Photographing a belly dancer

low_light_table1I need to get out more.

I don’t make it a point enough to head downtown for Riverside’s Art Walk, the 1st Thursday of every month.

I tend to pop in only when my students have their work displayed at Back to the Grind.

Thursday evening I got to meet the family of some my students and I was also treated to some very exquisite Belly Dancing by Hadia Habibi.

In my previous life I photographed all sorts of events, indoors, outdoors, some staged others totally impromptu.

On a good day, my photo assignment would give me a good idea or a “mental picture” of what to expect.

Lighting on-the-fly–With little preparation, all I could do was put my Canon 580EX with radio receiver, set it to 1/32th power, keep my fingers crossed that Hadia would be dancing in the general area.

Over time, this “mental picture” will help most photojournalists decide how much equipment, especially lighting, to bring.

I tend to bring more gear than I need because I prefer not to make multiple trips back and forth from the car.

My other reason is safety.


Dragging the shutter–With the long exposure times I was shooting 1/5 sec @f5 ISO 400, I spun the camera a little to create those streaks so to get something different. When you can’t move around very much to get a variety of pictures, you have to resort to this gimicks.

Digging in your trunk over extended periods when you’re  a photographer is not prudent.

Onlookers and opportunistic thieves in certain neighborhoods are always on the lookout for your goodies.

Outdoor events, especially those in the early mornings or evenings are a lot easier because in available light, I can use:

  1. long lenses and wide open apertures to isolate my subjects
  2. when possible, I can take advantage of the directional light and position myself so that my subject is backlit or sidelit by changing viewpoint.

One thing I can never take for granted is that just because I have a camera I’m transparent and I have the right to obstruct the view of others.

Indoor events  almost always require some sort of supplemental lighting especially when the subject is going to be in motion such as lovely Hadia.

Most of the time, all I can do is improvise and adapt, light the scene on-the-fly.

Those of you who are curious about what the interior of Back to the Grind coffeehouse, scroll down to the image and pan around the virtual reality image.

The Challenges

  1. mostly tungsten lighting
  2. low light
  3. crowded dance floor
  4. limited ability to move around.


My gear

  • Canon 40D with 17-35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, 50 mm lens.
  • 2 Canon speedlights: Canon 580EX, Canon 430 EX speedlites
  • and my radio slaves: 1 Cybersync transmitter and 2 receivers

behind-the-scene_GrindFortunately for me, I had 2 cracks at this.

I had literally minutes before I realized the belly dancing was to begin.

That was just enough time to stick my Canon 580 EX wired to my Cybersync receiver on a nearby table.

The trouble is with the flash placed on the very low table, the light only lit her belly even with it pointing upwards–not flattering at all.

It was better than just shooting totally available light ISO 800 1/60 @ f2.8.

When I learned Hadia was planning an encore, I quickly moved the light from the table onto a book shelf that was against the wall, pulled out my 430 EX attached it to a second receiver so I could hold it in my left hand when shooting.

This second session gave me a fighting chance.

Both strobes were set on manual. The one of the bookshelf was set to 1/32th power, the one that I handheld was set to 1/64th.

[svgallery name=”bellydancer”]

Here’s the thinking of why I set the power of the remote flash on the bookshelf on 1/32th power:

I wanted “bookshelf strobe” to put out 1 stop more than my “hand-held strobe” so I would always get a hairlight or backlight.

If I needed to adjust the ratio of light on Hadia, I could easily move the “handheld strobe” closer or further from her. (This part just comes with guess work & experience –how much to move it back for 1 f-stop difference)

And if I still needed to tweak some more, I could manually dial down the “handheld strobe” to 1/128th power.

Once I picked out a spot to stand where I wouldn’t block too many people’s view, I could totally concentrate on focusing and shooting.

That obvious spot to stand is in front of a support beam/post where I wouldn’t be blocking anyone.

Next time:

I must remember to bring my gels to convert the color temperature of my strobes to match the predominantly tungsten lights.

This means by slapping these gels on the flash, I’ll effectively reduce the color temperature from 5500K (flash or daylight) to 3000K (Tungsten or incandescent lights).

Hadia, your dancing is mesmerizing.

9 thoughts on “Photographing a belly dancer”

  1. Hello Samantha,
    Thanks for reading my post and taking the time to comment. I’m sure you can find a great belly dance teacher. They seem to be everywhere, now that I’m aware of how popular it is.

  2. Hello Clare,
    I’m so sorry I didn’t respond for so long. I guess I only saw your comment recently. You are very kind in pointing out that it was a collaboration between Hadia and me. She is such a lovely lady. She makes it easy.

  3. Hello Peter

    Thank you very much for stopping by my blog and for your thoughtful comment. I really love the slideshow set to music! Hadia looks wonderful and your photos have an immediacy about them that makes me feel like I was there (I should have been so lucky).
    One of the reasons I was so impressed by your studio shots of her was that the collaborative nature of your approach really shows. The end results are beautiful.

    All the best


  4. Don’t worry about leaving a comment. I like your blog and I visit it from time to time, because you share with us useful information and awesome photos.
    Take care and keep going with the good work.

  5. Stefan,
    Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving your comment. You have quite a body of work. I wanted to leave a comment but since I don’t understand Romanian, I didn’t know where would be appropriate.

  6. Hello Lisa,
    How kind of you to visit my blog and take the time to comment. I never realized how popular this art form has become.

    The thing I enjoyed most about Hadia’s performance was how her intensity was fed by the enthusiasm of the crowd so much so her encore performance was even better and more energetic.

    That made it so much more fun to photograph as well.

    Thanks again for your kind words. I would appreciate any new visitors who are interested in getting better belly dancing pictures.

  7. These photos are wonderful and thanks for the tips. I display many belly dancing photos on my blog and often get asked about the best way to take photos of belly dancers – I shall know where to send them now (I’m very much a point and click photographer myself). I understand the difficulties with photographing dancers because venues usually have poor lighting, tight spaces and the fast movement. Hadia Habibi looks stunning so I’m sure you did her justice.


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