Becky Smithson

Becky Smithson ballet and dance shoot

Becky Ballet

The background is the west door of St Saviour's church near Cross Green. It almost looks like it was been superimposed as a background.


For a photographer who is always looking to push and develop their skills, YouTube has a few nuggets if you look hard enough. Whilst searching for anything on portrait photography using flashguns, I came across two videos by Nikon making use of their Creative Lighting System (CLS). Certain cameras in their range can utilise special features built into their flashguns. You can use the built-in flash on the camera to trigger other flashguns remotely. This is a very useful feature because having a flashgun mounted on a camera really limits the creativity of what you can do lighting wise.

Becky Ballet

Here you can see how the lighting creates a rim around her body. Here leggins almost merge with the background. A small pool of light was left on the ground to show Becky was leaping and not just posing.

The first part of the video went through basic lighting techniques. This did not interest me so I skipped ahead to where a photographer called Joe McNally was introduced. He was using Nikon D300 and a few of their flashguns. The results using the Creative Lighting System where stunning! On the second video he visited the Boston Ballet School. I saw what he was doing and the results and I thought, "I have the same gear he is using. Therefore, with a bit of practice, I should be able to reproduce this."

Becky Ballet

Here Becky looks like she is leaping out of the darkness. Her left hand can just been seen. Again, there is just enough light to separate her waist from the background.

The very first photo shoot I ever did was with my then housemate Tricia and her friend Becky. Both of them are dancers. I gave Becky a call to see if she could do few ballet leaps and jumps for me and I would try this out. She was very helpful.

The shoot

This was done outside the west facing side of St Saviour's church up the hill from the Royal Armouries in Leeds. You can see the wall and door in the photo at the top.

Two flashguns were placed either side of Becky triggered and controlled by my camera. I had her either jump up or take run ups with the apex of her leap between the two flashguns. This lighting set up is know as "badger lighting". It means the subject is lit evenly from either side. You have to be careful how you use it because it can be very unflattering if the face is lit from either side. The result is a dark shadow right down the middle of the face if the model is facing directly towards the camera. In this case the objective was to create a rim light around her body accentuating the shape and form of her body. Wearing a black leotard and half length leggings helped too. This included highlighting her waist so it stood out from the background.

Becky Ballet

This photograph is pretty much how it was taken. You can see the Royal Armouries in the background.

I then decided I wanted to see if I should fade the background to black or almost. This meant taking control of the camera and using manual mode. Up until then I had let the camera work out the correct exposure.

We also tried an effect I saw whilst in a John Denton photography seminar in Bradford. He had taken photographs of models with very foreboding and moody clouds in the background. He said the clouds were not that dark on the day. But, if you use a strong light on the model the clouds in the background will look darker. This may have just whooshed over your head, but to an experienced photographer it is just a matter of getting the right exposure and lighting levels. You play around until it works. Whoosh again!

Becky Ballet

Becky lent back further to create more of a separation between her knees. The angle of her arm and body is pretty much the same as the trees in the background being blown by the wind.

We stopped at after this because Becky was getting cold and it was really windy. When someone is helping you out, you need to know when to call it a day.

Post processing

Most of the post processing I do is in Lightroom. This means I only make basic adjustments and corrections. The end photo is pretty much how I shot it but with a tighter crop. Trying to fill the frame with a leaping dancer means you are always going to have a few empty spaces in the picture. In the shots where Becky is moving towards me, I used graduated filters to darken the background either side of her so there are no distractions. I could have done this using the camera, but this something to try for the future.

For the moody cloud shots, I did a little "burning" around the edges of the clouds to give them a little more shape so they did not become a featureless continuous grey mass.


A 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens was used through out. All were on a full-frame camera in shutter priority or manual mode later on.

Two flashguns were used throughout. I did try using one with an umbrella attached, but this got blown over even with ballast! It was that windy.

For the ballet parts of the shoot, I started off in shutter priority mode using the TTL modes on the flashguns. The camera was at 1/1000th of second, f/2.8 and ISO 400 so the background was visible. But this gave me a very shallow depth of field so although Becky's torso was in focus her face was a bit blurry. To compensate for this I switched to manual mode with the camera set to 1/1000th of a second, f/8 and ISO 200. I guessed the settings and then made the necessary adjustments for a good exposure. The flashguns were still in TTL mode. This got the desired results. The camera was set on auto focus across the whole view. This meant the camera sometimes focused on the wall and not Becky. There are no easy ways around this as far as I know.

The camera was always in landscape mode so both flashguns were triggered during the ballet sequences. The triggering system works on line of sight.

For the moody cloud shots, everything was on manual including the flashguns. They were on 1/2 or 1/4 power. The camera was set to 1/320th of a second, f/8 and ISO 200.


For a first attempt at either of these techniques, I was very pleased with the results especially the ballet shots. The rim effects were exactly what I was after. Being able to fade the background to near black was also very satisfying seeing all of this was shot between 12:50 and 13:30.

The moody shots were good, but I was not happy with some of the shadows on Becky's face (from the right as you are looking at her). I really needed to light her with one flashgun directly behind and above me. This will mean only a small shadow will appear under her nose. The lighting would have been better if I had been able to use an umbrella to diffuse the light. But this was not possible because of the strong wind. All things considered it was a worthwhile session.

What was also fun about this shoot was showing the results to Becky and her picking at various elements of her technique whilst I was trying to see if the photography side had worked well.

There are a few more things I would like to try out using dancers and flashguns, so watch this space!"

Special thanks to Atticus for being so accomadating.

Please let me know which photographs you liked or leave any other comments below. I will attempt to answer any questions too.

Your thoughts


Please leave any thoughts, comments, questions or just say, "Hi!" (not literally) below. I really do appreciate feedback. E.g. What is your favourite photograph and why?

A few more photos on Facebook.

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