Five secrets of high-speed dance photography

Canon Ambassador Sascha Hüttenhain gives an insight into his fine-art dance photography, including the lighting techniques he uses to capture dancers in clouds of flour against a dark backdrop.
A black and white image of a ballerina facing the camera en pointe with her arms outstretched, a flour cloud behind her producing wing-like shapes.

Lighting for Sascha Hüttenhain's flour dance photos comes from a pair of strip light softboxes, each fitted with a grid in order to focus the light on the dancer but also illuminate the clouds of flour in the air. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 50mm, 1/125 sec, f/4 and ISO200. © Sascha Hüttenhain

"Don't try this at home!" cautions Canon Ambassador Sascha Hüttenhain, describing what goes into his beautiful high-speed images of dancers enveloped in clouds of powder. One of the key ingredients of the photo sessions for these is as much as 15kg of flour, scooped up in dustpans by assistants and thrown at the model from either side.

Sascha is known for his refined, minimalist style of dance, portrait, fashion and advertising work for national and international clients, produced both on location and from his photo studios in Frankfurt and Siegen, Germany. But it's in his fine-art images of dancers that technical excellence and creative flair really need to come together.

"The hardest part is finding the right moment to release the shutter when the dancer is running through a fast routine," says Sascha. "This can only be learned through experience, but naturally a camera with a fast and reliable autofocus system helps too." This is why he uses mostly the EOS-1D X Mark III, Canon's flagship action camera, and it's for this same reason that he turned to the Canon EOS R6, which boasts an AF focusing speed of 0.05 seconds, for his most recent project, photographing a breakdancer.

Here Sascha shares some insights into his creative dance photography techniques, including the lighting he uses to capture dancers and clouds of flour in motion against a dark backdrop.

A black and white image of a ballet dancer standing stationary while a cloud of flour billows above her from behind.

Sascha likes to use a standard 24-70mm lens for his dance shots. "This focal length range gives me the flexibility to include plenty of space in the frame when I need it. A 70-200mm lens complements this when you want to zoom in closer." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/125 sec, f/4 and ISO200. © Sascha Hüttenhain

A black and white image of a ballet dancer leaping in the air, arms outstretched, with clouds of flour forming the shape of wings to both sides.

Sascha makes a point of involving his models in creative decisions on the shoot – not that he usually needs to motivate them: "Dancers have a lot of energy and power," he says, "and sometimes you actually have to slow them down a little bit so they don't pick up any injuries from difficult jumps." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 50mm, 1/125 sec, f/4 and ISO200. © Sascha Hüttenhain

Use lights with a fast output

Sascha doesn't have a standard lighting arrangement for his dance photography, preferring to decide the look "spontaneously, when I see the person and their outfit." He uses studio lights rather than Speedlites because their higher output and wider selection of light modifiers give him more creative options.

"For high-speed shoots in the studio, the most important thing is that the lights have a short flash duration," he says. "The camera's flash sync speed doesn’t play a major role in this kind of work, and I usually have the shutter speed set between 1/60 and 1/250 sec. Having said that, I also have pictures in my portfolio where the shutter has been open for several seconds before the flash has been triggered, in order to record a blend of blur and sharpness. Even then, it's still important to use lights that have a short output duration, as this will freeze the motion of the dancer when they jump and perform other rapid movements."

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Plan to be spontaneous

"When I started out, I built up my experience by shooting photos at theatre shows," says Sascha. "While this was great, I never had any influence on the process, the scenes, the posing or the lighting. So I decided to invite the dancers to my studio, where I was able to implement my own ideas in the best way possible.

"To this day, I do a lot of planning and preparation for each session, particularly when it comes to the outfits and styling. But a photo shoot is a joint effort between the model and a photographer, so I like to give the dancers the space they need to develop their own ideas. And there are always spontaneous and serendipitous moments during the shoot that you have to be ready to take advantage of."

A black and white image of a ballet dancer, with clouds of flour forming a pyramid shape above her outstretched arms.

