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

Preparing for Your Belly Dance Professional Photo Session



Table of Contents




Why You Need Professional Photos

Becoming a professional entertainer requires polished marketing materials. When people hire entertainers, they are hiring an image. Professional photos are essential to building that image. Prospective clients will usually want to see what the belly dancer looks like before they make a decision on whether to consider you for a job or not. Photos are generally more compelling than generic artwork or plain text in drawing attention to your business cards or flyers. Workshop sponsors expect their instructors to provide professional photos for use in marketing the workshops. Sharp, high-quality pictures convey a professional attitude that shows you are serious about doing business as a dancer.

Once you have assembled a portfolio of suitable photos, there are many great ways to use them in promotion! Here are some ideas:

  • The restaurant where you perform may post an 8x10 photo of you to advertise your shows, or include your picture as part of their display ads in the newspaper.
  • The adult education program that sponsors your classes might want to include a photo of you in the catalog, or display it in the building where your classes are held.
  • You might want to use a picture of yourself on flyers promoting your classes or performances.
  • Workshop sponsors who have hired you to teach a seminar may ask for a photo of you to promote the workshop and show.
  • If you create a web site to promote your classes and performances, it's nice to have a variety of photos of you on the site to show your versatility as an entertainer.
  • Business cards featuring a photo of you are often more dramatic (but also more expensive) than those with just text or simple artwork.
  • Belly dance magazines that feature articles you have written are often happy to include your photo with the articles.

The trick is to have the right photos of the right quality to promote you successfully. Poor-quality photos may do more harm than good, because they may suggest you don't care enough to invest in building your image.

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




Where to Hold Your Photo Shoot

Before your actual photo session, you and the photographer will need to agree on a place to hold the photo shoot.

I personally think a dancer's very first photo session for professional photos should take place either in the photographer's studio with a mostly plain background or at a gig. I feel that outdoor photos or eye-catching backgrounds are a much lower priority.

  • Studio photos offer a very professional feeling. Photographers often offer multiple options for background. Dramatic backgrounds can lead to exciting photos. Plain backgrounds are ideal when the photo will be used for promotional flyers or business cards.
  • Gig photos show the client what to expect if s/he hires you. Clients can have trouble imagining what a party could look like with a dancer — gig photos show what it could look like! They can capture the excitement of the event.

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


At a Gig

Some photographers charge extra for photo sessions that occur in locations other than their own studios. That's because it's a real nuisance to haul around all the equipment. If you want a photographer to travel some distance, it's important to consider the cost of transportation and the time it takes to get there. But still, your photographer may be willing to consider an alternate location at no extra cost as long as it isn't too far to travel.

Pictures taken at the site of your belly dance gig can stir interest by showing people in the background watching you dance. The photographer can capture action shots as you work your way through your performance. A skilled photographer can capture many exciting still images of your hair, costume, and props in motion.

If you want to hire a photographer to take pictures of you in a belly dance performance, you should talk to the restaurant owner or private party client ahead of time to explain your plan and obtain permission. When the client is paying you to dance, s/he may not be willing to have a photographer distracting audience members from what you are doing.

Live performances are the riskiest environment for purposes of getting the pictures you want because a more highly-skilled photographer is required, one with the ability to produce great pictures in spite of less-than-ideal working conditions. Often, restaurants don't have optimal lighting for such pictures, and the photographer will need to work his way around waiters carrying food and tables of diners. If you do want the photographer to shoot one of your regular belly dance shows, provide him as much descriptive information in advance about the place so he can bring appropriate equipment. If possible, meet him at the place before your show so you can discuss where he should set up, what kind of lighting variations might occur during your show, which types of moves you'd especially like him to capture on film, etc.

If the photographer's skills are sufficient to meet the challenge, you may acquire some wonderful action shots that are superior to what might have been possible in a studio environment. I find that when I have the photographer shoot one of my actual shows, my facial expressions tended to be more natural and joyful as a result of having a live audience to interact with.

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


The Photographer's Studio

Some photographers either have their own studio, or can rent space in someone else's. In that environment, the photographer controls the lighting and the background, and all the equipment lies close at hand. Nearly every photographer can produce excellent pictures when working in his/her own environment, but not all are versatile enough to work effectively in other locations.

A photographer's studio can offer several backgrounds to choose from. Click on any of the photos below to see a larger, more detailed version.

