Above photo: Da’ Von Doane, Dance Theatre of Harlem-Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate to photograph seven ballet events in New York. I’ve captured dancers during curtain calls for the past 10 years, but never during live performances; this was my first foray into dance photography and has been a fun learning experience. I’m no expert, but here are thoughts on my experience that may be of use to those interested in this art form (my work is posted on my photography website notmydayjobphotography.com.)
Access is everything in dance. Obviously, audience members cannot photograph during a live performance so dance photography requires an invitation from the company during a dress rehearsal. My first event happened by chance; while I was blogging away one evening, out of the blue, I received an invite from a New York City press agent inquiring whether I would be interested in attending dress rehearsal photo shoots for Mikhailovsky Ballet at Linclon Center. OF COURSE!!! I jumped at the chance to photograph leading stars Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev, Leonid Sarafanov. After scrambling to figure out what equipment to use, I attended three great dress rehearsals during the Mikhailovsky November run: Giselle, Don Quixote, and Flames of Paris, a dream for any photographer.
My interest piqued, I inquired and obtained access to dress rehearsals for Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s The Nutcracker, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Ellison Ballet’s 10th Anniversary Gala. In addition, through a press agent, I also received an invite for the Career Transition for Dancers Gala. These ballet companies and events don’t receive much space in the popular press and are probably happy to get publicity, even from small-time bloggers like me. The level of dancing at these companies is very high and presented great photographic opportunities. The student companies (Kirkland and Ellison) have top-notch young dancers, some of whom will dance at larger stages in the future.
The major New York companies, ABT and NYCB, aren’t starved for publicity and already have great staff photographers, Gene Schiavone and Rosalie O’Connor at ABT, and Paul Kolnick at NYCB. Since major companies have staff photographers and plenty of press interest, it is likely very difficult to get an invite to a dress rehearsal in New York. The companies want control over photos of their dancers, and rightly so; they don’t want substandard images of their dancers circulating. The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, DanceTabs, and other news organizations use photos from the ballet company staff photographers in their reviews. An exception is The New York Times, which publishes photos from its staff photographers. I’ve found the quality of the Times’ dance photography highly variable with some good photos but others not at the level of the photographers listed above.
I’ve always thought that when learning a task, figure out who does the task well, understand what they are doing and why they excel. To prepare for my photography gigs, I looked at work from ABT and NYCB photographers Gene Schiavone, Rosalie O’Connor, Paul Kolnick and independent photographer Jack Devant in addition to countless photos on a great website Ballet: The Best Photographs. Their work gives insights on what to look for in a great dance photo. Each photo has high impact and meaning rather than a random image from countless photos taken.
I also watch YouTube videos of the ballet I will attend. Preparation is important in anticipating the action. Event though I’ve seen full length ballets Giselle, Don Quixote, Nutcracker many times, it still helps to stop the action on video at key moments to anticipate the live action. For ballets I have never seen before, particularly contemporary or modern works, the task is more difficult. I basically fire away, taking many images because I can’t anticipate the action.
Most of the performance dance photos you see are from dress rehearsals. Typically a ballet company invites the press to photograph a segment of a ballet during a dress rehearsal. The theater is largely empty except for stage hands, artistic personnel, and dancers. Photographers are allowed to roam around the theater to seek optimal angles. For some reason, I like shooting from the side rather than the center. Sometimes the action on stage is stop and go as the Artistic Director stops the action to give corrections to the dancers, lighting directors, or orchestra. Other times, the dancers will “mark” a solo, not going full speed. It is fascinating to observe the sometimes frenetic activity as the company readies for a performance just hours away.
I use rapid burst mode, which produces 5-10 images per second, resulting in around 300-700 total images for a shoot. The economics of photography has changed dramatically in the digital age; in my film days in the 1970s I was stingy with my shots because each film frame probably cost 10 cents. Given that I was making minimum wage from washing dishes at $2.30 an hour, 23 photos equaled an hour of work. I marvel at the digital age in which memory is basically free and the marginal cost of an extra image is zero. Also, I am happy to report that I currently make…more than $2.30 an hour.
