DANCE:  D depth-of-field>aperture A action>shutter_speed N noise>ISO CE compensate_exposure

Remember that vintage mnemonic reminder from film photography days, the one that prompted us to get everything right before pressing the shutter button?  It was spelled FAST and it stood for “Focus, Aperture, Shutter, Think.”  I suppose it was useful in its day, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth -- along with us old guys and our manual everything cameras.  After all, who wants a blurry, out of focus photo?  And way back then we really did have to spin the aperture ring on the lens and twist the shutter speed dial on the camera body to get a proper exposure,no doubt an arachaic ritual to today's young photo-doyens, equipped as they are with computer-driven auto-everything technological marvels.

And, surely the “Think” admonition was there to remind us to do something meaningful when composing our photos (we didn't call them images back then).  Like place the subject according to the rule of thirds or make sure not to chop off Aunt Matilda’s feet.

Lost Opportunity

But I have to admit that that little four letter word never did much for me, then or now.  I just sort of blundered along, making photos any old which way because, well, in retrospect, those four letters aren’t very goal-directed are theyThey were more mechanical than process-oriented when push came to shove, and they didn't really help with photographic decision-making.  Anyway, for whatever reason I have decades of hit-or-miss images, many of which just happened.  Don’t get me wrong.  A lot of them are pretty darned good and I'm pleased with the ones that are.  But then, you know the story -- blind hogs and acorns.  Alas, there’s nothing systematic about how too many of them came to be, unlike the rigorous approach that the FAST acronym promises.

It came to a crisis one day, after a blown golden opportunity to photograph a perched robin up close.  I started thirty feet away, and at f8 there was plenty of depth of field to keep eye and feathers crisp.  As I moved in close I did stop down to f11, but as it turned out, that wasn't enough.  Exacerbating the problem was the fact that the closer I got the steeper the angle to the bird became.  This meant that, close in, the distance from shoulder to eye became significantly different, with adverse (and unaccounted for) effects on DOF.  The result was distant images that were in focus and closeups with either shoulder or eye in focus -- but not both.

Perhaps with a bird as large as a robin, perched above the shooting position, it was an impossible situation, but that should have been a matter of knowledge rather than chance.

Disappointed, I sat down and considered the whole FAST conundrum.  I realized that I had other images from the past with similar problems, and still more that were blurred because of insufficient shutter speed.  And others that were over or underexposed – or over or under flashed.  I realized that as a practicioner of the craft (not art) of photography I was working too FAST, and at the same time without Thinking, at least not systematically.  In this case, fear that the bird would fly at any moment had kept me shooting rather than insuring that I had something worth keeping.  In the days of digital cameras and instant feedback via LCD displays, this was simply inexcusable.

I needed to approach the craft aspect of photograpy with a plan, something I could recall when it mattered the most.


It was a simple thing really.  Just a matter of flipping letters around until something worked.  And what popped out was DANCE.  D stands for Depth of Field.  Pretty basic stuff, but if DOF isn’t right, the photo will be a failure.  Actually, in this context the D for DOF includes both selection of aperture and, indirectly, the placement of or distance to the plane of focus from the old FAST mnemonic.  But it is a lot more meaningful to the final photographic product because it is directed toward the photograph, not merely toward fiddling with settings.

Next, there’s A for Action, as in stopping action (or eliminating camera shake), which means selecting an adequate shutter speed, thus picking up the third letter from FAST.  Once again, we’ve defined a goal with respect to the photograph, not merely described a mechanical act.  Maybe we also help this along with a tripod.  Next, because we now live in the digital age, we have to be concerned with Noise, specifically just how much we’re willing to live with.  That's where the N comes in, a factor we control by setting the ISO value -- yet another goal-directed choice.

Finally, setting aperture and shutter speed isn’t enough with modern automated multi-segmented evaluative exposure metering systems.  Whether one selects aperture priority or shutter priority, or even manual with auto ISO, one is almost certain to encounter situations where exposure compensation (Compensate Exposure, CE) is required.  This is also true when using fill flash; exposure compensation may be needed.  The final CE completes our DANCE mnemonic.  Of course, this doesn't preclude manual exposure, for which an exposure offset from the metered value might still be appropriate.

DANCEing with the. . . Birds

Having a system for setting camera parameters doesn't confer unlimited flexibility in adjusting them.  Once subject matter comes into play camera limitations relative to real world circumstances usually constrains choices.  This is most likely to occur at the exteremes, involving fast action, low light levels, adverse environmental conditions, and the like.

Of course, more expensive cameras tend to have more capabilities.  But there are always limits.  Photographing high speed action in very low light levels with the longest telephoto lenses is likely to stress the capabilities of even the best professional cameras.   And, lenses tend to perform best when stopped down a bit.  In such cases compromises may have to be made -- for example, higher ISO values may have to be set, causing noise levels to rise.  Sports photographers often find themselves in this situation, and they are prime candidates for the best gear top makers have to offer.

Another discipline that brings out the need for compromises is bird photography, my favorite passtime.  Photographing warblers at thirty feet, plus or minus, is fraught with all sorts of peril.  A 600mm lens and, often, a teleconverter are the favored entry fee for this endeavor.  The subject is frequently found in the understory, with consequent low light levels.  As a result, one would like to shoot wide open if possible.  A big if as we shall see, due to DOF considerations.  Fill flash helps liven drab subjects but is not attractive as main light -- black backgrounds can make for a less than satisfying photo.

To further complicate matters, small passerines sometimes perch on small, swaying branches, and in any case they are in constant motion, alert for danger.  The long focal length acts as a subject motion magnifier, which means that one has to keep shutter speed up.  Use of a 2X teleconverter on an f4 lens for smaller or more distant subjects means there isn't much wiggle room between f8 and the region where diffraction starts to set in, i.e. at about f16.  Low light levels and high shutter speeds dictate high ISO settings.  And DOF is often tiny.  With 1200mm of focal length at f8, it's less than four-tenths of an inch for a subject at twenty feet.  So aperture often must be stopped down as well.  One has just run out of flexibility.  Put a fatter bird on the perch and things get very dicey.

All of which means that sometimes and with some subjects one may be forced to compromise.  If so, make sure the eye is in focus -- a lot can be forgiven if that is the case.

Art Stands Apart

There is absolutely nothing new or magic about this.  It isn't rocket science and it won't make anyone a "better photographer" in the way that that phrase usually implies -- i.e. in the artistic or creative sense.  One still has to have knowledge of subject matter, working familiarity with gear, keen instincts, a good eye for detail, a steady hand, astute timing (depending on subject matter) and, most of all, the creative and artistic ability that most people inherently associate with good photography.  The DANCE mnemonic is simply an easy-to-remember, goal-directed way of reminding oneself of the critical initial setup steps involved in producing a technically competent photo.  An operator’s checklist, if you will.  If pilots can use them, why not photographers?  Hopefully, after a while it becomes second nature and it fades into much ado about nothing.

As for the “Think” part, the artist’s eye that enables us to create pleasing compositions and striking images that others admire or find memorable -- well, you’re on your own with that one!

© 2016 Michael W. Masters


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