erica mulkern

A dance and flour shoot with Erica Mulkern


In 2014 at the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers (SWPP) convention, I attended a class on dance and movement photography. One of sessions involves the dancer throwing flour around to give the photograph a sense of movement. I had three attempts to bag a shot and this is best of them.

flour dance

Since then, I have been itching and looking for an opportunity to do this again. A number of dancers I know said they would do it, but the challenge was finding a venue where you are undercover, it is dark and you can make a mess. Eventually the lighting studio at the Northern School of Contempoary Dance was put forward as an option. So, Erica and I went for it and here are the results.

The shoot

This was the first time Erica has done anything like this and my mine without an instructor showing me what to do. So, we started off slowly using a scarf to give Erica a feel of what needed to be done and time for me to calibrate the camera and flashguns. The only downside was Erica played with the scarf and I had to herd her back into the middle so I could test the exposure.

erica mulkern

1. The scarf creates a trail behind it thus giving the photograph a sense of movement. The trick is to substitute the scarf for a handful of flour and then have the dancer interact with it. Please note how clean the floor is.

After a brief explanation of what was required we just went for it. A lot of this requires a bit of experimentation in terms of how much flour is required and when the dancer lets go of it. Then it is up to the photographer to time the shot so the flour trail and dance pose are captured. I asked Erica to hold the end pose for as long as possible at the end. This proved to be amusing at various points in the proceedings.

erica mulkern

2. This early attempt worked well. A nice billowy plume above her head and an excellent pose.

erica mulkern

3. We went for something different here. Instead of throwing the flour right to left, we tried front to back. Erica started with her hands in front of her and released the flour as her arms drew level with her shoulders. I coloured the flour during post processing.

erica mulkern

4. The same idea. The flour creates wonderful shapes with the dancer's arms. I like to have a bit of light flare in the shots to add a little something extra without it being too distracting.

When I am happy with a shot we move on. I take a moment to show Erica what we have achieved and to discuss where we go from here. When it comes to the dance moves I let the dancer decide what to do. Erica now had a better idea of what was required of her. Not everything we tried worked, but we gave it a go.

erica mulkern

5. The flour is thrown left to right. It was coloured in post processing to lend a icy or snowy feel to it. I love the strong diagonals created by Erica's arm and leg. Please note how mucky the flour is now.

Throwing the flour in the hands is one way of producing the powder trails. Kicking it is another. You can make a small pile of flour and have the dancer kick it backwards or forwards during the shot. It is best to give the floor a sweep so the dancer does not keel over or land and slip.

erica mulkern

6. To create this shot I piled as much flour as I could onto the top of Erica's foot and let her pull the move off. I had to 'stitch' her left hand on in this photo because it was cropped off in the original. I liked the shot so much I did not want to bin it.

erica mulkern

7. The same dance move as photo six but the flour coming out of Erica's hand. I had to 'add' some powder to the left hand to balance the photo in post processing and a bit of colour too. It would be nice to make the powder look a little bit like fairy dust.

erica mulkern

8. Sometimes you just have to keep it simple in terms of the dancer's move and let the powder do its thing.

erica mulkern

9. I call this shot "Kung-fu Mulkern". It is the only one I took in landscape and we used a lot of flour putting as much into Erica's hands as possible. I added the icy blue effect (using the wrong white balance) to make the powder look more snow like and give the overall photo a chilly feel. Apart from that not much post processing was done except for the removal of two light stands.

erica mulkern

10. Erica wanted to see what would happen she threw the flour across her body. After three attempts this was the best shot. I think she ended up throwing most of the flour on herself. I love the ankle grab. It creates some wonderful shapes.

In between the shots we used a broom to clean the area she was dancing in and gather up the flour so we could reuse it. Erica did seem to enjoy the sweeping. She was singing to herself in a high pitched voice and dancing around. It was not the fastest or most efficient way of cleaning a floor, but you have to let her be in these situations. I did not want to interrupt her fun.

We also spoke to each other in silly voices that were vaguely comprehendable. In reality Erica should have worn a bright yellow leotard so she would look like a Minion. She behaves like one at every and any opportunity and I like the Minions.

There was a lot more that could have been done like putting flour in her hair and having her fling her head around. If I had an assistant they could have added other flour trails into the shot. But this is a good start and I am happy with the overall results. It is good to have something in the bag for another day.

The session was finished off with a lot of sweeping and cleaning. I was impressed that Erica managed to remove most of the flour from her person before we left the school. Using the broom to brush off as much flour as possible only resulted in a lot of giggling. She was a little upset because the flour could have been used to create cake, her favourite of all the major food groups.

Post processing

A little 'dodging' (lightening) was used to bring out the flour trails along with some cropping and the removal of some of the ceiling/wall objects from the shot. As mentioned previously, the powder was coloured too and a high pass filter applied to bring out the detail (especially in the flour) in the photographs. I tweaked the levels to brighten the shots.

Technical details

A full-frame camera with an 24-70mm f/2.8 lens was used throughout. They will need dusting off now. Three flashguns were used too. Two were placed behind and high to light the flour and create rim lighting around Erica's body. The third was fitted with a Westcott Rapid Box with only the diffuser added to light Erica from the front. The flashguns were covered in sandwich bags to protect them from being covered in flour. Erica did come close to hitting them a few times.

The camera settings were ISO 400, f/3.2 and 1/400s. I used a slower shutter speed than usual because I was not capturing leaps, but I still wanted to minimise the amount of ambient light entering being captured.

lighting diagram


A massive 'thank you' to Erica for being amazing and loads of fun to work with and John Denton who introduced me to this kind of photography. I hope I have done you proud, John.

Booking a photo shoot

If you would like to book a shoot contact me.

Update 13th June 2016

Erica is one the most dedicated, elegant and committed dancers I have ever worked with. For her solo assessment in her second year she received a mark of 100%! To me that comes as no surprise. None of this goes to her head though and that is refreshing to see.

I have not tried to arrange a flour throwing shoot since this. I would need a venue where it will be easy to clean up afterwards and it sheltered from the wind.

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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