creative dance clarence docks

A creative dance shoot at Clarence Docks, Leeds


Even after all the dance and movement photography I have done, there are still ideas running around my head, so here is the latest instalment at Clarence Docks, Leeds. Up until now, only one of my dance shoots has been outside, at Kirkstall Abbey. I wanted to do something outside utilising the scenery. Pretty much anyone can take a reasonable photograph of a dancer leaping in the air when there is plenty of sunlight and numerous shutter presses. What about working at dusk and after dark? That was a greater challenge.

Once again my two main dancers were Kit King and Joanna (Jo Bo) Bordon from the Northern School of Contemporary dance. We were joined by Charlotte Jones, Kit's housemate and fellow student from the school. Seeing Jo Bo with straight hair was a bit of a shock.

The shoot

Upon arrival, top of the list was to scout out the venue. I have been there before and had a good idea of where I wanted to shoot from, but I was not looking for locations that would lend themselves to a dance photo shoot. I also needed to assess the light and where the best places were to photograph my dancers because the tall blocks meant we were in the shade and the sky was blocked from view. The river end did not have any problems on this front.

With any shoot that involves one or many students from the school, you can expect at least a small to moderate amount of silliness. This shoot was no exception. There were number of photographs of them pulling silly faces and messing around. I have arrived at a point where I encourage it especially if the opportunity presents itself and time allows it. I must point out that Jo Bo does seem to excel at the face pulling front.

joanna bordon charlotte jones kit king

1. Work with your dancers not against them. Encourage them to be themselves and let them loose. This shoot gives you an idea of the lighting and conditions that evening and the crazies I like to work with.

One of the assignments the students have at the school is called "Site specific". They are given a place to go to and take photography of each other dancing there. The idea is to interact with their environment. So, after a bit of a discussion the dancers came up with this.

creative dance clarence docks

2. By using flash to light them, the clouds in the background become darker and a little more brooding. The cannon is not lit either so the emphasis is on the dancers three.

creative dance clarence docks

3. Then trying to set them at different levels....

creative dance clarence docks

4. ...To this with a bit of symmetry. Jo Bo needed to straighten her right arm! Grrr! From this angle you can see a lot more of the cloud and dark it looks. The light is centred on their faces and upper bodies drawing your attention to them.

You can see from these photos how and idea evolves through collaboration. I know what I want to achieve lighting wise and leave the rest to the dancers. I do have some input and throw ideas into the mix too.

creative dance clarence docks

5. Again, a slightly different idea, but still utilising symmetry. A bit of darkening and lightening made the sky look even more ominous.

I had forgotten to set up the flashgun not to go into standby mode. When I realised this, I could not remember how to change the settings and did not want to waste time fiddling around with it. The following photo is a result of this when the flash did not fire. This next photo shows how it would have looked if I had only used the available light for the photographs.

creative dance clarence docks

6. Just the available light when the flash did not fire. The shot lacks the dramatic sky or any detail in the clouds.

creative dance clarence docks

7. Minutes later we shot this. We tried to have three dancers jumping on the cannon, but two worked better.

On a previous portrait shoot with Jo Bo, I discovered that her very curly hair had a life of its own and likes to show-off in the shots. No matter how hard we tried to make it do one thing, it just would not respond. Even though it had been straightened, trying to stop it from obscuring Jo Bo's face proved to be a challenge. Charlotte's hair is about the same length and we did not have a problem with it all night!

creative dance clarence docks

8. My favourite shot from this part of the evening. It took a number of attempts for all the elements to be just right. In the others Jo Bo's hair obscured her face like in photo seven. Sheesh! Nice split kick, Jo Bo!

creative dance clarence docks

9. I tried to frame this photo so Charlotte's arms created a strong diagonal top left to bottom right. When this was taken the sky was blacked out. The detail in sky was restored by using graduated exposure filters in Lightroom.

creative dance clarence docks

10. Like in the previous photo (9), the detail in the sky was restored in Lightroom and then emphasised using lightening and darkening techniques with Photoshop.