To add additional dynamism to his pictures, Sascha often uses powered fans. But he says that having one or two assistants is crucial to achieving the look, whether they are moving fabric or throwing flour. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 50mm, 1/125 sec, f/4 and ISO200. © Sascha Hüttenhain

A dancer moving through a cloud of flour, one arm stretched out in front and one behind, with large particles visible in the foreground.

Sascha says a flash system with a short flash duration is important if you want to record dance movements without any blur at fast frame rates. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/125 sec, f/4 and ISO200. © Sascha Hüttenhain

Review and collaborate

In order to involve the dancer in the creative process, Sascha typically shoots with his camera wirelessly tethered to a laptop, where everyone on the shoot can quickly view JPEG previews of his shots. "I do this whether I'm working in the studio or on location, as it allows everyone to analyse the images as they are being captured, and to discuss ways in which they can be improved. This speeds up the workflow and increases everyone's motivation. The larger screen enables you to refine the small details that can make or break an image, and helps to avoid any mistakes."

Get creative with flour

Taking high-speed photos of dancers performing in floating clouds of flour is a messy business, so it's understandably important to plan enough space for a shoot. "I tend to photograph these projects in a hall, but whatever venue you choose, it needs to be spacious and adequately ventilated," Sascha says.

A groom and five groomsmen of various ages, most wearing sunglasses, walk towards the camera smiling broadly.

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Rather than throw handfuls of flour himself, Sascha relies on assistants or on the individual dancer. "As you might imagine, precise coordination and timing are crucial for a great photo. The quantity of flour and the distance from which it's thrown often determines whether large or small particles are visible and plays an important role in the shape and texture of the clouds.

"When it comes to lighting this type of shoot, I use strobes in 30x180cm gridded strip light softboxes, positioned to the left and right of the model. Lighting the set from above can also produce exciting images. I dial in a mid-level power setting on the lights so that I'll have the option of shooting a sequence of shots at 16fps with my Canon EOS-1D X Mark III."

Hot lamps and clouds of flour dust do not mix well, and Sascha recommends covering the lights and battery packs to protect them. "It is also important that you take a break after about an hour so that the dust can settle and the concentration in the room does not become too great."

A breakdancer captured performing a one-armed handstand, his legs wide apart in the air above him.

"The AF system shared by the EOS-1D X Mark III, EOS R5 and EOS R6 is fast, very intelligent and ideal for shooting moving subjects," says Sascha. He used Face+Tracking with Eye AF activated to capture this shot of a breakdancer frozen in motion. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/125 sec, f/4.5 and ISO200. © Sascha Hüttenhain

Know the routine

Freezing balletic movements with flash is tricky enough, but it's even more difficult to keep the diverse range of moves performed by a street dancer or breakdancer in focus, let alone framing and capturing the perfect moment. Sascha says a good understanding of the "beats" of the routine is crucial for planning out your camera and lighting positions.

"Both ballet dancers and breakdancers move very quickly, so it's important that the dancer walks you through their movements before you take the photo, as that will allow you to adjust the camera and prepare for action. For the breakdance shoot, I knew it would be important to position the camera at quite a low level, as this way the dancer would have a greater presence in the picture than if shot from a higher angle. I also chose a short focal length of 24mm to ensure there was enough room in the frame."

Photographing a breakdancer in full flow requires an autofocus system that can keep up. Sascha says the fast Dual Pixel CMOS AF II system of the Canon EOS R6 was "just right" for this kind of situation. "I set the camera to Servo AF with Face Tracking and Eye AF enabled, and it stayed locked on throughout the routine. It worked brilliantly, even during the fastest movements and turns. The EOS R6's fast continuous shooting speed of up to 20fps was also perfect for the breakdance shoot."

Marcus Hawkins

Sascha Hüttenhain’s kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs


Canon EOS R6

The radical EOS R6 features technology that will have you falling in love with photography all over again, including 20fps silent shooting, up to 8-stop image stabilisation and Dual Pixel CMOS AF II which "stayed locked on even during the fastest movements and turns," Sascha says.



Speedlite 470EX-AI

A powerful Speedlite flash with a unique motorised bounce and swivel head to enable pro quality lighting quickly and easily. Sascha keeps this in his kitbag so it's on hand particularly when he's not working in a full studio setting.

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