Like sports, dance photography requires high level equipment that can track and focus on fast-moving objects in dark lighting conditions. Consumer cameras, like my Canon T2i, are great for landscape, portrait, or street photography, but don’t hold up when challenged by fast-moving objects in dim light. Professional cameras with substantial sensors, high ISO capabilities, and rapid autofocus are necessary.
I’ve used two cameras: Canon 5D Mark III (borrowed from a colleaque) and Canon 7D Mark II (rented from Adorama). The 5D, which was released in 2012, is a full frame camera while the 7D, released in late 2014, is a crop sensor camera with a 1.6X crop factor. Both are great cameras, with the 5D, as a full frame camera, having greater low light capabilities while the 7D is faster, shooting a blazing 10 frames per second to catch fast-moving targets. The 7D has an autofocus system similar to the top of the line Canon 1DX. I think I prefer the 7D with a greater burst rate of 10 frames; its low light capabilities appear to be adequate.
Note that these camera are heavy, particularly combined with a long zoom lens. It helps to have some support in the form of a monopod, which is basically a pole that supports the camera. This reduces the physical stress of holding the camera for hours and also results in sharper images as camera shake is reduced. Monopods start at around $50. A good investment if dance photography is in your future.
One important rule I follow on camera settings: ALWAYS underexpose by one stop. In my early shoots, I found that some of the images were overexposed (too light), particularly when dancers wore white costumes. Sometimes the overexposure was so severe that photo processing software such as Lightroom could not correct the image. As a result, I use a setting that underexposres all of my images by one stop, resulting in images that are a bit on the dark side (which can be corrected by Lightroom), but provides nice detail for lighter parts of the costumes.
I shoot shutter preferred, which means that I set the shutter speed (generally 1/500 or 1/640 of a second to capture action without blur) and the camera sets the aperture. My ISO setting depends on lighting conditions; for brighter lighting, I use about 3200 ISO, with darker conditions at 10000 ISO. My average setting is about 6400. I provide settings in the photos above.
I’ve used only one lens-Canon 70-200 f2.8 IS (image stabilization) and don’t have any interest in experimenting (UPDATE: I now use a Canon 17-55 f2.8 which is 27-88 with a 1.6X crop factor in smaller theaters). The lens provides nice coverage of the entire stage and the f2.8 helps in low light conditions. In dance, the stage is fairly small and one lens provides excellent coverage, unlike a football or baseball field (that’s why football photographers use three cameras, each with different range lenses).
After the shoot, I end up with hundreds of images to upload to Lightroom. Although Lightroom is a powerful tool, I don’t do much processing, generally cropping, color balance, and exposure adjustments. The primary work I do is photo selection and cropping. For image selection, I go though the photos in several passes with the first time eliminating obvious rejects due to lack of focus, unappealing composition, or dancers out of synch. Next pass, I identify images with possibilities, evaluating with multiple stars. Then the real work starts, selecting final images to process.
If necessary, I sharpen the important parts of the photo and use noice reduction, all in Lightroom. As a final touch, I use the vingetting slider in Lightroom to darken the edges, which focuses attention on the center of the image.
Let me know your experiences with dance photography, equipment, lenses, post-production work, etc. Check back as I hope to have more photos from live performances in the coming year.
I agree with Paul Warburton’s tweet that there are many ex-dancers that excel at dance photography. In addition to former ABT dancer Rosalie O’Connor referenced above, check out works by Kyle Froman (NYCB), Renata Pavam (ABT), and Josh Tuifua (The Royal Ballet). In addition to understanding the timing and correct body positons of dance, they have great access. Some of their photos from the wings backstage during performances, curtain calls, and dressing rooms provide views not available to the public sitting in the seats during a performance. For example, Josh’s photo of two ugly step-sisters smoking a cigarette backstage in full makeup and partial costume.
— Paul Warburton (@WARBO234) November 21, 2015