A Stage in Frames

The use of space and the rule of thirds accentuates the beautifully striking posture of Priya Singh, during her Odissi dance recital. Photograph/Harkiran Singh Bhasin

The use of space and the rule of thirds accentuates the beautifully striking posture of Priya Singh, during her Odissi dance recital. Photograph/Harkiran Singh Bhasin

Harkiran Singh Bhasin explains the importance of connecting with the artist’s emotions to capture the essence of classical dance.

My Assignment

  • Description
    To shoot performances while covering events for the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai.
  • Duration
    Since December 2009.
  • Notes
    Shoot every assignment as if it was your last opportunity to cover such an event. Give it your best shot.

What excites me the most about photographing dance are the various moods and emotions portrayed by the performer… anger, sadness, freedom, happiness and so on. One really needs to be patient for the right expression or the mudra (stance). Of course, it helps to be interested in the particular art-form or genre and have some knowledge about its nuances. If I were merely trying to photograph the performer—as a job—I may not have been able to capture the true essence of the dance.

My Perspective
When I stand in the auditorium waiting for the performer to unfold their feelings and expressions, all I can think about is how to capture the sheer beauty of the artist in my lens. I often find myself caught between the performance and my desire to freeze the moment. When dancers stands on the stage, enchanting the audience, it is the character they portray that interests me.
I still remember my first dance assignment. I had panicked. What to click? How do I frame the shot? These were the questions that were running through my mind. When the recital started, I got the answers to all my questions almost automatically. I could actually feel the positive energy coming from the performer. It was as though she was performing for my camera. That first, single performance taught me the importance of connecting with the moods of the dancer to be able to make great photographs.

The Process
Whenever I have to shoot a performance, I reach the venue at least 20 minutes before the performance begins. I look for the best possible positions and angles to get my shots before the performance starts. Stage performances usually have mixed lighting conditions. So I try to figure out the Custom White Balance settings before the show starts. This helps in rendering the perfect colors throughout the performance. I prefer to shoot in the manual mode after checking my meter readings. This is because, sometimes, the meter can be fooled by the dark backgrounds commonly seen on stage.
There are other challenges to shooting stage performances too. It is important to be very quiet so as to not to disturb the fellow audience. One can never be too sure about the lighting—it could be really low, making photography impossible. But despite the challenges, whatever be the kind of performance, it is the raw emotions of the performer that I am drawn to. A photograph without any sentiment has no meaning for me.

My Equipment:I use a Nikon D90 with Nikkor’s 18–105mm and 80–200mm f/2.8 lens. A fast lens is the basic necessity for stage shows as the light levels can get really low. A telephoto lens helps as you may not be allowed to be near the stage.

While Shooting a Performance…

  • Avoid using flash: Flash flattens the scene, kills ambience and disturbs performers.
  • Always have a tripod: The moods, mudras and postures in a dance performance changes quickly and light levels are low. Hence, a tripod or monopod is essential.
  • Never stick to one place: Keep changing angles, perspectives and postions because no matter how well you compose your pictures, they may become monotonous.
  • Play with saturation levels: In case of over-saturated lighting conditions, you will need to adjust the saturation settings of your camera to get a proper photograph.
  • Explore your creativity: Get creative with slow shutterspeeds to highlight the movement in your photographs.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: Better Pictures, On Assignment, night, November 2011, Dance, Stage, Low light, performance, Harkiran Singh Bhasin