Photographing ballet can be a lot of hard work. On one hand, you have to respect the display of art and work around it to make sure that you are not interrupting the work at hand. On the other hand, the light patterns, fast actions, and extreme technicality of the performance means that you need to be a patient photographer with incredible reflexes. It’s definitely a tough balancing act, so here are some tips to make you a better ballet photographer.
1. Capturing movement
If you haven’t ever photographed action or movement before, learn how before you are overwhelmed at your first dance event. It is important to understand the difference between a regular portrait and a fine art dancer. The dancer is not trying to look good for the camera, and is forcing you to use some particular camera settings.
Shoot at as wide of an aperture as possible. If you have a longer telephoto prime, such as a 200mm f/2 or a 135mm f/1.8 lens, it might be perfect, depending on the venue and your distance from the dancers. Then, shoot at a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second, if
not faster. Depending on your focal length and distance from the dancer, you might be able to get away with less speed, or you might need to shoot even faster shutter speeds.
The other thing to make sure you are doing is shooting in a RAW file format. A RAW or uncompressed file will allow you to fix a lot of mistakes a beginner might make while photographing action in low light. Capturing movement in low light can take a lot of work to master, and shooting with the safety of a RAW file format can save you. This doesn’t mean to just not tweak settings at all, but it does mean that you have a bit of a cushion when you do.
2. Autofocus and use the correct shooting modes
You’re going to want to make sure you’re using autofocus, as well as the correct focus modes. For dancing, you might want to lock on focus for your images if you know the blocking. If you do not know how a particular ballet piece is blocked, however, you will want to make sure you are
using servo or action autofocus. This allows this camera to adapt its focus while you are shooting. Something like AI focus can bridge these two modes, and depending on the performance, might be better suited.
Furthermore, make sure you are exposing for the dancer. The end viewer of the image isn’t going to care about the drapes or the wall behind the stage, those can be completely dark or blown out. What they will care about is the dancer. Make sure to properly expose for the dancer’s skin.
3. Faces are a must
When shooting ballet, or dance in general, the face of the dancer is important to both the story of the person and the story of the piece of art. You want to make sure you are displaying the piece as a whole, and to do this, you need to make sure that the faces of the dancers are visible. Time your shots for when the dancers are looking towards you, or at least looking out at their audience. Look for eyes, as they convey a lot in an image. Don’t use images with ugly facial expressions or half closed eyes, they detract from some of the prisitiness associated with ballet.
4. Experiment by moving
One of the great things about ballet is the variety of different elements you can capture. Costume details can tell a large part of the story, so try and take images of them in interesting ways. Look for different ways to display the dancers, be it a variety of shot types, such as close up and wide angle shots, or experimenting with different angles.
If you have access at a venue, shooting from above can also let you take some interesting angles. Try to keep the compositions rather simple when you start, making sure that the focus of the photographs remains on the ballet and your documentation of it as art.
5. Photograph the details
There are plenty of details for you to invest time in to capturing. Before the show, if you have backstage access, you can photograph a lot of the prep work done by both the cast and crew. Photograph the directors and the crew members working to make things happen. Look to see if you can take photos of the tech booth, and their view unto the stage.
Furthermore, spend time learning about the costumes and what the costume designers elected to go with for a particular piece of ballet. From that information, you can go ahead and photograph those details both on and off stage, resulting in photos that better capture the intent of the ballet you are attending.
Lastly, this can be done even without additional access. You can email the head of a company or a media or communications contact person, and see if you can get some of these details before the show.
6. Get prepared
One of the worst things you can do is watch ballet for the first time while photographing it. If you are shooting for the first time, even if the event is not high stakes, take several precautions to make sure you are ready.
Firstly, watch the ballet you are going to photograph. See if you can watch the rehearsals, and even if you can watch and photograph dress rehearsals so that you can have media photos ready for them.
Secondly, watch ballet and learn the basics. Learn what means what, what is important, what parts of the dance need to be captured, and what companies spread online, so that you can emulate that.
Thirdly, learn the lighting. As the lighting changes throughout the show, you might have to make fast adjustments to your settings. I prefer to have both my aperture and shutter speed dialed in, and use subtle ISO shifts to make sure that my images have enough RAW data to be processed when shooting any action. With ballet, you might even have to shift your shutter speed slightly, especially in the quick lighting changes created by theatre lighting.