Circus News

Circus Photography in a Nutshell with Mark Turner

Circus is an exciting and challenging subject for the camera. While there is no shortage of amateur and professional videographers making circus trailers, teasers and films, the circus photographer is a somewhat more rare beast, mostly stumbled upon in darkened theater aisles and under tent bleachers. What attracts them to the field and what are their challenges and triumphs?

Circus photography is not far off from sports photography in the physical demands it can put on the photographer. Do you have the know-how and equipment to try your hand at this rather robust art form? What qualities and experience level should you look for in a circus photographer? We met with Mark Turner, an Australian based performing arts photographer to answer those questions.  A lead photographer at 2017’s Australian Circus Festival as well as part of the imagery team for the most recent Mullum Circus Festival, Turner’s work with circuses from Europe and the US with both traditional and contemporary circus companies has provided him with unique opportunities. Experienced in dance, music and theatre-based shooting, Turner says circus is where his true photographic passion lies. Just like the circus performers he admires, he is no stranger to risk, and has been known to climb inside the globe of death, and to sidle up to lions to get the shot he wants. He says he is looking for that unique perspective–one might even say a visceral participatory perspective.

We asked Turner to describe his process and share his technique as a circus photographer through a curated set of photos, and he didn’t disappoint:

Do you edit your photos? Can you give an example of a before and after picture and explain what elements you altered?

I definitely do all my own editing. It’s taken a while but I’ve developed an editing style that is representative of how I like to see circus and is somewhat unique. I love black and white shots, the use of negative space and unusual perspectives or viewpoints.

In the photo below, taken at Silver’s Circus in Melbourne, I was happy with the shot but there were elements that weren’t adding to the photo and that were taking my focus away from the performer.

Across the photo, I’ve tweaked contrast, clarity and vibrance to give a punchier picture. Some reduction of noise and a slight vignette get me to a decent point.

I then removed distracting elements like the wire top left, some positional marking tape on the stage and some vague details that shone through from behind the haze.

I think this brings you close to what it was like on the night. As an audience member, tape on the stage or a supporting cable are not your focus. The guy with the unicycles is and I wanted to distill the image down to the performer, the apparatus, the lights, the stage and you, the viewer.

Any tips for capturing fast paced circus action in a photograph?

This is something I’ve actually experimented with changing in the last few weeks. There are several things you can do to maximise your hit rate.

  • A fast lens is your friend. My go to lens (before it died in a wheel of death accident) was a Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 for performance photography. The Canon and Nikon versions are also brilliant. It gives you a decent zoom and a wide aperture all along the focal range of the lens.
  • Shutter speed depends on the act. Adagio and hand balance type acts don’t usually move too quickly and you can shoot at 1/160 – 1/200th of a second. Acts like a Globe of Death, flyers and acro will all benefit from a faster shutter speed. With juggling, experiment with your shutter speed and see if you like the blurred, spinning clubs or ‘the frozen in time’ kind of shot.
  • Get to know the discipline/act. Knowing when something good is going to happen, even if you haven’t seen the act before, can help nailing that keeper.

What is one photo you are extremely proud that you got? What was the most difficult shot you ever got?

I was a very happy boy when this shot (see the Russian swing photo on left) came up during editing. I was proud  as it captures the apex of the swing and all the visual elements work for me; the composition, the negative space, the little bits of extra detail like the two performers at the bottom of shot that don’t leap out at you because of the attention domination of the main performer, but are a cool detail to have. The main thing I was happy about though is the flyer, Wonona Weber, screaming out ‘Next!’ and the anticipation that on the next swing, the enormous energy provided by the Russian swing will help catapult her into a triple before being grabbed by the catcher.

As far as difficult shots go, there have been many of those. Fast paced action and fluid lighting always provide a challenge. I’ve sometimes found it difficult to get the shot when the act is so amazing you can get distracted, or so funny you can’t shoot because you’re giggling so much as in the below shot with Idris Stanton, the Wham Glam Circus Man. 

What are the lighting conditions you prefer? Are there any work arounds for tricky lighting?

