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

Belly Dance Promotional Photos:
Working with a Photographer

by Shira




Table of Contents




Here's an introduction to building a portfolio of photographs that you can use to promote yourself as a dancer. It includes:

  • How to choose a photographer
  • Where to hold your photo shoot
  • How to prepare for your photo shoot
  • What to take with you for the session
  • Doing the photo shoot itself
  • Viewing the proofs
  • Future photo sessions

It can be expensive to build a portfolio of promotional photos, but good pictures do enhance your professional image. This article offers ideas on how to ensure you get the most for your money.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.




How to Choose a Photographer

Choosing the right photographer can make a big difference in your satisfaction with your pictures. Many dancers think they can save money by asking a friend or family member to do it. However, if that person doesn't have professional equipment and doesn't understand how to create photos with that professional edge, the results will look amateurish. This in turn can make you look amateurish.

There's more to professional photography than just aiming the camera and clicking the shutter. You need a photographer who:

  • Has a good eye for "composing" the picture.
  • Knows how to use lighting to make your skin and costume colors look vibrant.
  • Knows how to avoid unflattering shadows, and how to avoid making the light too harsh.
  • Arranges you at a pleasing angle against the background, and organize the picture so that your pose and the background work well together.
  • Has experience taking the type of photos you want (close-up portraits versus full body, or action shots versus posed).

The picture to the right, taken by John Rickman at one of my restaurant performances, presents an example of a photographer with a good eye. He snapped the photo at just the right moment to capture the movement of my spin. Beyond that, he also captured the archway behind me, providing an attractive but subtle background.

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


How to Find a Photographer

Let's assume that you do decide to use a professional photographer. The next challenge lies in researching which photographers are available in your community with the appropriate skills to create the types of photos you want. Here are some ways to find photographers in your area:

  • If you know another dancer with great promotional photos, ask her who her photographer was.
  • Sometimes photographers will donate a photo session to a silent auction for a non-profit fundraiser. Typically, what you pay for at the silent auction includes the "sitting" where the photographer shoots the pictures, followed by an additional fee to purchase the photos themselves.
  • Do a web search and take your chances.
  • Some belly dancing events will include a photographer among the vendors. This person usually offers a promotional deal in which he takes 3-4 pictures of you right there at the festival for an affordable price. If you like the resulting pictures, you can follow up with this photographer for a full photo session later.

I have tried all of the above, and I've had favorable results in every case. The key to finding the right person is to ask the right questions.

Do not waste your time (or your money) on the photographers in department stores such as Sears or JC Penney. I also don't recommend the mall chains that claim to do "glamour photos" of you in which a staff makeup artist helps you with your hair and makeup. I've tried both for non-dance photos (portraits of my husband and me), and in both cases the results were so disappointing that I threw away the pictures without ever using them. The problem with these big chains is that they don't pay their staff much money, and consequently the only people they can find willing to work for them are ones with minimal skill and experience. As soon as someone becomes skilled enough to freelance as a photographer or hair stylist, that's what she does.

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


Narrowing the Choices

Let's say you're doing a web search to find a photographer. Often, the number who show up in search results can be overwhelming. Here are some thoughts on how to narrow the list:

  • Look for ads that mention that the photographer does "model portfolios" or "artistic" photos. Those that do "boudoir" photos may have some interesting mood lighting options that could look attractive with veil or floor poses, but might have backgrounds unsuitable for dance.
  • Although I warned above against the chain stores in malls that do "glamour" photos, a freelance photographer with his own studio who does "glamour" photos might be a good choice.
  • Be wary of someone whose ad focuses almost entirely on photojournalism, product photos for manufacturing companies, passport photos, or wedding photos. They may be skilled at what they specialize in, but some of these people work from a formula. As soon as you ask them to do something outside their formula you risk disappointment with the results. Look for someone versatile.
  • Visit the web site to view examples of the photographer's work. Look for a portfolio that includes at least a few pictures with an artistic flair rather than solely the typical posed portraits that are bread-and-butter for weddings and family pictures.
  • Do you find your eye drawn to their sample photos, or do those photos seem ordinary? Are the photos as artistic as you want the ones of yourself to be? Is the lighting flattering to the people in the pictures?

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


What to Ask a Photographer

Once you've picked 4 or 5 photographers who have passed my suggested criteria above, pick up the phone and interview them. There's a wide range of skill out there, and some photographers are easier to work with than others. If you spend a little time asking questions, you'll stand a better chance of finding someone whose artistic vision and business practices are a good match for your needs.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Randolph Lynch, Belmont, California.

