Shared Vision: Dance Photography Guide from Celtic Infinity

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I started attending SL performance art shows in the Spring of 2014 thanks to a kind invitation from Guerrilla Burlesque’s manager Cherry (chryblnd Scribe). We had worked together at an indie music club and we were chatting when she invited me to the first Le Cirque de Nuit performance. To say that I was blown away is cliche and doesn’t begin to describe the impact that performance had on me.

A few weeks after that performance, I saw a group notice from Cherry saying that she was going to a performance at Club Image (owned by Setsuna Hirano). I had been bitten by the SL performance art bug, so I tagged along. That’s when I saw that Le Cirque had not been a fluke. There were other opportunities to enjoy the creativity of a variety of performance artists. Club Image’s Sunday 7am SLT performances became a highlight of each week for me that continues to this day.

After a while, I began taking pictures of the events and I found that photography opened up a new perspective on the performances for me. It is that perspective that I will try to share with you through the lens of my approach to performance art photography.

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My Philosophy

My approach to photographing performance art is first and foremost to try my best to provide the viewer with as genuine a representation of the artist’s story or theme as I can. From my perspective, I see performances as falling into two general categories, either story-driven or choreography-driven.

In story-driven performances, the artist creates a structure that follows several chapters each with a defined goal. As a photographer, I try to understand what they are trying to communicate and I really try my best to get at least one picture that best represents the theme of each specific chapter. Visual effects like particles or lighting are often very important symbolic elements of the story telling and mood, so I really try to capture those changes.

In choreography-driven performances, the artist is focusing on the dance itself. While these performances can still have a theme and changes in mood, there isn’t a defined story to follow. These can be very dynamic and athletic performances with a lot of movement across the stage with visual effects used more to accentuate the dance than represent a symbolic meaning. As a photographer, my goal is to capture the dynamics of the performance and attempt to follow the particle or lighting changes as they happen.

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Photographic Technique

Prior to the arriving at the venue, I open the standard Snapshot tool and click “Refresh” once and then choose “Save to Disk”. I use the PNG (Lossless) format option and click Save at the bottom. That opens the Save window and I just save to my desktop. Once that’s done the first time, it will automatically save the following pictures to whatever storage location you use, so there’s no need to worry about that any further. You should check the Advanced Menu to make sure the camera is set to take High-Res Snapshots for quality & Quiet Snapshots so you don’t annoy your neighbors or the performers.

Prior to the beginning of each performance, I try to get a good picture of the set by itself.

Some sets provide breathtaking pictures all by themselves. It’s that attention to detail in set design that creates the environment that lets us lose ourselves in the performance. Sometimes, I will sneak my camera behind the curtain and try to get some early pictures. If you do this, make sure you don’t “touch” anything. The performer is loading scripts at this point and you don’t want to do anything that might interrupt that process.

As the performance begins, I usually start with my camera facing center stage providing an audience perspective. At that point, I’m snapping away by pressing “Refresh” on the camera tool. Each press of the Refresh button causes a visible pause in the motion on the screen and in that instant I can get a feel for what that picture looks like. If the picture a keeper, I quickly hit “Save” and go back to the “Refresh” button. If it’s not a good picture, I just keep refreshing until I get a good one. Obviously, you have a limited amount of time to capture a good picture, so you really have to be prepared, attentive and more than a little lucky… just like RL photography.

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As the performance continues, I begin moving the camera to take pictures from different angles and different distances. I think this provides a more interesting perspective on the performance. I usually let the set and the performers lead me to camera angles that will best highlight the important elements in that moment. I try to always be changing my vantage point on the vertical axis (moving from left to right, for example) and then also trying shots from different angles on the horizontal axis (moving from looking up at the performers to looking down, for example), as well as varying the proximity to the performer. If the set and visual effects call for it, I’ll try overhead shots too. Sometimes at the end, I’ll try to take a picture from behind the performer looking out at the audience.

As I’m changing the location of my camera, I’m snapping away trying to capture a dynamic movement with a static medium. At best, this is a frustrating and difficult process. You begin to realize that there is a continuum within any movement and as you take pictures you are trying to avoid the extremes.

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Image 1

You don’t want the performer to look like they are just standing there (image 1)…

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Image 2

…and you don’t want it to look like they have been gripped by a violent convulsion (image 2).

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Image 3

Somewhere in the middle is the picture that conveys movement without sacrificing the performer’s form (image 3).

Ideally, I try to capture the performer’s eyes in a picture to provide the viewer with a more intimate connection to their work. I’m also hoping to catch their outfit in a state that doesn’t break the sense of reality we get from SL. For example, prim flexi skirts revealing glitchpants are avoided at all costs.