For traditional circus, the norm seems to be 4-6 lights on a horizontal truss hanging off each kingpole and some more lights above the stage entrance/curtain. If these lights are movers and can have focussed beams, that in conjunction with some well-applied haze can give you some spectacular results.

A good ring of movers above the circular stage in a Spiegeltent with some well-placed floods around the tent can also yield some great results with a good tech crew driving.

With the abundance of cheaper LED cans being used, sometimes all you can do to get some detail back into a colour drenched shot is to convert the shot to black and white. You can also get some good results with a bit of tweaking of your two white balance settings and adjusting the Adobe profile being applied in Lightroom.Sometimes, a single point of light can be wonderful to work with as you can see with shot of stunning aerialist and hooper, Sarah Morton.

Woman backlit by stage lights

How can a circus artist or company make their own smartphone photos better for social media?

Learning about photographic composition will help improve the quality of your shots. With smartphones you’re not messing about with shutter speeds or setting your aperture so the thing you have control over is composition. Having an understanding of the rule of thirds, negative space, leading lines and contrast will all be of benefit. Google “Photographic composition rules” and you’ll have a hundred sites giving you more detail on these techniques. Also, research what kind of shots are popular and if there is a processing style that seems well received on social media at the moment. Post something that is engaging, different and which will prompt the viewer to have a second look.

Circus artists swings from an aerial device. The camera angle is just below her. She has a big smile.

Do you have any circus portraits that show the character of a performer more than the action?

Yes! One of my favourite shots was backstage with performer Acacia Grant about to go out to perform her hand balance act. Lit only by the spill through the curtain, just before she was to go out, she turned to me and had the most beautific smile on her face with the anticipation of going out to perform.

Another was this very candid shot of Sydney based Publicist, Bruce Pollack being entertained during rehearsal of the Circus 1903 show by Ringmaster/magician David Williamson. And lastly, my favourite clown shot which is of Goldie the Clown. The composition, editing style and expression of Goldie made it work for me.

In an almost empty theater, a popcorn man (the clown of the shows) stands in front of an audience member, who is throwing his head back in laughter at something the popcorn man did.

Do you have examples of both traditional and contemporary circus in your work?

Most definitely. I’ve been extremely lucky to have friends who perform in traditional or contemporary circuses, sometimes both. Both formats are utterly brilliant and I love shooting all circus, regardless of where it is performed.

More important than a single photo I think are the experiences I have had shooting circus. Most of my favourite experiences have been shooting from unusual places. Things like shooting from above the catcher in Weber’s Circus Russian swing act, shooting inside the cage with six lions at Stardust Circus, lying on top of the Hudson’s Circus’ Globe of Death, standing on a Russian swing underneath the board of the flying trapeze or lying underneath a Wheel of Death act at Weber’s have given me not only an amazing (and often butt clenching) experience, but a photographic viewpoint that is unique.

What is the ideal setting for a circus photographer?

Shooting inside a bigtop gives you the biggest opportunity for getting ‘that’ shot. My daughter has recently joined Hudson’s Circus and they’ve spent the last six weeks in my town and I shot a whole bunch of their shows during that time. I even got to shoot from inside their globe of death during a performance and take some 360 video with a camera mounted on the clown car! But I think my most unique shot was harnessed to a king pole about 30 feet up. It was during the flying trapeze act where the catcher is stretching out in anticipation of catching the flyer. Getting the shot from the same height as the catcher made such an amazing difference to the feel of the photo.

What is your go-to camera for circus action?

Currently I shoot with a Nikon D5 and previously with a Nikon D3S. They’re both low light monsters.

Do you have a circus photographer mentor?

Not really in one person. I’ve had many excellent photo mentors and equally as many circus people who are willing to help me learn about circus, so the combination of the two have helped me enormously.

I do have a bunch of circus photographers friends and I’ve had the pleasure of shooting alongside many of them.People like Carnival Cinema’s Hamish McCormick, Brooke Grosse Photography, Wildest Dreams Photography’s Catherine Forbes, John Humphrey’s Photography, Scott Belzner Photography, Mikhail Sozonov, Mathew De Goldi  and Jasmine Straga are people I look up to enormously.

