Photo of Shira



PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Doing a Successful Belly Dance Photo Session



Table of Contents




After much planning and preparation, you are ready for your appointment with a professional photographer for the photo session. You're excited, and looking forward to an hour or two of posing for the camera, feeling like a model!

This article offers ideas on what to take along, and what to do when you get there.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




What to Take With You

Assuming you're meeting the photographer for the specific purpose of doing the photo session instead of having this person shoot one of your performances, here's what to take with you:

  • Your costume, jewelry, and accessories
  • A cover-up
  • Your make-up kit
  • A mirror
  • Any props you want to use in your photos
  • A pitcher of water and a drinking cup
  • A boombox with operational batteries
  • Music to put you in the dancing mood
  • A friend, preferably a fellow dancer
  • Your list of the poses or movements you chose and how many pictures you want the photographer to take of each

It's probably obvious why I included some of the items in the above list, so let's talk about the things that are perhaps not so obvious.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.


Makeup Kit

Even if you put your make-up on at home ahead of time, take your full kit with you in case you need touch-ups after the session begins. It's common to perspire a bit due to the heat of the photographer's lighting equipment or the activity of posing and dancing for the camera. Bringing your makeup kit to the session will ensure you have the supplies you need to adjust your makeup as needed.




Photography studios often get hot from the lighting. In addition, posing and dancing will work your muscles, and you'll start to feel hot. It's possible to become dehydrated, and if that happens you could become light-headed, headachy, or fatigued.

Keeping water handy to drink between photo sequences will help you avoid these dehydration symptoms. It can also lift your mood to take a drink periodically, and keep your energy up.



You may or may not actually need to use your cover-up at the photo shoot. I always like to take one, just in case I find myself wanting to wear it. I like to put it on when talking with the photographer before or after the shoot. A belly dance costume can be distracting due to its elaborate design and bare skin, and a cover-up helps keep the focus on the conversation.

If you're shooting outdoors somewhere, the weather can be chilly, and you may appreciate having something to wear to help you keep warm. Outdoor shoots often take place in locations where there is no place to change clothes, so a cover-up will help you maintain some decorum as you walk from your car or changing room to the location of the photo session. If you will be doing the session in an environment with shrubbery, trees, and other plants, a cover-up will help protect your costume from snagging on twigs and thorns as you walk past.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.

You may even find you'd like to have the photographer take a photo or two of you wearing the cover-up. I've become quite fond of the photo to the right.




Action shots with flying fringe, bouncing tassels, or whirling skirts look really great for promotional photos, and I've discovered that it's easier to produce exciting action shots if I have mood music to inspire me.

I use music that matches the dance style for each costume or prop. If I'll be posing in a gallabiya with a cane, I bring Saidi music. If I want some scenes with a veil, I bring along the beautiful ballads that I use for those performances. For fun-loving, lively photos, I'll bring happy Egyptian pop music.

I have noticed that if I bring a variety of music styles to my photo sessions, the resulting pictures show me in a variety of moods. The music helps me focus on being "Shira the dancer" rather than "Bertha Biddleboddle the technology professional".

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Jeff Obermann, Corvallis, Oregon.


The Friend

A friend can be very valuable to helping you produce a photo shoot that results in wonderful pictures, especially if she's a fellow belly dancer. Many photographers don't use a stylist (person to help you look your best.) The friend can play that role, giving you helpful comments such as, "Hey, you forgot to take your watch off."

She can help you ensure that your poses are placing you at the optimal angle to the photographer by coaching you on which way to turn. If she has a joyful sense of humor, ask her to spice things up with some jokes or gossip so that you'll smile naturally instead looking like you're baring your teeth in a snarl. Just be sure to tell her in advance what you expect of her. Pick someone with a good eye for detail who will notice those little things.

When I bring a friend, I ask her to look for these things and tell me if they need attention:

  • Necklace or other jewelry off center
  • Tangled fringe
  • Need to refresh lipstick or other makeup
  • Folds of skin creasing in a pose
  • Shift the angle of my body for a more flattering view to the camera
  • Teasing me to make me smile more naturally
  • A wisp of hair sticking out at a weird angle



Doing the Photo Session

Show up on time. You want to think of yourself as a professional dancer, so act like a professional. Punctuality is part of professionalism. Quickly check your make-up in the mirror and touch it up if necessary.


Give Input to the Photographer

Talk to the photographer about any issues with your face or body that you want to consider when planning camera angles. For example, if you have a surgical scar on your midriff you might ask the photographer to choose camera angles that make it less prominent. If your face looks better from one side than the other, tell the photographer which side you want to emphasize.

Remind the photographer of the information you provided in advance about the type of poses you intend and how you plan to use the pictures. Discuss your plan so the photographer knows what to expect from you and can help you budget the available time.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, Califorrnia.



Choosing a Background

If working in a studio, look at the available backgrounds, and choose one that is suitable for your costume and your planned uses for your photos.

Most photography studios are stocked with multiple backgrounds to choose from. It can take some time to switch from one background to another, depending on how the photographer's setup is designed. If the photo session will involve several costume changes, it could be interesting to use a different background for each costume.

If you plan to wear a dark costume, it's better to avoid using a dark background because it will limit the uses you can make of the picture. For example, the photo to the right looks great printed in color on photographic paper, and it also looks fine on my web site. However, this background doesn't work so well for black-and-white reproduction on flyers, in magazines, in newspaper ads, etc. because there isn't much contrast between the costume and the background. If I had it to do over, I would choose a light-colored background for this costume instead of the dark blue.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

A white or light-colored background is an excellent choice if you intend to use the photos in black and white publications, such as the course catalog for your local Parks & Recreation program or a newspaper article.

