Brooke's Blog

A Photographer's Lightbox

Morning Class

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Student in Master Class with Justin Allen at Cary Ballet Conservatory 27 September 2015

Photographing a studio class is dramatically different than a theater. Theaters have visual drama with a proscenium and stage lighting. Studios have windows to parking lots and industrial lighting. Visually, it’s the difference between Notre Dame and Costco. But in studio, in class, is where I began to understand the work ethic of dancers and understand it is where their work is done and dancers are made. It is extraordinary.

Crossing the threshold of a studio, with barre and mirror, something does happen akin to entering a theater. The play is the thing and all else is left outside. There is a common experience because regardless of ability, class is a constant in a dancers life. Theater discipline applies because class is also a performance. And why I’m there.


Portrait of a Dancer

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Cary Ballet Company “Visions of Sugarplums” 15 December 2012.

Last spring, I deleted some online galleries to avoid increased hosting costs. I thought no one was looking. Most were 2011 and 2012 rehearsals and performances by Cary Ballet Company and 3D Project Jazz.  Right away, I got e-Mails from Moms asking where they’d gone. They wanted to order photographs that now weren’t available. Of course, it was the busiest time of year with portraits, recitals and graduations.  I promised to restore them by summers end. Ironically, a week later my hosting provider increased the capacity of my current plan. C’est la vie.

Since I only keep the DNG or Digital Negative file, I needed to make new JPEG files for upload. Which meant pulling up hundreds of files per performance, updating the Adobe Camera Raw processing version, and practically, a new edit. The bad news was, weeks of work. A lot of weeks. Still working on it. The good news was, it gave me a chance to improve the old versions. Editing with 3 more years of experience makes a difference. The new versions are better..

Theater, dance and music all exist in time. A photograph is instant and timeless. The camera extends my vision and enables me to discover what I can’t see with just my eyes.  I want to hold the moment that is an instant and never the same.  I want to show the audience what they can’t see. I want to tell all the story.

At rehearsals, I learn lighting cues, staging, costumes and choreography.  A bright stage with dancers in white tutus ( aka reflectors) is very different than low key lighting and dark costumes. Camera meters are useless so it’s all manual exposure and experience.

During performance, I’m shooting from rear of theater, alternating between two camera bodies.  My longest and heaviest lens is on a tripod, the shorter other is handheld.  With the two, I can cover the entire stage/proscenium or zoom to a near head shot.  I adjust aperture & ISO up and down as needed. Sounds easy but like hitting a baseball, it ain’t. Anticipate big exposure jumps on quick lighting cues and change settings quickly, in the dark. Low light and movement means fast shutter speeds, high ISO and large apertures.  High ISO means lower dynamic range and more image noise. Large apertures ( f2.8 & f4 ) means shallow Depth of Field so it’s very easy to miss focus. At long focal lengths ( I’m in the back), one dancer can be in focus but not the one if front or behind her.  In the image above, my Depth of Field was about 10 inches so her face can be sharply focused but her parasol will be soft. The tighter I zoom, the easier it is to miss.  And when costumes and lighting are close in value and color, lack of contrast makes focus a real “maybe”.

Time is the other challenge. Each piece lasts for a few minutes. A move may occur just once. I have to decide what to cover.  If I follow one dancer, holding focus and watching, I sacrifice the others. It’s why, besides rotating casts, I photograph all the performances. I wish everyone had a solo.  Don’t think, just watch and shoot, timing is everything. Normally, I average about 2000 to 2,300 exposures per full length performance, double for a matinee and evening performance, about 12-15K total for Christmas and Spring, 20K for annual recital. No high speed shutter, all single exposure. I’m watching and listening to the music and I know the dancers.

Shooting is the shortest part of the process. Transferring memory cards to my workstation takes about an hour or so of download each day.  Rough editing averages 2 to 3 hours per 1 hour of performance.  Batching out JPEGs and uploading online, about one hour per gallery.  Then it’s just adding pricing and IPTC description data.

  I delete about 80 to 85% of images during rough edits.  Lots of reasons. I was early or late on the shutter. I missed focus. My exposure was off. The composition doesn’t work. The move isn’t expressive  Out of sync. Out of character. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  What looks good to the eye can look awful when recorded at 1/320 sec.

So why put up with his torture?  Magic happens. The hardest part of editing is not stopping to fully explore and edit an image like this when you’re working towards a promised deadline for the entire performance.

 There are eight large framed photographs on my office walls. Six are dancers, all essentially portraits of our better angels.

In The Moment

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I started writing about photography recently (“The Other Blog”) mostly to help some friends and students understand some principles of the Craft.  That part is the “How”.  Gaining that knowledge gives you a chance at the other part, the “Why” or Art.  I was going to write about making this image. About why it’s important to learn and understand lighting, composition and posing.  All those things are important but still, mostly craft.  After staring at this blank narrative for a long time, I realized everything I had to say was in the photograph. The key is something no camera can provide. Universally, every dancer I’ve met, from high school students to principals in major companies, said the performance on stage, those few minutes of a lifetime, make it all worth it.  It is, the moment, the clarity, the poetry, the magic of the best expression of ourselves, creating something that transcends the mortal and the specific. Which is why, as an artist, the few minutes of my lifetime it took to make this portrait are worth the years it took to reach them. The proof print of this image is much richer than any electronic display. That image, that moment, I hope her children will share.

Senior Portrait Session, Cary Ballet Conservatory, April 2015


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