Low light, high energy: capturing the energy of dancers with the Canon EOS R

Photographing dancers in low light with the Canon EOS R: A woman in white dances.
Former Canon Ambassador Carolina Arantes used the Canon EOS R to capture the spirit of a swing dance in Paris, freezing action and retaining vibrant colours at speed and in variable lighting conditions. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/3.2 and ISO6400. © Carolina Arantes

Given her penchant for shooting with available light, French-Brazilian photojournalist Carolina Arantes is adept at working in challenging lighting conditions. So she knew exactly how to test out the Canon EOS R, acclaimed for its exceptional low-light performance. To put the full-frame mirrorless camera through its paces, the Paris-based former Canon Ambassador took it to photograph the swing dance scene in Paris, where people from all walks of life come together to dance.

Carolina always chooses to use Canon cameras and lenses "because they guarantee quality, even in low light," she says, and she had photographed swing dancers before with her Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

"I became interested in swing dance after going to a dance workshop with a friend," Carolina explains. She was drawn to the energy, passion and intimacy of this popular pastime, and her aim was to tap into swing's spirit. There is something very cinematic about the subject matter, she adds, and the picture-making opportunities that the swing dance scene affords are irresistible. "Swing dancing is the perfect subject because it's mostly done in very low light and there is so much movement all the time."

A male dancer dips his female dance partner.
The making of this image of a dancer leaning his partner back over his leg illustrates just how great the Canon EOS R's focusing is, says Carolina. "The couple was dancing in front of me. Having the ability to control the focusing through the screen allowed me to follow the path of my subject. The woman was holding her partner tight and I had my focus on her arm [as the couple moved.]" Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/2.0 and ISO6400. © Carolina Arantes
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Swing dance, which encompasses a variety of partner-based dances such as Lindy hop and boogie-woogie, originated in 1920s America, but it has also long been popular in France. The modern-day French swing dance scene is thriving, says Carolina, who knows of clubs, courses and dances in Montpellier and Provence as well as Paris.

"It's a difficult dance to learn – you have to really get involved and dedicate time to learning the steps – but it's amazing how many people participate." People come for the sense of community, Carolina says, and others use the sessions to keep fit. Some dancers dress in casual clothes, but many others enter into the spirit by dressing in 1930s style.

Keen to capture the diversity of the scene, Carolina sought out a variety of places to shoot in. Among them was Chalet du Lac in the park Bois de Vincennes, a popular Paris events venue where she attended a dance organised by specialist dance school Shake That Swing. There was also Bal de la Marine, a floating restaurant on the Seine, and La Bellevilloise cultural centre, where she photographed a dance put on by another dance school, Brotherswing. Other dances included one at Esplanade Pierre Vidal-Naquet, an open-air venue on the Left Bank between the Seine and the green space of Jardins Grands Moulins Abbé Pierre.

A couple stand close together by a bar, looking in.
Carolina says this image of a young couple was an excellent example of an occasion when the camera really performed. "I love the cosiness and sweetness of this couple. In the low light we see their heads and his arm as he holds her tight. You have to have a fast camera and lens to be able to see those things." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/1.8 and ISO6400. © Carolina Arantes

"The music is amazing. It's jazz, which I like, so I wanted to start dancing as well!" she says. "I was trying to show the fun, romance and closeness between dancing partners. There is a kind of connection that happens. There are moments where a couple are laughing or bright-eyed – that's what I was after."

To achieve the shots she wanted, it was a case of getting close enough to the dancers but not getting in their way. "Being there as a photographer was sometimes hard because I wanted to be close to the dancers but they use a lot of space to dance," Carolina says. "As they dance, they are very focused, and if you're in the middle when they're making turns it can be difficult."

Chasing shadows and highlights with the Canon EOS R

Carolina used the Canon EOS R mainly with the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens, and she was blown away by the camera's low-light performance. She didn't have to use very high ISOs – ISO6400 was more than adequate, "although the camera goes much higher without too much noise," she observes.

A woman in white is twirled by her dance partner.
"I was trying to show the fun, romance and closeness between dancing partners," says Carolina. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.4 and ISO6400. © Carolina Arantes
A close-up of a woman’s back, her skin glistening with perspiration.
Carolina got in close and used the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM at a 50mm focal length to take this detailed shot. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/2.5 and ISO3200. © Carolina Arantes
A miner wears a head torch.

Testing the Canon EOS R to its low-light limits

Photojournalist Daniel Etter photographed dark, archaic conditions in Romanian coal mines using the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R system.

The superior dynamic range of the EOS R's 30MP sensor meant that Carolina was always able to capture all the detail she wanted in both the shadows and highlights. "I love shooting in low light or at night because to me the shadows are as important," she says. "But without information, the shadows are not interesting. There has to be some information [in the shadows] for a soft transition between the light areas and shadows.

