All images by the Snap Pilots. Used with permission.
The Snap Pilots are a based out of San Diego, California representing the photography & cinematography based group. Binly, whose stage name is “Lancer” is a photographer and dancer who founded the project with his teammate Jacob with the purpose of exhibiting their vision as dancers and artist to the world. His main work in photography lies in portraits, ranging from dance photography to family portrait sessions. While traveling to compete in dance tournaments, he travels within the city to explore the realms of street photography.
Binly is the quintessential photographer that above all else, puts his creative vision and the subject first despite owning quite a bit of pricey gear.
Phoblographer: What made you get into photography?
Binly: I started photography in late 2011 / early 2012 when I lived in Las Vegas. I was a professional dancer for one of the prime time shows out there. One of my biggest life passions is actually dancing, been doing it for 13 years.
Living as a professional dancer is fun, but because my life as an artist was also how I was making a day to day living, I was dancing everyday on stage, training backstage, and was around so many talented dancers. This was a great thing, but it also left me a lot of free time in my hands after work finished since all my training would be complete and two shows a night would tire me out. I needed another medium of art to try out from the others that I’ve done in the past.
That was when I decided to try my hand at photography. I dived in when I bought my sister’s camera; a Canon 60D. At the time, I didn’t know much. I was shooting in JPEG at first, because I didn’t know how to handle raw files. My main focus was composition, feeling, and subject. I wanted to get a feeling off of the photos I shot, like how I danced. Photography was always subliminally around me. I was always interested in snapping a moment, and making a photo give some sort of impression. But I never took it as an endeavor until 2012.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got started with dance portraits?
Binly: The funny thing is that I tried to avoid dance photography at first. The reason was because I wanted some space from the dance environment and wanted to dive into portraits/street photography. I told myself that if I were to shoot dancers, it would be in a portrait setting. We would have concepts involved and I wanted to control some factors to create a piece. The other thing I avoided was shooting dancers at the dance events I competed in. The main reason for that was because I wanted to focus on dancing and perhaps winning the event ;].
My practice in dance and photography has aided me in being able to shoot dance portraits and events over time. I started feeling passionate about shooting dancers because I knew how expressive they can be through movement. I know how much emotion blasts into the pieces that we create and the moves that we come up with. To capture that moment with stills was a method to capture that energy pouring out from a dancer. I wanted to be able to weave that into the medium of photography. As a dancer, I want to leave a strong feeling; a strong impression that gives the viewer a timeless memory. It was an exciting challenge for me to do the same for the dancers I photographed. I believe all art intertwines with each other, so I told myself that I needed to convey the emotions and energies of other people. From there, I grabbed a few of my talented buddies and we began experimenting, that’s how I started.
Phoblographer: Talk us through a session. Does a dancer usually perform one of their numbers and you just shoot along or is there work done to capture specific poses?
Binly: When I go through a session, I never make a dancer perform a full number. It’ll make them very tired and most of the time really sweaty. Depending on the dancer, I first ask them what are they going for with the shoot? I have to know beforehand what style of dance they will be performing in front of the lens. Because this happens days before the shoot, it helps me visualize the possibilities. When we are in the actual session, I’ll ask them to work a few poses. My approach to these poses though is to ask them to do a small combination before and after their poses. This is what I call the Transition or the Flow of the move. That way, they are comfortable getting into a specific moment. This is where the session gets real fun, because now it becomes a light practice for the dancer and a fun one to shoot. I communicate with them what angle they should face me along with different variations of the move that I feel would look stronger. We talk through out the session to experiment with different actions.
It helps to practice the styles that I photograph. I am mainly a Breaker (Bboy), or what society calls Breakdancing. I’ve done Ballet, Jazz, Funk dancing, and other dances in the past. The physical, mental, and spiritual struggles of dancers is something that is common among many of the passionate. I must be a aware of those struggles so that the dancer can be at their most powerful while I can get the best shot.