A fairly classic photographer's background consists of a dark color with a bit of varied effect. Photo by John Rickman, San Jose, California. Shira
In this studio, the background is a plain white wall, and the colored effects are achieved through special studio lighting. Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California. Shira
This photo was taken on the same day, in the same studio, as the one above. Once again, the background is actually a plain white color, and the background green color was achieved through special studio lighting effects. Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California. Shira
A white background is particularly effective for photos that will be published in printed documents, such as the course catalog for Parks & Recreation programs, or newspaper articles about your dance projects. Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California. Shira
A solid black background can bring a high amount of drama to a photo, especially if the photographer knows how to use lighting to make you stand out. Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California. Shira
Studios offer opportunities for special effects. In this studio, the background is plain black. Fog machines produce the fog in front of it, then colored lights create effects on the fog. White lights spotlight the person in the photo. Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York. Shira
This photo was taken in exactly the same studio and same photo session as the one immediately above. The different color of background (blue versus orange) was a result of which colored lights were used on the fog. Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York. Shira
Some photographers offer elaborate designs as backgrounds to choose from. Photo by Jeff Obermann, Corvallis, Oregon. Shira


Nature or interesting architecture can provide an attractive background for your pictures. If you shoot outdoors, the best light tends to be about 90 minutes before sunset. Earlier in the day, the direct sunlight can cause harsh, unflattering shadows on your face and body. One way around this problem is to shoot in a wooded area, with the trees filtering the light.

I don't recommend shooting outdoors for your first professional photo session unless you perform primarily outdoors, such as at Renaissance Faires.

I feel it's best to start your portfolio with photos representative of where you normally dance. Clients often have difficulty imagining how you would look performing for their own audience. Photos showing you in your typical environments can help clients envision you performing for their own events. If you never actually perform in the woods, then a photo of you wearing your costume in the woods might look out of place to a client.

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

You might consider whether there is a park or a beach in your area that would work well for your pictures. Ask the photographer whether s/he can recommend an outdoor setting that s/he has used successfully in the past. Remember, if you choose a place that the photographer is already comfortable using, you'll improve your chances of producing pictures that look great.


Shooting outdoors can be a nuisance. Some examples of things that make outdoor work less pleasant:

  • Often, there is not a convenient place nearby to put on your costume and makeup, so you need to take care of that before going to the site.
  • Your dance shoes might not be suitable for walking through the woods to the site where the photo session will take place.
  • The delicate fabric of your costume can catch on branches or thorns along the path.
  • If you hope to take some action shots, the uneven surface of a path may make you feel unsteady.
  • On a hot day, perspiration may start forming on your face and body. On a chilly day, you may feel cold.
  • Wind can interfere with your hair and props.

All of these things have occurred in my own outdoor photo sessions. Although I have enjoyed some beautiful photos as a result of outdoor sessions, I much prefer working indoors. That said, I do dream of someday having a photo session with the pyramids of Egypt in the background!

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




Preparing for Your Photo Shoot

Now that you understand the photographer's pricing, establish a budget. Decide what you are willing to spend for the total experience. Then determine how much you want to spend for the complete package, including number of photos selected, special prints, etc.

I generally recommend the minimum sitting cost for your first session with a particular photographer because you don't have enough experience with this person to know whether he'll create the kind of pictures you want. For example, plan on using just one costume with 30-60 minutes at most of shooting time. If you like this photographer's work after seeing your finished photos, you can always return for an additional photo session in the future.

Determine whether you want close-up portrait shots of your face, or whether you prefer full-body shots of you dancing. My personal preference was to start with full-body shots, because most prospective employers like to see what your figure and your costuming taste are like. I felt I could always have close-ups done of my face in the future.

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

Think about what you will use the pictures for. Do you need something that shows off your face and figure for your business card, something colorful that the restaurant where you dance can post to promote you, or something eye-catching for the cover of the video that you'll soon be selling? Choose your costumes, props, and poses accordingly. In a perfect world, a single photo session will yield an assortment of pictures suitable for all these uses, but aim for your most important goals first. You can always have additional pictures taken later.


Choosing the Costume

Plan what you will wear. Choose a costume that is representative of what you normally wear when you dance. For your first photo session, focus on creating pictures that showcase your primary dance style and provide a realistic view of what an employer could expect if they hire you. Be careful to avoid costumes exposing excessive bare leg or cleavage, because that might lead prospective employers to believe that you're not suitable for the family-oriented show they want to have.

Assuming you own several costumes that fit the above criteria, ask yourself, "Which costume earns me the most compliments when I wear it?" and choose that one. If you've chosen to have close-up portrait shots of your face, pick a costume with wonderful matching earrings, necklace, and headpiece. If instead you've opted for full-body shots, pick a costume that looks especially nice with your figure.

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

Plan the details. Decide which nail polish, shoes, and jewelry you'll wear with the costume you have chosen. If it's a new costume, have you finished acquiring all the accessories that you want to wear with it? If not, hurry up and do so! Make sure it fits you well, and alter it to fit if necessary. If it needs repairs, make them. Details such as missing sequins or earrings that are the wrong color do show up in pictures! For my first photo session, I took assorted sleeves, wristbands, jewelry, and other accessories, and varied which ones I used in different shots. This gave me several different looks without doing complete time-consuming costume changes.