"I try not to bracket too much," she adds. "I bracketed one or two stops to keep the information." For this, she says, the RF lens's innovative control ring came in handy. This customisable control can be used to adjust aperture, shutter speed, ISO or exposure compensation. "It's amazing for bracketing."

Shooting with a fixed lens was a new experience, says Carolina, whose go-to lens is a 24-70mm zoom, but she praised the capabilities of the RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens. "What I liked about the lens is that it gives a classic point of view," she says, adding that it comes close to the way the human eye sees. "It's an amazing lens."

She also appreciated being able to exploit the lens's large aperture to throw the background out on occasion and thus focus attention on details or gestures. "I like to help the viewer to concentrate on observing something and to be intrigued by the details," she explains. Life moves so quickly these days, she says, that she likes to freeze a moment or "help the viewer see something that's not seen everyday."

Legs are seen dancing; a woman dancing in a shaft of daylight.
The Canon EOS R's full-frame 30.3 Megapixel Dual Pixel CMOS AF sensor focused on Carolina's quick-moving subjects well. "You know the camera will take care of [the focusing], so you can concentrate on the subject and the composition – on being creative," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/4.0 and ISO800. © Carolina Arantes

Especially impressive was the Canon EOS R's ability to keep up with moving subjects and capture them quickly and accurately, says Carolina, thanks to Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus. "With swing dancing, you're trying to focus on people who are constantly moving fast and doing turns. Normally it's difficult, and until now it would take too long to focus in low light.

"To freeze moments – a smile for example – in this environment is very difficult," she says. "But with this system you can. The focusing is just perfect. It's super fast and pin-sharp. In the low light it was amazing.

"Suddenly you have all the possibilities to shoot in the moment. You have freedom. You can rely on the camera to respond quickly when you're focusing, so you can concentrate on the subject and the composition – on being creative."

People dance in a line, holding hands in pairs.
"I wanted to be close to the dancers but they use a lot of space to dance," Carolina says. "As they dance, they are very focused, and if you're in the middle when they're making turns it can be difficult." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/4.5 and ISO6400. © Carolina Arantes

Carolina also found that the Canon EOS R's 5,655 selectable autofocus points, covering almost all areas (88% of the screen horizontally and 100% vertically), gave her even more control over focusing than she was used to and made it easier to track fast-moving subjects. Selecting the AF points using the touchscreen also benefitted her on this shoot. "Being able to select the AF positions on the screen really helped when people were dancing because I could kind of dance with them and follow the path of my subjects," Carolina says.

The Canon EOS R is a camera that "allows you to really immerse yourself in the subject," she continues. "It is customisable, so you can alter many of the functions. The buttons are very intuitive, and you don't have to take your eyes off what you're photographing to make adjustments. You can make the ISO higher or lower without taking your eyes off the screen or the EVF, which is fantastic."

The swing dance project is different from her usual social documentary work in that it is a story about texture and light, says Carolina. Ultimately, whether it was the swish of a skirt or the highlights on a dancer's legs, the camera got it, she says. From close-ups to images that capture the mood of a scene and the group dynamic, the EOS R delivered.

Couples in black and white hold each other as they dance.
"The white balance is fantastic and the colours in general are very nice," from the Canon EOS R, says Carolina. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM F1.2L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Carolina Arantes
Outside, towers are seen in the background as people dance in front of them.
Carolina captured the 'joie de vivre' of the Paris swing dance scene in her atmospheric crowd and contextual shots as well as her shots of couples. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/7.1 and ISO6400. © Carolina Arantes

Most of all this is a system that gives photographers freedom to shoot how they want, she says. "It is a camera that really has all the qualities for shooting inside or outside, in low light or bright light, with fast movement. In the EOS R you have a camera you can trust.

"It is a new system of shooting," she adds. "That's what the EOS R is about. It's not only a full-frame mirrorless camera, it is a different way of thinking about how you take pictures."

Since Carolina worked with the EOS R on this shoot, firmware updates have added additional features that could benefit photographers capturing dancers in action. These include eye-detection AF that supports Servo AF, to help ensure that subjects’ eyes are clearly in focus even when they’re moving; the ability to use a small AF frame size that supports Servo AF; and the ability to use continuous shooting mode even when you've chosen to use a silent shutter.

Kirjoittaja Gemma Padley

Carolina Arantes's kitbag

Key kit for photographing dancers in low light

Photographer Carolina Arantes looks at her Canon camera.


Canon EOS R

Full-frame mirrorless camera that opens up new creative opportunities for photographers and filmmakers. "It allows you to really immerse yourself in the subject," says Carolina. "In the EOS R you have a camera you can trust."


Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

Setting new standards of optical quality and speed, this 50mm f/1.2 prime lens offers supreme sharpness, plus remarkable low-light performance. "The 50mm gives a classic point of view," says Carolina. "It's an amazing lens."

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