A photographer (with raised camera) and another person stand on a smoke filled stage looking at the lyra perfomer.

What attracts you to circus photography in particular?

The atmosphere of a circus show is unlike anything else. Before photography, my background was in music and theatre. As a photographer, I was drawn towards all performing arts but once circus got its hooks in me, there was no going back.The performers are friendly and open to trying something new in order to get a good shot. Ultimately though, it’s the amazing skill, perseverance and training that goes on to enable human bodies to do things you would think impossible that keeps me coming back.

Plus you get to do stuff like this…

A man is holding on the the circus apparatus called the Wheel of Death. The camera angle is from underneath the device.

Do you prefer to work at a show and really showcase the company, or do you prefer the festival setting with lots of variety?

Both give you great experiences. Working with a show enables you to get up close to the people, understand their acts and get some results that make everyone happy. You also get to make friendships and connections that you grow to treasure.

Recently, I travelled to the Adelaide Fringe Festival and photographed 24 shows over eight days. It was an exhilarating and exhausting experience but one I want to repeat. New friends abound and it’s a great chance to catch up with many old friends as there are so many shows in town.

A backlit elephant puppet with yellow lights behind him

How can a photographer get started in circus photography?

Seek out any local circuses in town. Approach them with your interest and offer watermarked, social media-sized copies of your work in exchange for the opportunity to shoot. Can’t hurt asking for a few comps as well.If you can get a bit of a portfolio together, that will help in getting in to shoot traveling circuses.

It’s basically the same with circus as it is with music or dance or other performance based photography. Be professional. Deliver what you promise. Learn from the opportunities and people you come across and have a lot of fun.

This shot was from my first ever dedicated traditional circus shoot. Thanks Weber’s Circus!

A big top circus tent with blue skies and pretty white clouds

Any tips on negotiating pay or barter?

As with shooting any performing art, opportunities for recompense can be few and far between. It’s taken these nine years shooting circus to get to a point where when I’m talking to a show or performer, I get asked to provide a quote.

A lot of times you’ll get comp tickets or merch in exchange for your services. Good thing I love merch! Never be afraid to charge for your work, but keep in mind a lot of shows run close to the wire financially.

A collection of circus t-shirts is on display.

Any tips on building your portfolio?

Keep shooting, build your experience, make as many contacts as you can, and make lots of friends.

It’s important to network throughout the industry. Artistic directors, lighting techs, backstage managers, publicists, promoters and front of house managers are all important people to know.

Showing what you can do to these people will help you achieve your most valuable goal, getting in to shoot the show. It’s only there you can take photos and build up your skills and portfolio.

I’d like to thank everyone who has helped me along the way getting to the position (whatever that is) that I’m in today. My wife and daughters have often picked up the slack when I’ve been off shooting and they’ve also enjoyed seeing all the shows they have. And to all the owners, performers and companies that have had me along to shoot their shows or performances, thank you so much! I hope you’ve enjoyed my work as much as I have had producing it.

A group of 8 fire spinners poses on a dark stage with their fire implements.

Kim Campbell
Editor-in-Chief at CircusTalk.News, Writer -USA
Kim Campbell is the editor of CircusTalk News. They have written about circus for Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Promoters and were a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. They are the former editor of American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where they write about circus, theatre, arts and culture. Kim is a member of the American Theater Critics Association.
In 2019 as editor for CircusTalk News, Kim was on the jury at el Festival Iberoamericano de Circo (FIRCO) and presented the first CircusTalk Critic's Choice Award.

Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell is the editor of CircusTalk News. They have written about circus for Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Promoters and were a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. They are the former editor of American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where they write about circus, theatre, arts and culture. Kim is a member of the American Theater Critics Association. In 2019 as editor for CircusTalk News, Kim was on the jury at el Festival Iberoamericano de Circo (FIRCO) and presented the first CircusTalk Critic's Choice Award.