time.  Dragging the shutter at 1/45 s gives enough ambient light to avoid a cave appearance and still minimize motion blur.  The strobe dominates my lighting and stops motion entirely.

Because the strobe freezes motion, it can also convey an unnatural sense of stillness to a dance.  A sense of animation is achieved by capturing positions clearly defying gravity: a twirling skirt, flying hair, an unbalanced pause during a change of direction, etc.  In part, this takes timing that comes from experience, but it also requires a responsive camera setup.

Several things play a part in responsiveness: autofocus delay, metering and stabilization delays are the primary issues I deal with.  Autofocus will hunt in low light regardless of the camera system in use.  To counter this, sports and event photographers often assign focus to the AEL/AFL button and lock it as long as the subject stays in range.  For a dance, the go-to lens is a 24-70 equivalent; I use the Panasonic 12-35/2.8 and take advantage of the in-lens stabilization to overcome in-body delays.  I have the IBIS turned off.

Metering takes place on the shutter press when the focus is locked.  Even though the camera is in manual mode, there will still be a metering delay if the flash is left in TTL mode.  Thus, there are two ways to overcome the final delay: either half-press after focus is locked, giving time for the meter to respond; or put the flash into full manual mode.   I have played with the camera and flash in full manual mode, and there is no discernable delay whatsoever; the half-press delay is noticeable and must be dealt with if using TTL flash.  The tradeoff is that flash in manual mode will lead to a little more post-processing, unless you are constantly chimping and adjusting your flash.  I can live with the half-press preparation by adjusting my shooting style, and the EM-1 gives near-perfect exposures; the following examples show the half-press method with TTL flash.

1)  Locking focus on a couple allows several frames to be taken, as their motion is often more lateral than to-and-from the camera.

2) This is the ambient lighting- pretty low, but enough to autofocus, albeit with hunting.

3) Spontaneous closeups are more difficult than shots at greater range.  The FOV is less forgiving, and it is harder to frame tight and get the shot off unless your camera is very responsive.

4) These are the shots I live for- a good twirl and flying hair, but better if the dancers are facing the camera.

5) Patience brings them back around...

6) Here, the timing was off a bit.  He's starting to dip her, but I'm not framed right, and I'm too early.  At this angle, though, a full dip would have been too immodest to keep, and the flying hair is really nice.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Regards,
Bob Topp

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Bob Topp

 Bob Topp's gear list:Bob Topp's gear list
Nikon D300 Nikon D700 Olympus OM-D E-M5 Olympus E-M1 Nikon AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D +21 more
Nikon D300
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