Action Shots or Poses?

I have done both styles of photo shoot, sometimes presenting a series of poses for the photographer to capture, and sometimes dancing to create action shots. Of the two, I far prefer dancing, for several reasons.

  • I find that photos taken when I am dancing are more likely to feature a natural, relaxed, happy facial expression. In still photos, my smile often looks forced.
  • I find that when I'm dancing, my muscle definition looks more appealing, and my energy more vibrant, than in still photos.
  • When dancing, the movement of your costume or hair can create a feeling of excitement in the finished photo.

If you want pictures of you actually dancing, think about which action shots would translate best to still photos. Choose moves that will create motion in your hair and costume. Spins are usually good, and twisting steps work very well when you're wearing fringe. For example, I was doing twisting moves when John Rickman snapped the photo to the right, and I was very happy with the way the motion of the fringe and skirt turned out.

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

If you plan to dance for your photos, prepare a playlist or CD with music that will inspire you. This will help immensely in creating the mood you need to smile naturally and think of dance moves to do for the camera. I prepare different music for different costumes so that each group of photos will capture different moves or body positions. I find this is particularly effective when the session will include some photos of me wearing a folkloric costume.


Some photographers have a knack for catching you in action at exactly the right instant. Others much prefer to work with still poses. It's important to hire a photographer who will be comfortable work with the style of photo session that you prefer.

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

If you will be dancing, it can be helpful to tell the photographer in advance what you plan to do, and which moment you want him to snap the shutter. If you don't tell the photographer what you want, he will do his best to make an educated guess, but the best way to ensure you'll be happy is to talk about your needs ahead of time.


If you want to use some still poses, plan ahead which ones you want to use. When people have family portraits made, photographers are happy to take charge and arrange them into a variety of poses.

However, those very same photographers may feel lost when confronted with shooting a belly dancer. They'll expect you to know what poses you want. If you show up unprepared, you may find yourself unable to think of anything in the moment. Here are some ideas on how to plan your poses:

  1. Watch video of yourself performing, and look for moves and poses that capture your personal dance style and signature moves.
  2. Practice assorted poses in front of a full-length mirror and see which ones look best on you.
  3. Ask your teacher or a dancer friend with an artistic eye to tell you which poses she thinks are most flattering for your particular costume and figure.
  4. Look through web sites of other dancers for ideas. Ask someone to snap a few sample pictures of you in each pose that you're considering, so you can see which ones you like enough to use for the professional sitting.

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

Of the above suggestions, I feel the very best one is #1 because that is the approach that will show who you are as a dancer. If you use poses that you never actually incorporate into your personal dancing, then you may have more trouble relating to those images when you finally receive your finished photos.

Write down a list of the poses you've decided to use to jog your memory later. It's best to have at least 3-4 photos taken of each pose, just in case you blink or have a snarl instead of a smile on some of them.



Consider whether you want to use props in any of your pictures. I like to use props in my photos because they add variation and drama. Which props do you frequently dance with, and what kinds of poses could you do with them? Don't pose with props that you normally wouldn't use in a performance, because it could lead to misunderstandings. ("What do you mean, you don't actually dance with a sword? You had one in the publicity photo you sent me!")

If you have a choice between similar props, think about which will look best with the costume you plan to use. If in doubt, take both.

For example, if you'll be posing in a beige folkloric dress, you could theoretically use either a dark brown cane or a bamboo one. If you will be standing behind the cane, the contrast between the dark brown and the beige dress will show up better in pictures than the lighter-colored bamboo. But if you are balancing the cane on your head against a dark background, then the bamboo one will show up better.

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



Leave room for some flexibility. In the midst of the photo session, either you or the photographer may come up with a great spontaneous idea, and you'll want to adjust your overall photo plans on the fly to make room for it.

For example, when I arrived at John Rickman's studio, I discovered he had a pet snake named Alice, and I became excited when he told me he'd let me hold her in some shots.

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


Discuss with Photographer

Talk to your photographer in advance about what you want. Explain what types of pictures you are looking for, and talk about how you plan to use them.

The more the photographer understands about your needs, the better equipped s/he'll be to create photos that please you. The information you provide in advance could impact which camera, lenses, and lighting s/he chooses to use.

If the photographer knows that you want to do standing and spinning pictures, s/he may configure the studio differently from how it would be set up for portraits of just your face.

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

If the photographer will be shooting one of your live performances, discuss in advance which aspects of your show you want to focus on. For example, if your primary goal is to produce a fabulous shot of you dancing with a sword for the cover of your upcoming sword instructional video, then you might instruct the photographer to ignore your opening number and your veil work, and focus full attention on the sword segment of your performance.




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