For your first photo session, choose simple backgrounds. These will be more versatile than more elaborate ones for purposes of how you use the photos.



Still Photos Versus Action Sequences

Some photo sessions will consist of doing a series of still poses, snapping pictures of each. Other photo sessions will consist of you dancing briefly, perhaps in 30-60 second bursts of action, while the photographer takes pictures. Either way, the process will typically involve preparing for the group of shots, then taking the photos, then preparing for the next.

In between sequences, take a moment to take a deep breath and reset your focus. It's also important to drink water at this time to avoid dehydration.



As you set up each shot, ask your friend to check your pose and your costume, and help you adjust as appropriate. This is called "styling". Suggestions on what to have the friend look for:

  • For floor poses, arrange your skirt for better effect.
  • Warn you when you need to stretch your torso to eliminate folds in your skin.
  • Adjust your angle to downplay a bit of extra tummy.
  • Adjust a necklace or headpiece that may be off center.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Once your friend is satisfied that you look your best, then the photographer can proceed with taking the pictures. With luck, your friend will make an occasional silly comment that will provoke a natural smile from you just before the photographer snaps the picture.



Don't forget to turn on the mood music for the action shots. The more you feel like a dancer, the more you'll look like one.



Facial Expression

It's a bad idea to stare at the camera and bare your teeth in a fake smile for each and every snapshot. In fact, it's often better not to. Learn to let the music you're playing inspire you to dance, and allow the joy of dancing to carry you through.

Sometimes the more dreamy, meditative shots turn out to be the most effective. Many people envision belly dancing as a beautiful, mysterious dance. A photo that captures that mood is often a better choice for belly dance promotional purposes than one where you are looking directly into the camera. Don't be afraid to experiment.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.

If you brought a variety of music to the photo session with you, different songs should help you bring different moods and facial expressions to your photos.



Working the Session

The photographer will direct you on what to do through the session. This could include telling you to turn the angle of your head or body, change your facial expression, shift to your next pose, etc. At times the photographer may notice things the stylist missed, such as the need to adjust a necklace or brush a strand of hair out of your face.

Some photographers do this kindly and gently, while others may seem bossy or even harsh. Remember that even if the photographer seems to be ordering you around, that person is trying to bring out your best. Don't become defensive or take it personally. Just try to follow instructions and trust the photographer's expertise.

Take an active role in determining how the photo session will flow. Although you should trust the photographer's judgment, this person won't be able to read your mind. If you want additional photos of a particular pose or prop, don't be afraid to mention it.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.

Some suggestions from the photographer might not be appropriate for your goals. For example, many photographers suggest lying on the floor, your hair streaming around you, with a dreamy or come-hither expression. However, photographers don't think in terms of what would be appropriate for a belly dance promotional portfolio. They have their favorite poses that they ask models to do, and this is one that many suggest.

This doesn't make sense for a belly dance portfolio, because this is not something belly dancers do in our performances. It doesn't fit.

Although this pose might be lovely in a boudoir photo session, such a photo on your web site could damage your chances of getting family-oriented gigs such as weddings, renting a church fellowship hall for a hafla, or convincing a local dance studio to let you offer classes for teen-agers. Think of it this way: what kind of "services" would a reclining photo appear to be marketing when people see it on your promotional materials or web site?




Viewing the Proofs

Proofs are low-quality versions of photos whose purpose is to show you a rough draft of the photos resulting from the shoot. You examine these, then choose which to purchase high-quality versions of.

Back in the days of film photography, proofs were inexpensive prints made from the negatives. Today, in the era of digital technology, proofs are typically low-resolution versions of the photos (72 dots per inch), often with the photographer's watermark on them.

Depending on the photographer, you might see your proofs almost immediately, or you may need to wait 1-2 weeks. When you receive them, you can decide which ones to keep. Sometimes you'll discover that the photographer took a few photos with a creative angle — perhaps just your hips, or just your feet. I've found that some of these are perfect for certain types of promotional uses.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Sarah Neighbors, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

At the time you booked your session with the photographer, you probably bought a package that would provide you with 10-20 high-resolution photos as part of the fee. If you want more than that, you will probably need to pay a surcharge to the photographer.

You may want to seek input from another person whose opinion you value, such as a dancer friend or your spouse. I usually make an initial quick pass through the pictures to weed out the ones that are obviously unsuitable, with goofy facial expressions, double chins, or bulging tummy caused by forgetting to elevate my rib cage. Then I go back and examine the remaining ones more carefully, until I can settle on the ones that I like enough to use for finished prints or high-resolution copies.

Some photographers will do editing work on the photos you have selected before providing the final high-resolution versions to you. They may even out your skin tone, make you look slimmer, remove blemishes, remove a stray strand of hair, or make other minor repairs. Other photographers will deliver unedited photos to you, and it will be your own responsibility to make the modifications you want.




Future Photo Sessions

If you can afford it, consider updating and expanding your photo portfolio about once a year or so. Clients are not pleased when they hire you on the basis of a photo that they later discover was taken 10 years and 50 pounds ago. Also, if you advertise regularly or write frequently for the belly dance magazines, you won't want to bore people with using the same old cliché photo every time. You'll also feel reinvigorated by having updated pictures.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.

In follow-up photo sessions, you'll have the freedom to experiment a little because you'll already have a basic portfolio. If your first session focused on full-body shots, maybe you'll want your follow-up session to focus on close-up portraits of your face. Alternatively, you can showcase other costume styles, or try out new poses. Over time, you grow as a dancer, and your newer photos can represent some of your recent ideas with respect to dance, costuming, posing, and make-up.




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