Today she’s a leading dance photographer constantly stretching for perfection with her beloved H4D-31 and a set of broncolor lights. But to get where she is now Manchester-based Nicola Selby has had to master a number of very unexpected moves that would have had most people giving up completely.
As a youngster Nicola had exceptional talent as a dancer and went to full-time dance college from the age of 16. But it wasn’t long after when Nicola’s life took a turn for the worse. “I had been selected as a dancer in a cabaret team that was going to tour different venues in the north. I completed a performance at the annual Liverpool firemen’s ball….but on the way home it was those same firemen who had to rescue me from a devastating car crash.”
She remembers: “It was absolutely horrendous. All five passengers were knocked unconscious and I went through the windscreen. I landed in a tree. Fortunately I was wearing a big black coat and its hood had protected my face from all the broken glass.”
“But the glass made a real mess of one of my legs and my back and that was really the end of my dancing career.
I did hobble through a couple of shows later but in my heart I knew I had to move on from dancing.”
She went on to study law and got a degree. “I followed that up with a Masters and trained to be a lawyer. But law was just so boring to me that I had to stop.”
I was 26 and jaded. And that’s when I started thinking about photography and travel.”
But again, Nicola’s life was still slinging substantial brickbats her way.
“I got meningitis” she recalls. “While I was in hospital I remember staring at some really beautiful flowers and it was at that point I really thought I would like to become a photographer – and get to work capturing the world’s beauty.
When I came out I saw some terrific images of dancers and then the penny finally dropped. I started asking myself why I hadn’t taken this route before.”
So Nicola scrimped and saved enough money to get on a plane to New York for a two day course with top dance shooter Lois Greenfield – a then 62 year old American photographer famous for her remarkable ability to capture the human form in motion.
Says Nicola: “Lois is a one-off. She totally inspired me. She said the first thing I had to do was stop taking pictures like a dancer. She told me to forget dancing and think photography. She broke it all down for me. I had been anticipating the movement – watching the lyrics of the movement rather than looking at it in frozen time. In summary, I was pressing the shutter at the wrong time. I learnt to dissect movement and not think of it as a piece of choreography. I had to isolate it.”
She adds: “Now I constantly strive to master the art of using the extra breath in a dancer’s movement to make the picture really look and feel like the figure is moving more.
Right down to the fingertips there is an extra surge of energy…and that is what I look to capture. I am looking at the geometry of a pose, the muscle grouping and the shapes I need – and I am trying to eradicate tension spots on the dancers. I look to find the shot that highlights ‘abandonment.’
The fact is studio-based dance photography is a completely different dynamic to that of any typical traditional portrait studio.
Explains Nicola: “We are dealing with dancers who may be expending their energy in our studio for up to four hours at a time. I push them very hard. We have to go through all the Health & Safety procedures – mind the wires etc – and they have to get used to our lights going on and off. The camera is not forgiving. Anything out of alignment will show up – and even if the exposure is correct and the image is technically flawless, the picture will be useless.
I want to get it right first time in the camera and not have to completely rely on post production techniques – and that is what I am doing now with my H4D-31.”
Until about two years ago Nicola was shooting with a DSLR. “But my ambition was always to shoot on Hasselblad medium format and I was planning to buy an old 500CM cheaply and then add a digital back”, she says. “But then I saw that DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) had some grants available. I put up a business case that I was bringing tourism to the area by making both my studio and my dance photography workshops available to clients from all over the world. They turned me down at local level but I was undaunted and took it to the top. I ended up with enough grant funding to buy myself the camera I had always dreamt about: the H4D-31, some broncolor lights and an iMac.”
She adds: “I just love this set-up that I have now. There is no question that medium format capture is superior. People just look at your work differently. It has made a big difference to my overall credibility in this tough marketplace.
The H4D-31 has simply elevated my photography to a new level. I can really tell the difference with my body shots of dancers – and the True Focus feature is nothing less than a godsend.
Nicola was a guest speaker at the recent shootLDN event – and after her talk to almost a hundred delegates she conducted a live shoot with a professional dancer.
Now her work is evolving. “I want to stay with dance but also work at the edge of fashion. Now some of my shoots will include both a model and a professional dancer.”
She adds: “Doors have opened for me now and people are so encouraging. It just feels great to at last have a career where I feel I really do belong.”