Here are some good questions to ask:

  • What are their sitting fees? How many high-resolution photos do you receive included in the fee you pay? What is the price for additional photos?
  • How many years have they been working professionally as photographers?
  • How many years have they been doing model portfolios or glamour photos?
  • What kind of experience do they have in working with the performing arts, particularly with taking pictures of dancers in motion? (If someone has done a portfolio of ballet or jazz dancers in motion, maybe he will be experienced to catch some great action shots of you.)
  • If they don't have experience working with performing arts, what kind of experience do they have in photojournalism or sports photography, particularly with capturing subjects in motion?
  • What kind of guarantees do they put on their work? (For example, one photographer guaranteed that I would find at least a couple of photos I wanted to order from a session, and if I didn't, he would do a follow-up session for free.)
  • What is the photographer's policy about letting you post the pictures he shot on social media, your web site, or a magazine? Some charge extra for this, while others will give you permission free of charge, aslong as you include a photo credit, which means identifying them as the artist who took the picture.
  • Do they own appropriate equipment and have the expertise to do an indoor photo session, or do they push you to do the session outdoors?

Pay attention to the personality. Does the photographer's overall demeanor make you confident s/he will bring out your best? Or will this person make you so uncomfortable that it shows up in your finished photos?


Visiting the Studio

Let's say you narrow the field down to 1 or 2 candidates based on the above telephone interviews. The next step is to visit their studios to examine the environment they will be offering for your photo session.

Caution: although it's rare, sometimes predators pretend to be photographers as a ploy to lure unsuspecting women to their lairs. If you found the photographer via web search and nobody you actually know has worked with him before, it may be wise to do a background check on him, or take a street-smart friend with you to meet him at his studio. Please read Protecting Your Personal Safety on Belly Dance Gigs for ideas on how to keep yourself safe when meeting a photographer you found on the web.

Explore the studio. Is there a suitable spot for you to put your costume on, with a well lit mirror you can use for applying your make-up, or would you need to get dressed and made up at home? Look at the room where the photographer actually shoots the photos, and ask to see the available backgrounds. Some photographers own only one, usually some sort of a solid color. Others offer multiple to choose from, such as dark blue, light gray, etc. Some may offer an option or two a bit fancier, such as the gold foil that one of my favorite photographers has. How would you and the costume you want to use look in front of the available backgrounds? Is there at least one you think would look good?

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by André Elbing, Bärbroich, Germany.

Thank about the style of pictures you want. If you want action shots of you dancing, is the studio large enough to accommodate your dance steps, your flying costume, your veil (if you use one), and the photographer's equipment, or is it too tight? If it's too small, you may still be able to use this photographer, but you might need to go somewhere else to shoot the photos. Ask about it, and ask whether you'd need to pay an extra fee for doing the shoot elsewhere.


Photographer Fee Structures

Pick up a copy of the photographer's rate sheet, and make sure you understand what the costs mean. These are questions to research:

  • If you want the session to occur somewhere other than the photographer's studio, there may be a surcharge to cover the travel and hassle of lugging equipment around.
  • Does the base fee include both the sitting and a certain number of high-resolution photos? If so, how many photos?
  • How much does each additional photo cost if you want more than the number included in the base fee?
  • Does the photographer edit the photos for you before delivering the final images? Does the photographer remove skin blemishes, make you seem a bit thinner, or otherwise tidy up the details? If so, is there an extra fee for this or is it included in the basic price?
  • Does the photographer expect to retain intellectual property rights over the images, or will s/he consider a work-for-hire contract? How do the fees differ between these two models?
  • Does the photographer expect you to sign a model release that authorizes him/her to sell photos of you without obtaining your approval first? If so, is this acceptable to you, to lose control of your image in this way? If you demand a contract that prevents the photographer from doing this, does it change the fee structure?
  • Are there any extra fees connected with using the photos in your promotional materials, such as your business cards, social media profiles, promotional posters, and web site? What if you are invited to submit a photo of yourself to be included in a book or a magazine article — will the photographer expect you to pay a fee for the right to use the photo in that way?

If you don't understand the pricing, ask questions. If you have a particular requirement in mind such as business cards with your photo on them, ask about that requirement.

Once you've found someone that seems right, go ahead and make your appointment!

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


My First Professional Photo Session

The picture to the right was taken in my very first dance photo session and is still the one that my husband carries around in his wallet many years later.

I chose this photographer, Bill Corwin, because his wife Phyllis was a fellow belly dancer and one of my classmates. Bill was planning to try his hand in business as a professional photographer, and had set up a studio in the garage of his home. Because he was up-and-coming, he offered his wife's dance colleagues low introductory rates on photo sessions. For my photo session, his wife Phyllis provided coaching to me on which poses looked good and when I needed to adjust slightly, such as straightening my rib cage. Phyllis' role is known in the trade as "styling", and it's valuable to have someone assisting in this way.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Bill Corwin, San Jose, California.

