New York based fitness photographer Kevin Richardson calls his niche dance and movement photography. With meticulous precision he catches professional dancers mid-air, mid-pose, seemingly defying gravity. We asked him how, and why, he does it.
During the past couple of years Kevin Richardson has been hauling his Profoto D1’s and Profoto B1’s around the streets of New York. This ongoing venture is part of an imagery that goes under the name Dance As Art: the New York City Photography Project, a hundred some photos depicting professional dancers striking poses, not seldom in the middle of a leap.
“I had this grand idea of creating images of dancers as these gravity defying, agile and powerful beings, and New York City in the background as secondary character.”
Being an athlete himself, Kevin’s fitness photography career derives from his exploration and understanding of the mechanics behind the human body. Eventually he became more and more interested in dance.
“I started working with dancers at my home studio. I wanted to understand their movement, their technique, and most importantly their timing. How and when to shoot them, what angles captured them best, and how to time my shots so I could capture photos that give a glimpse into those split seconds that are lost to the naked eye.”
This he did for months on end and, as he puts it himself, “loving every minute of it”. By the summer of 2014 he felt that he was ready to take his show on the road. Since then he has done a shoot just about every week.
“I have so far done over 150 shoots everywhere from Grand Central to the Brooklyn Bridge and each shoot comes with its own set of challenges – so much so that I very often revisit the same area several times to get the lighting just right.
“I am all about controlling the light as much as possible, so very early on I realized that speedlights wouldn’t work for me and that I needed to use more powerful strobes.”
For his shoots Kevin usually have a three lights setup. Main light in most cases is either a Profoto D1 or a Profoto B1 with a Softbox RFi 5’ Octa , on to which he attaches a Softgrid in order to prevent light spill. Sometimes he let the sun create rim light, but just as often he is using the Magnum Reflector on a Profoto B1.
“Very often the natural lighting conditions are not ideal for the shot I have in mind and with a gelled Magnum Reflector I can make it look like a sunny day on an overcast and rainy morning.”
If he wants a softer light around the subject, to separate it from the background he use a B1 with a Sopftbox RFi 1×4’. He triggers his flash with the Air Remote TTL-C, in many cases using the TTL function to meter the light.
“The hardest part of on-location photography is the fact that everything is happening very fast. In the studio you can take the time to meter everything, with your subject staying in one spot while you control the environment. Whereas if you are lying in the street with cars zooming by and the sun rapidly setting, you have to be able to do everything on the fly and adapt.
“Being able to change the settings with the Air Remote TTL-C on-camera is invaluable. I am often pretty far away from some of the lights while shooting and the ability to change the settings with a few presses of a button is always welcome.
“When I do studio it’s just so much easier. I think everyone should venture out of their studios from time to time to do on-location shoots as it really helps you grow as a photographer and in your understanding of light.”
Above described setup was the one Kevin used when he shot his favorite image.
“Coney Island is where I first started shooting, it was the first place I visited when I came to America, from my native island of Trinidad and Tobago, and I have a lot of memories there. For this shot I had gone out with one of dancers, Aly McKenzie, and we shot a slew of photos that just didn’t work. Aly was amazing as always, but it was windy, the lighting was just awful and to make matters worse, we were constantly being bitten by swarms of sandflies!
“Anyway, we were about to call it a day when all of sudden there was an amazing sunset and my assistant and I scrambled to set everything back up and we got this beautiful photograph. It took a lot to get it but it was totally worth it!”
The B1, with Magnum Reflector, was gelled with a ½ CTO gel. The final image was shot with a 5D Mark III with a 16-35mm f4 L lens zoomed to a focal length of 23 mm at 1/125th of a second and ISO 400.
When asked what the Dance As Art project means to him, Kevin explains that it is not only an artistic expression:
“It stands as a reminder that art and artists are very much the backbone of what makes New York City one of the capitals of the world, and the work is a call for all of us to support and acknowledge the importance of the arts.”
“It is also a bit of a street show, bringing dance back to the people. The Dance As Art shoots can be very much of a production, drawing crowds, sometimes in the hundreds, and it give many a chance to see some truly talented dancers.”
When asked about the challenges that come with his very particular on-location shoots he simply declares that you really need to understanding the dancer’s movement.
“You can look up charts that can tell you how to freeze movement, but it won’t tell you when to press the shutter or at what will create a masterful photograph. That you learn from years of working with dancers and being able to really understand what it is that they are trying to convey.”
“Most people would look at a photograph and see an absolutely amazing shot, beautifully composed and well lit, but as a dance photographer I have to go further since my job is to present the dancers at their very best. And that means that I have to be as critical of every little detail in their movement as they are. So if one tiny detail is not spot on, as great as the shot may be from a photography stand point, you have to keep going until you get everything just right.”