My Circus Photography Workflow


FSU Circus performers, this blog is for you!!

Circus Season is here!!! YAAAAS!!! So I’ve been photographing the FSU Circus for the past 8 years and…whoa…I didn’t actually count that out until just now! Every time I look back at the first year or two (or five) of the shows I photographed I CRINGE. The photos were SO bad haha. BUT…everyone has to start somewhere and I’ve gotten to the place I’m at now with lots of practice. Practice in taking the actual photo (composition), learning what settings are best to use within the camera, and figuring out my Lightroom workflow (I used to use Photoshop when I first started!). ANYWAYS….I take decent photos now that make me happy! There’s SO much that goes into these photos that a lot of people don’t know about so I thought it would be fun to share what goes on behind the scenes!

The first thing I want y’all to know is that one of the main reasons I take all these photos is for the performers. When I was in circus another performer also took photos (Bryant Villasana) of the rehearsals and shows. I LOVED being able to see what my act looked like and it was actually very helpful to see how my team looked (I looked awkward AF in case you were wondering). If I were to just put up photos that I think came out fantastic (the photo not the actual act) then I’d probably only put, like, max 10 photos up per show. The other main reason is that I want the circus itself to have these photos. The circus has been (and still is) a huge part of my life. It has helped a lot over the past soon-to-be decade and this is my way of giving back to them.

In case it hasn’t clicked yet (hahahahahah get it? Clicked. Like taking a photo! Hahaha…okay I’ll stop trying), I want to be able to get photos of EVERYONE performing. That is a hot mess of planning and making sure I get everyone at least once, especially out of a cast of almost 100 people. So far I think I still need to photograph: one bike team, one balancing team, two slack teams, one cloudswing girl, and lord knows how many web girls and dancers. I actually have no idea how many web girls and dancers there are…hmmmm. I would also still like to get better images/different angles of wire, teeter, cradle, and Russian bar.

There’s only a few places that are okay to set up at so I have to get creative with the shots. Challenges are fun! 🙂 I shouldn’t be blocking the audience or stairways. Venturing off of the sidewalk in the tent poses a distraction to the audience and a danger to the riggers, coaches and myself. The “danger” may seem silly, especially to those who are always around the circus, but it’s definitely real. Shit happens.

I take a picture of the show cue before I go into the tent and figure out who I’ve missed and need to photograph. Since I’m down to only a few acts I usually try to get more creative with the acts I’ve already captured by taking more detailed, zoomed in shots. The inside of the tent is dark and the new LEDs aren’t necessarily as bright as the old lights, but they cover more area in each of the rings (I’m pretty sure that’s how Charley explained it to me, so I really hope that explanation is accurate, eek!). My aperture is left on f/2.8 to allow a large amount of light in, but also not to have a too shallow depth of field where only one person is in focus and the others are blurry. There’s a lot of fast moving parts so my shutter speed has to be super fast. I fluctuate between 1/800 – 1/1000. The faster the shutter speed (1/1000) the less light comes through (since it’s going to fast to let light through). The only other thing I touch is my ISO, which I usually get pretty angry at. ISO determines the sensitivity of the camera sensor (the film) which, in turn, affects the exposure of the  photos. I typically want my aperture and shutter speed to not change at all so after those are set I rely heavily on ISO. My ISO is set between 1600-3200. My camera only goes up to 6400 (that’s one setting up from 3200). The higher the ISO the more light I have. However, it also comes with more noise in the picture (noise refers to the grain that appears in the photo). Sacrifices! 3200 is pretty good without a lot of noise, whereas 6400 is guaranteed to have noise (with my camera).

I’ve been TRYING to not take too many transition photos since I delete them anyways, but it’s a habit that ends up giving my nearly 1,500 photos to go through for every show! There’s no way in hell I’m going to post every single picture I take so I have to cull them down. I normally end up with an average around 400 photos that get edited and posted. I’m still working on that part of my workflow. I’m pretty sure there’s an easier way to cull everything, but I haven’t sought it out yet. After I transfer all the photos from my SD card to my external hard drive I import all the photos (one show at a time) to Lightroom to cull and edit and go in show order.

I have a basic circus preset that I use and then tweak it per act and make a new preset for that specific act, which should make the editing time go by faster for future shows. I’ll sync one acts photos to its preset and then I go through and delete/tweak. I love using vignettes, especially on aerial acts so that the performer “pops” in the photos. Other than that I just make sure the image is bright enough and mess with a bit of the contrast and saturation (just a little bit). I bought presets from Colorvale and VSCO (those are the Fuji 160C and the TRI-C+3- presets) and I use the the exposure, clarity/contrast, and vignette presets (those are what’s built into my circus preset) for shows along with the TRI-C+3- if I want to make it black and white. The Fuji 160C preset is what I use for backstage/getting ready shots (i.e. anything not inside the tent).

Once I’m done I export the photos twice. The first set I export to be web sized to go on Facebook and the second set is hi-res to go on what I call my client album site. The client album site is there for the circus to download any images that they want to use for print and for any performer who wants to use them for print. Exporting takes such a loooong time due to the size of the photos. When both sets are done exporting I upload them to their appropriate sites. Then I sit back and watch the Facebook notifications roll through. HAH! That part is always fun for me.

Now, here’s the ONE thing that I really want you to take away from this post. After I’m done photographing, it takes me around 8 HOURS to complete this process, PER SHOW. I work full time at FSU and I’m very lucky and grateful that I am able to get most of my editing done while I’m in my office. I have a good system that I stick to so that I get my real work done first, which is the priority when I’m there (duh). I prefer to edit at my office since I get mega distracted at home. By cats. And my bed. But mostly by cats. Generally, I want to get a show done all in one sitting, so yea…that doesn’t happen at home since I’m really only there from 6/7pm (bed at 10:30…ish) until I leave to go to the gym in the morning at 5:45.

It’s exhausting and most editing days end with my eyes feeling like they’re melting, but I LOVE taking circus photos. The show has changed and grown A TON over the past few years and it keeps getting better and BETTER. I’m still in awe over the new lights. Like, serious awe…THEY LOOK SO AMAZING!!! Anyways…I hope this long-winded post was informative and interesting to all who read through it!

May all your days be circus days!