Photographing a belly dancer Part 2

In my previous post “Photographing a belly dancer,” I mentioned how you have to make do when you don’t have control over the lighting and access to the performing/dance area.

I started wondering how much better my images could look, if I had more control, the control freak that I am.

So I got together with Hadia Habibi.

I had her undivided attention this time.

So, in the spirit of experimentation, sharing and fun, here’s our collaborative effort.

Warming up—We worked on some poses using strong side-lighting to accentuate Hadia’s svelte physique and her musculature.


With the shutter open, in a completely darkened room, I want to capture multiple images of the beautiful Hadia dancing as she moves through the field of view of my tripod mounted camera.

Multiple exposures on the same frame—After a few minor glitches with one of my flash units, some trial and error on when to fire the flash, I got the hang of Hadia’s rhythm as she danced to her music. See a diagram of the setup.


I used the same equipment like the last time.

This time though, I added a 3rd flash.

All 3 flash units were on light stands.

I wanted to be sure my background was a solid black so I attached a grey backdrop to the wall.

The camera was on a tripod.

  1. A flashlight to help me focus
  2. 1 Canon Speedlite 580EX II
  3. 1 Canon 550 EX Speedlite
  4. 1 Canon 430 EX Speedlite
  5. 3 Cybersync receivers & 1 transmitter
  6. 3 lightstands
  7. Grey backdrop
  8. 2 HonlPhoto 1/8″ Honeycomb Speed Grid for Shoe Mount Portable Flashes
  9. 17-35 mm zoom lens

The Numbers

Some considerations: battery operated flash units don’t have a lot of power.

To cut down of recycling time so that I can fire the flashes in quick succession, I had to decide on a favorable aperture opening which allows quick flash recycling and decent depth-of-field.

I settled on f5.6, then consulted the owners’ manual for my flash.

On some flash units, there is the ability to zoom the flash head to give you a narrower beam and more focused light.

Since I didn’t want to indiscriminately throw light all over the scene and the background, I attached a grid to 2 of my flash units to focus the light even more.

The 3rd light in the back didn’t always keep up with the fast recycling of the 2 flashes in front.

All 3 of my flashes were  set to a focal length of 105mm.

If you look at the chart above, you’ll see the Guide Number (always given at ISO 100)  is 1/8th power with a zoom of 105 mm is 20.5.

To figure out the distance to place my main flash from Hadia, I divided the flash unit’s Guide Number 20.5 by my intended aperture setting of 5.6.

This gives me a distance of approximately  20.5 ÷ 5.6 = 3.6 feet, say 3 1/2 feet for my main light.

The Low-down

In case I didn’t mention this, the flashlight is to light Hadia so I can “manually focus” on her.

I gave Hadia some idea of her “bounding box.”

This gave her an idea of how many steps she could take left or right and still be in the frame

Except for the glow of her venerable boom box and iPod which provided the ambience and tunes, the lights were all out.

Then on my cue, Hadia started her dance movement

  1. I tripped the shutter
  2. I manually fired all 3 flashes simultaneously by pressing the open flash button on my Cybersync transmitter
  3. I counted about 2 seconds before I fired the flashes again to allow for Hadia to move to a different spot
  4. After 8 seconds, the shutter closed

If she had not physically moved, then she would be “painted twice” at the same location and that would result in an over-exposure of her image at that position.

I could have set the shutter to remain open for longer than 8 seconds since we were in complete darkness and it wasn’t a factor in figuring out the exposure.

The warm-up was useful because it allowed me to fine-tune my light placement to get my exposures down.

[svgallery name=”hadia_posing”]

Next time

If I attempt this again, I’ll have to make sure I use a flash that doesn’t go to sleep to save power.

My older 550EX had this very annoying habit of going to sleep after a certain period of inactivity.

Every time that happened, I had to physically walk over to the light stand, turn it off and on again.

The 3rd light a 430 EX does not support an external power pack so it had trouble keeping up with the needed fast recycling time.

One solution is to move it closer to Hadia, my subject, and cut it’s power ratio further from 1/4th to possibly 1/16th.

And if cutting the power and moving the 430 EX closer didn’t work, I would have to increase the ISO from 100 to 400.

There will be an increase in noise naturally but life is full of compromises, isn’t it?

Also, it would help with my “timing” if I watched Hadia perform the same song a few times.

Next: Photographing a belly dancer Part 3: Turning Up the Heat.

8 thoughts on “Photographing a belly dancer Part 2”

  1. Hello Stephen,
    Thanks for stopping by. I am not familiar with the Canon 270EX but when I did some online research I found that it is not worth buying that flash.

    It doesn’t give you much flexibility at all. Features like turning the head or sensor are important ones if you plan on learning how to light.

    More importantly, the 2 steps of power is very limiting. You’re better off saving for the more versatile 580 EX or even the 430 EX II.

    I think at the minimum you should buy the 430 EX II.

    If that is beyond your budget at this time, you might consider looking through garage sales and see if there are external flashes like Vivitar 285’s available.

    Those flashes will work safely with your Rebel if you don’t mount it on the hotshoe. Some of these units have voltage that are not compatible with your cameras and may damage the camera body, that’s why.

    You should also buy a radio slave so you can move that flash off-camera. Those need not be expensive like Pocket Wizards. Even Cybersyncs by Paul C Buff’s company White Lightning works well.

    Heck even the cheap ones from ebay will serve you better than that dinky on-camera flash on your Rebel XS! Read more about the limitations of on-camera flash.

  2. I really liked your blog “Some off-camera flash tips”, although some of it was over my head. I am starting to do research and get into flash photography so I can do good quality portraits and wedding photos. I have a canon rebel XS and am in the process of researching flashes and wondered if you could give me your opinion on whether the Speedlite 430EX II will best serve my needs for wedding and portraits or would I be able to get away with purchasing the Speedlite 270EX. Eventually when I build up enough skill I would like to charge for my services as a wedding and portrait photogragher, but I don’t want to purchase equipment with features that I will not use. The 270ex seems to be a good all around flash being that you can bounce the head but concerns me that it only has 2 steps for power, verses the 430ex has many. Thank you for your time.

  3. Thank you Bobbie.
    I tried to keep it fun. Having a great belly dancer who’s enthusiastic about her art form like Hadia to collaborate makes it a lot easier.

  4. This is fantastic. You have captured the very essence of artistry,exoticness and dedication of a belly dance artist.

  5. Hello Rosemary,
    Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving such a nice comment. She was a good sport, easy-going and that shows in the pictures.

  6. I always knew my sister was beautiful. But you have done an extraordinary job capturing that beauty. Not to mention capturing the energy and emotion envolved with this cultural art!

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