For this photo session, every image consisted of a still pose. There was no dancing, just posing. Although I received some quality photos from the experience, I have since found that I prefer photo sessions in which I put music on the sound system and dance to it.




Can the Photographer Do What You Need?

Not all photographers can provide what you are looking for. An indoor photo session in a studio requires entirely knowledge of lighting from an outdoor photo session.

Many photographers do solely outdoor photo shoots. This eliminates the need for them to invest in lighting equipment, backgrounds, instruction in using it all, and rental of the studio premises. If you want an outdoor shoot, then such a photographer may be perfect for you because that person is likely to have a large amount of experience in choosing outdoor lighting conditions that will lead to quality photographs.

For indoor sessions, the flash built into a camera rarely provides sufficient lighting of the kind required to produce professional photos. This type of flash can create unflattering shadows on your face, and there is a risk of red-eye effect. This is why photographers shooting indoors will typically use the large reflective umbrellas (for photo sessions in studios) or external flash mounted on a pedestal (for shooting on location such as the restaurant where you dance).

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

If you want the photographer to take photos of a dance performance, it's important to check on whether the person you're considering has experience working with subjects in motion. For best results, you'll want somebody who can anticipate your movement and catch you at just the right moment. A photographer who shoots primarily weddings and family portraits might not possess the skill to capture the movement of dance, whereas a photojournalist or sports photographer may prove to be a better fit.

Ask to see examples of the photographer's work in situations resembling the environment you want to be photographed in. If you want to do posed studio photos, look at what the photographer can offer for that. If you want the photographer to come to the restaurant and take photos of you performing, ask to see motion shots.

Sometimes, when interviewing photographers, I found that some would try to talk me into doing something different from what I actually wanted. That was a red flag to me. To me, it meant the person possibly didn't actually have experience doing what I wanted, but was hesitating to admit it. For example, if I say I want to do photos in a studio with a professional background, and the photographer tries to talking me into doing an outdoor session, I wonder whether the photographer possesses the necessary skills and equipment to do the kind of shoot I'm looking for.




The Photographer's Contract

Read the photographer's contract carefully before you sign anything. You might discover that the contract awards powers to the photographer that you don't want him/her to have. If there is anything you're unsure about, I urge you to hire a lawyer to review it and explain it to you.

A useful way to think about potential contracts is to ask yourself, "If I agree to this paragraph, what is the worst thing that can go wrong?" As you ask yourself this, don't assume that every photographer is honorable. Sociopaths do exist, and sometimes they become photographers. To protect yourself, make sure you don't enter into any contractual terms that could be used to harm you or your reputation.


The Model Release

Consider, for example, this text in the box to the right that appeared on the contract I received from the official photographer for a large, well-known belly dance event.

Let's look at this more closely. That contract language would allow the photographer the legal right to:

  • Distort photos of me any way he sees fit. He could put a large pimple on my nose, distort the shape of my body, place my head on a naked body performing a sex act, or any other modification he wants to make.
  • Display photos of me at his studio, on the official web site for the belly dance event where he photographed me, or on his own web site. Even if the photo has been distorted, he could label it with my name, making it show up in web searches when people are searching for me.
  • He could sell that photo to anybody he wants to sell it to. For example, he could crop it to being just a torso shot and sell it to a chain of car dealerships for use in their ads, and he wouldn't have to pay my anything for this use of my photo. Or, he could sell it to a publication whose agenda is entirely opposite to my own personal belief system, making it look as though I am supporting a cause I find absolutely despicable.

Whenever I am confronted with this or any other contract language I find unacceptable, I negotiate. If this is handed to me at a dance event, I'll use a pen to cross out the offending language and put my initials next to it along with a comment saying, "I do not agree to this."

One photographer initially hesitated to comply when I said i wanted to delete similar language from our contract. I insisted, saying that the language as written would give her free rein to do whatever she wanted with my image (as I described above), and I had a problem with that. She was shocked, and said she would never sell her clients' images to advertisers or make distorted versions. I smiled brightly and asked, "If you would never do it, then why does your contract contain language giving you the power to do it?" She saw my point, and we removed the paragraph.

So, would I sign a model release? The short answer: It depends. The longer answer:

  • I would NOT if I were paying the photographer for the photographs.
  • I WOULD if the photographer were paying me an appropriate modeling fee consistent with the going rate for modeling.
  • I would CONSIDER it if we were doing a barter. An example of such a barter might be an exchange known in the industry as time-for-prints (TFP).