All of this movement can seem a little chaotic at first, but with practice you start to get a feel for where the best pictures will come from. As you try to move the camera, you will often notice “resistance” that seems to prevent your camera from going where you want it to go. This usually comes from invisible protective screens that are put up to prevent the audience from accidentally “touching” a performer. This can desynchronize a dancer and really mess up a performance. As a photographer, I go behind these screens which put me at risk of interfering with a performance. I move my camera using the “ctrl-alt-left click” method to free my camera and I make sure I always have ctrl-alt pressed to insure I don’t accidentally click on a performer. These artists have worked very hard and often have a limited number of opportunities to showcase their creativity, so it’s the responsibility of any photographer bypassing the protective screen to make sure they don’t ruin the experience for everyone for the sake of a picture.

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Hardware

I always use a hard-wired internet connection to insure that I’m getting the best download speeds. My ISP provides about 15 Mbps which should be more than fast enough. I use a custombuilt gaming PC that can handle running graphics on Ultra settings. I think one very important hardware characteristic is how much RAM your computer has. Having a lot of RAM definitely helps reduce lag and lets your computer store more of the details and textures of the set and particles more quickly and clearly. I’ve maxed out the system RAM on my PC at 16 GB and my video card has 4 GB dedicated to graphics, so I rarely experience lag in SL and have very few issues loading sets and particle textures quickly.

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Post-Processing Technique

As I said earlier, my philosophy is first and foremost to try my best to provide the viewer with as genuine a representation of the artist’s performance as I can. That means that I won’t use filters or anything that alters the view as a typical audience member would see it. I very rarely post-process the images aside from cropping. Given the loading times between performances, for a typical Club Image event, there are probably around 45 minutes of performance in the 1 hour show. On average, I take about 125 pictures during that 45 minutes. Because of that quantity, if there is some visual detail that detracts from a picture, I just won’t use it. However, on rare occasions, there may be some small detail that detracts from what I think is the best picture of a set. In that case, I’ll use either Paint or PhotoShop depending on the extent of the editing that needs to be done.

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One example I’ve included was the result of the performer’s dance pad not being invisible to the audience (new image 4). This was an obvious distraction in the picture, so after using editing software to cut the dance pad out I had to recreate the runic symbols on the floor as best I could (new image 5). It’s not a perfect fix but it certainly doesn’t distract your eye from the performer and that was the goal.

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Image 6

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Image 7

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Image 8

In another example, I found that the visual impact of a choreography-driven performance couldn’t really be captured on film. I felt that the performer’s size relative to the set forced me to either include the set and sacrifice the clarity of the performer (image 6), or focus on the performer and lose the perspective the set provided (image 7). So, I made some alterations to reach a compromise between the two by copying a larger cropped image of the performer onto an image of the set (image 8). I rationalized that this manipulation didn’t sacrifice the essential character of the performance while giving the observer a better representation of it.

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Aside from the few exceptions, the vast majority of my post-processing is cropping to eliminate any off-stage distractions or focus the attention on the performer and decrease the empty space in the frame. There is a continuum to cropping, as well. You don’t want too much empty space, but you don’t want the picture to seem claustrophobic, either. I try to find a balance that includes enough of the set to provide perspective without looking too empty.

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Publishing

I publish my photographs on Flickr in unique albums dedicated to each event. I have tried to keep each album to between 40 – 50 pictures. My goal is to provide the observer with that cohesive representation of each artist’s story that I described earlier without overwhelming them with repetition. Sometimes, after taking 125 pictures, it’s very difficult to choose only 45. At Club Image performances, there are typically 4 – 5 unique “stories”, so that’s only around 10 pictures per story. When stories have multiple costume changes and multiple sets, the picture limit can be a challenge. In any case, once I’ve made my choices, I upload them and hope somebody sees them and is intrigued enough by the pictures to come to a live performance. In the end, that’s really why I publish my pictures. I hope to pay forward the kindness that Cherry showed to me over a year ago and get more people to experience the amazing creativity and wonderful dedication of all the performance artists that I have the honor of seeing in SL.

Feel free to peruse my Flickr albums

(https://www.flickr.com/photos/127143375@N07/sets) or contact me in SL or by email (celticinfinity@gmail.com) if you have any questions, comments or suggestions. Take care and I hope to see you at a performance!

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An award-winning competitive Gorean dancer, Babypea entered mainstream SL performance dance in July 2012. She co-owns Elysium Cabaret, and often dances for other troupes as well, as a regular or a guest performer. The friendship and fellowship dance provides is as important to her as the creative expression of this amazing artistic medium.

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