Swing Photographers: Jason Swihart

Photography and dance are both visual mediums of expression, and a great photograph of dancing can reinforce the spirit of both. As part of a series here at Swungover, we’re interviewing several of the great modern swing photographers and showing a gallery of each of their work.

The third photographer we want to highlight is Jason Swihart. Whereas the other photographers we’ve highlighted are professional in some respect, Jason classifies himself as a hobbyist. But when you read his interview and see his photographs, we think you will agree they are the sign of a very talented photographer. Make sure you see his gallery post here.

What aspects of the swing scene or swing dancing do you like to photograph the most?
I’m really pleased when I get a shot that tells a story about a moment of dance or which lets the viewer in on the essence of an experience. Sometimes that’s a big aerial or a group of dancers mugging for a shot, but more often it’s an intimate moment–a look between two dancers or an expression of private concentration. As a Balboa dancer, I think I’m inclined to look for subtleties in swing dance and that inclination extends to my photography.

Do you have an example of that subtlety you enjoy capturing in a picture?
There’s a photo I took in 2007 of Frankie Manning and Tiffiny Shea that makes me proud whenever I look at it. If I could go back and take it again there are a bunch of changes I would make but still: I love how it tells a layered story employing little more than posture and light. And of course, there is no going back, which is why it’s better to take an imperfect photo than none at all.

Who are some of your biggest photographer/artist influences?
There is no one I admire more than architectural photographer Julius Shulman–in no small part because I connect personally with his subject matter. But also because Shulman was a master of finding the scale and composition that would make a building seem personal to the viewer. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but I think he understood that spaces — particularly modernist ones — can be experienced almost graphically and he used that in his photos to give viewers a sense of experience.

I’ve also learned a lot from Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson. From a technical standpoint, Adams’ Zone System for selecting exposure values is a tool I use all the time. We have a lot more options for post-processing now than Adams did, but no amount of Photoshopping can supplant getting the right exposure. Cartier-Bresson, somewhat in contrast to Adams, is the master of capturing the spontaneous. He tells these amazing stories with just a look, or a posture and that’s really what I try to find when I’m shooting dance.

I should add than on no account do I consider my photos comparable to those of these great men, but I look to all three for ideas and inspiration when I’m shooting.

What’s something you’re currently trying to learn how to do with swing photography, or simply photography in general?
I’m really working on two different things right now: First I’m trying to become more sophisticated with shooting under low light conditions and flash photography techniques. Photographing swing dancing is technically challenging because you’re often shooting people moving quickly under low light conditions. That’s a problem because everything you can do to compensate for low light can also have substantial trade-offs. You can throw money at the problem for big gains, but I have a decent toolkit at this time, so I’m more focused at becoming a better low-light technician at this point.

Second, I’m working on on finding a consistent esthetic voice that works for me (which depends partly on getting better in low light conditions). Right now, I take a lot of photos and am satisfied with maybe three percent of them. But of those, there are probably only one or two percent where I can say “that’s what I was going for.” I’d really like to get that latter ratio up closer to five or 10 percent, which means I need to be shooting more purposefully in the first place.

Outside of the swing scene, what do you like to photograph most?
I take photos largely to assist my own memory of events, so much of what I enjoy shooting is simply whatever I’m doing. Often that’s eating, drinking, or traveling, and lately it’s included dancing. But my eye is definitely attracted to particular subjects. I love architecture and design, so buildings, building details, and design objects show up in a lot of my photos. I also love markets and places where people conduct commerce, so I shoot lots of pictures of merchants, piles of products, and the different kinds of people who inhabit market places.

What advice do you have for those beginner photographers who are trying to master the art of taking good pictures of swing dancing/swing dancers?
Three things:

Take a black and white photography class. If you haven’t learned basic black and white photography and darkroom skills, you’re missing a crucial foundation for understanding how to make photos. Even though many of our tools are radically different from those a photographer would have used 100, 50, or even 20 years ago, the concepts and methods we use are rooted in the same fundamentals.

Read your camera’s instruction manual—even a modern point-and-shoot has lots of capabilities and features which you can overlook or misunderstand if you haven’t read the manual. There’s a lot of information in there that will help you get the most out of your camera.

Take lots of photos and find someone knowledgeable to occasionally give you critiques. You have to practice taking photos to get better at it and a second set of eyes will help you work on your weaknesses.

What equipment do you use? What’s your picture editing process?
My main camera is a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi which is a consumer level DSLR from about 2008. I use a variety of lenses depending on the application, but my favorite all-purpose lens right now is a 28mm large aperture Sigma. I also use a Canon 430EX flash.

My secondary camera is my iPhone 4 which takes amazingly good photos and has the profound advantage of always being with me. The downside is that it’s slow and not great in low light, but the best camera is the one you have with you.

Typically, I import my photos into Aperture on my MacBook Pro and then do a very quick sort: I flip through all the photos in a batch and flag any that have potential in terms of lighting, focus, subject, and composition. Then I take a second look at those flagged photos and unflag any which, on closer inspection, aren’t good enough to make public.

Finally, I go through the remaining photos and crop, adjust exposures, change to black and white if needed, correct color, and retouch where necessary using iPhoto’s tools. I prefer naturalistic photography, so I do pretty light digital processing though sometimes a photo needs extra help, in which case I’ll duplicate it and pull it into Photoshop for heavier editing. That’s pretty rare.

After I’m satisfied with the photos in a batch, I give them titles, descriptions, and tags, geo-tag them and then export them to Flickr and/or Facebook using Aperture’s built-in exporters. I don’t delete any photos, no matter how bad. Since my main objective with photography is to aid my own memory of events, I keep everything because even a terrible photo can help you recall a moment.

Who’s one of your favorite swing photographers, and what do you admire about their work?
I really like the first photographer you profiled: Eric Bertrand. He does a great deal with available light, keeps post-processing relatively minimal, and has a talent for capturing interesting moments–qualities I admire and try to achieve with my own photography.

The final photographer we will highlight (for now at least), will be Bobby Bonsey, who not only is a talented photographer, he’s also got an awesome name.

3 responses to “Swing Photographers: Jason Swihart”

  1. Hooray! It’s the return of my favorite segment!

    I really appreciate these posts. As a relatively inexperienced dance photog myself, it’s great to see work from outside my region that I wouldn’t otherwise get to see, and I’ve started following the work of several of those photogs featured. It’s very inspiring.

    Surely, there’s got to be many more dance photographers that you could feature? I’m hoping this series stays alive for many more articles to come…

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