As you can see the sun was setting and the ambient light levels were dropping. This meant we could move onto (at Jo Bo's suggestion) the long shutter shots with what is called 'rear sync or curtain' flash. This means the shutter stays open for long enough to capture the light from the buildings and just before it closes the flash fires to light capture the dancers so they appear in the shot. If they move during the frame slight blurring occurs. They did a good job considering they were often standing on one leg. Kit also pulled a few moves that do not feature in this blog, but are on my Facebook page.

clarence docks creative dance

11. It took a few attempts to come up with this composition and how best to arrange the dancers. The moody sky was enhanced in Photoshop and Charlotte (far right) was lightened a bit to even out the light on all three dancers. The camera was placed low down on a tripod and one step down.

In the following shots we had a use a hand torch to light the dancer so the camera was able to focus on them. This was best spot I could find to capture the scene. Lower down and a life buoy and railings would have featured in the shots. It goes to show you need to hunt around for an ideal place for a shot and not use the first available view.

clarence docks creative dance

12. Charlotte did a great job staying still whilst the shutter was open for 1.6 seconds to capture the lights of Clarence docks. I love the reflections in the water. The white balance was set to sunlight (5600K) and the shot has a warm feel.

clarence docks creative dance

11. Compare the colours of this shot the previous one. The tone is much cooler. This was achieved by placing a 1/2 orange colour correction gel over the flashgun's head and setting the camera's white balance to tungsten lamp (3000K). This gives the light from the flashgun a warmer feel. This is neat effect that requires no post processing to be achieved just a gel. Neat pose too!

I am always trying to think of creative ways of capturing movement in a still photograph. I had wanted to use sparklers for sometime and this was the perfect opportunity. After seeing the previous shots my dance crew had an idea of what I was after. After a few attempts to light sparklers we discovered Jo Bo had the knack of setting them alight. We had to ensure her hair did not decide to jump into the naked flame. We hope you like the results as much as we did.

There is always a danger with sparklers and these dancer that they get excited and behave like little children/Minions and start waving them around. This would waste the few sparklers that I had and regaining any kind of control was pretty much impossible. Unusually, they were really well behaved. I was really surprised!

We found the sparklers were good for up to three shots before they died out. Now I know the effect works I will buy longer ones. I have used torches before this is far more fun for all involved!

clarence docks creative dance

12. The first shot and Charlotte bags the shot! Way to go girl. OH YEAH!

clarence docks creative dance

13. Kit takes the floor. It was a shame the mine got in the way. Next time he can stand in front of it. Nice symmetry too.

clarence docks creative dance

14. Jo Bo takes to the floor and draws a big smile.

That is all folks! We could have kept going, I decided we could try other ideas on another day. They did suggest other ideas that involved the bridge. Charlotte said she was having so much fun she could have kept going. I had food and cake back the flat and the crew needed feeding.

Great work Kit, Charlotte and Jo Bo! You were superb! I bet this take site specific dance shoots to another level.

There is portrait shoot featuring Charlotte with Jo Bo and I behind the camera.

Post processing

Lightroom and Photoshop were used during the post processing. Most of it involved cropping, dodging and burning (lightening and darkening), adjusting exposure and adding a high pass filter to increase the detail in the photographs.

Technical details

A full-frame camera with an 24-70mm f/2.8 lens was used throughout. A single flashgun was used throughout fitted with a Westcott Rapid Box with only the diffuser added. The camera and flashgun were in manual mode. I take a few test shots and see what it looks like on the screen of the camera and then make the appropriate adjustments. I also used a radio trigger to fire the flashgun in some of the earlier shots. I prefer using the Nikon CLS (Creative Light System) to trigger the flashgun.

I used a tripod with a remote shutter release cable to trigger the camera for the long shutter shots. The shutter was open for 1.6 to 2 seconds.


No dancers were harmed, set alight, shot out of cannons during this shoot or made to pull silly faces under duress. They were fed (large biscuits, thanks Kit) and watered during and after the shoot. The cake went down very well (no surprise there).

Booking a photo shoot

If you would like to book a shoot contact me.

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?

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