If I did agree to a model release, I would probably negotiate limitations to what the photographer is allowed to do with it.

I hereby give the photographer, his legal representatives and/or those assigned, those for whom the photographer is acting, and those acting with his permission, or his employees, the right and permission to copyright and/or use, reuse and/or broadcast and republish photographs of me, or in which I may be distorted in character, or form, in conjunction with my own or fictitious name (AKA also known as), on reproductions thereof in color, or black and white made through any media by the photographer at his studio or elsewhere, for any purpose whatsoever, including the use of any printed matter or publication at a website in conjunction here with.

Ownership of the Image

In most photography contracts, the photographer retains all ownership rights to the photos, and the contract provides very specific statements regarding what you are allowed to do with them. For example, a contract might say it's okay to display a photo on your web site, but if you want to use it on printed materials such as business cards or flyers, you may need to pay an additional fee for that. The details will vary from one photographer to another. It's important to read the contract carefully, and ask questions if there is something you need clarified. Sometimes photographers will negotiate on these terms; other times not.

There is such a thing as a photography contract that grants you, the client, full intellectual property ownership of the finished images. This type of contract is known as "work for hire," and usually you'll see this sort of contract utilized for photos of inanimate objects such as those used in product catalogs. You can ask your photographer to consider doing "work for hire", but be aware that some will refuse and you'll need to decide whether you want to use them anyway. Some may agree to it, but charge a higher price.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Carl Sermon, Los Gatos, California.


Time for Prints versus Fee-Based Contracts

In the photography world, one type of barter that is common is known as "time for prints" or TFP. In a TFP arrangement, typically neither the model nor the photographer charges the other any fees for the photo session. The details of such agreements can vary, but in broad terms these would be common:

  • The photographer provides the model with copies of photos, perhaps on a photo CD or USB drive. This might include all the photos from the shoot, or some subset, such as 15-20 of them. The photographer also agrees that the model may feature the photos on her business cards, web site, and other promotional materials.
  • The model agrees that the photographer may use the photos for self-promotion, such as display in the studio, on the web site, etc. Sometimes the model will agree to let the photographer sell the photos.

For photographers and dancers just starting their businesses, this low-cost approach can be mutually beneficial. However, as noted above, it is important for the dancer to read the contract carefully to ensure she finds the terms acceptable.




Can the Photographer Provide Related Services?

And if they do, should you use those services?

Some photographers provide only their own personal services. Others offer supporting services. Sometimes these supporting services will cost extra, and other times they are included in the price of the photo session. Examples of supporting services could include:

  • Makeup artist
  • Hair stylist
  • Loan of props you can hold or wear
  • A stylist, which is a person who will keep an eye on you throughout the shoot to make sure your photos won't be ruined by bloopers. A stylist can ensure your necklace is centered, your eye makeup hasn't rubbed off on one side, your skin is not creased as you twist your torso, etc.

You can ask the photographer about availability of such services if you think you might want them. Or, you can choose to make other arrangements if you prefer to handle these things on your own.

For example, if your photographer can provide a makeup artist, you might want to use that person's services. That said, I personally wouldn't want my very first experience with a new-to-me makeup artist to be doing my makeup for a photo session. I gambled on it once, and that person's idea of how to do my makeup led to photos that didn't appeal to me at all. The money I paid for that particular photo shoot ended up being wasted.

Because of that experience, I would either apply my own makeup, or I would use a makeup artist whom I have worked with in the past. If I wanted to try the makeup artist who works with that photographer, I might "audition" the person by hiring her to do a makeover for me a week or two before the photo shoot to see if I like her work. Not only would I get to see whether I like how that person makes me look, but such a makeover might also offer new ideas to incorporate into my normal stage makeup.

Most photographers don't provide stylists, so I'll usually bring a friend to perform that role for me. I'll coach the friend ahead of time in what I want her to watch for. It's ideal to choose an experienced dancer for that role. However, in the cases where the photographer does provide one, I've had positive experiences working with that person.

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




Closing Thoughts

Over the years, I have worked with many photographers to shoot dance photos for me. Some were just launching their photography careers, while others were highly-experienced long-time professionals.

For my belly dance photo sessions, I always ended up satisfied. Admittedly, some photographers took better photos than others, and some took longer to get my photos to me than I would have liked. But even in the frustrating situations, the photographers were always decent people who meant well, and in the end, they treated me honorably.

Although I have warned about what can go wrong, it's reasonable to expect that you will have a positive experience. Just do your research before picking someone, and make the effort to ensure that you are comfortable with the contract before signing it.

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




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