The technique I choose to shoot these actions are a combination of anticipating the shot and giving the dancer feedback. The key to getting a solid shot is to tell the dancer to emphasize, exaggerate, and accentuate. A lot of poses become timid in front of the lens, and I make sure that the dancer focuses on feeling big and pushing their bodies to their visual limits, without killing them. It will definitely show in the photos when they nailed that feeling.
I also tell the dancers to never try anything that they can’t repeat many times. One, because it’s dangerous. Two, because if they can’t hit that move multiple times, they have not mastered it and we shouldn’t be shooting it.
Phoblographer: What gear do you use?
Binly: I shoot with a Canon 6D. My lenses are currently all manual: Zeiss 135mm f/2 and a Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 ZE Planar T*. I used to shoot with a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 LII and the older model Sigma 50mm f/1.4 as well, but sold it to save for future investments.
Phoblographer: Your sense of composition is positively impeccable. What do you specifically go for when composing images like these? It can’t be simple with a fast moving subject.
Binly: My approach to composition lies in considering my environment first. I aim to shoot my subjects where visual contrast between them and the background can be achieved. (A tip that you guys also emphasize on your blog as well). I like looking for pathways that lead away or into the frame. This is where I place my subject usually; either to break that patterns or place them at a focus point of the pathway. I also look for places where I can blow out the background so it contrasts with the subject. This way, the viewer acknowledges the dancers for their movement and not just their face. Any opportunity to compose my subject such that distractions are out of the frame will help. I have them practice a few times with a “light” version of their move so I can see where the snap position will be. This will help me focus in that area.
I like to shoot real tight in the frame unless the dancer’s movement was meant to compliment the environment, then I back off and have them blend in but stick out. I like shooting close and real low if I can, especially when the dancer is on the floor. I want to make the viewer feel that they are in the atmosphere of the dancer and embed themselves in that perspective. The hope is to make the viewer feel like they are part of that scene itself. There are times when my lines are not straight when I compose and its simply because I am shooting in the moment with them. The photos are a gateway into their world, so I place my subjects in a way that they are natural, but powerful in presence.
A favorite shot I like to do is getting my subject airborne. I like when they are barely off the floor but still suspended in air, or when they are leaping for the sky. It helps to have folks that are capable to doing these quick leap shots so I always ask them if they are willing.
And just like dancing, timing is everything. You have to get in the groove of timing when it comes to giving feedback, reading their body language, and anticipating the moment. I keep a fast shutter speed and a higher iso if need be. I don’t worry about noise in my photo because I care more about getting their presence to shine.
Phoblographer: How much work is usually done to ensure that you get their best side? Sometimes doing this isn’t always simple.
Binly: There is a good amount of work that is done to make sure I’m shooting at the angles that best reflect a sense of beauty and personality. I ask my subjects to show me the move and I have them do it from different sides. I move around a lot to see where their entire body extends the best and where their faces give more of a welcoming feel. The exception to this is when the face is not as important as the overall pose. Some dancers like to cover their faces to give it a mysterious but enticing feel. This often leads me to going real high, or real low, or at odd angles. We’re constantly moving around but nothing is hurried. That is my key to focusing on the shot. I try to create a calming mood so the dancer can relax and execute their poses without a sense of over-excitement or looking forced. Their faces will look quite funny if they are not in a sense of calm, especially if the moves are physically demanding and fast. I press the shutter when that pinnacle moment presents itself and many times slightly before depending on the speed of the pose. I aim to get them at their fullest extension. I snap at the peak of their pose.
I don’t normally use my camera’s burst rate mode. The 6D’s continuous mode works fine for dance portrait settings but I don’t want to fire away and pray for a good shot. I want to be sure I’m in there right with the dancer to have it present itself. In the post-processing phase, the purpose remains the same. I need to emphasize the subject and the moves they commit to. Anything to highlight the contrast, focus, and presence of the dancer to the background will guide my editing.