I’ve been asked a couple of times over the past few months “How do you take those ballet photos? And how can I get photos like that?”. The short answer I give to people is “I just do”. Or “I’m just lucky”. But neither of those are accurate. Here, I will give you some tips and tools to help you learn to shoot ballet like a pro. All you need to supply is the practice, dedication, hard work and discipline…
Dance the Dance
No, I don’t mean you actually need to become a dancer. But you need to understand dancers. Rather, you need to understand BALLET. Know the terminology, know the moves… watch some videos if you’re not familiar with it at all and study other ballet photographers. I watched a lot of ballet as a kid (and still enjoy browsing through YouTube for awesome videos), and this has trained my eye to see what a dancer is going to do before they do it. You’ll start to recognize the muscles tensing that may lead to a mighty leap, or the slight bend before hopping up on their tippy-toes (technical term is en-pointe. I like tippy toes better :P). Once you start to recognize the behaviors, you can better anticipate the actions that will follow, leading you to be able to better time your shots and capture breathtaking moments of grace and beauty, vs a dancer mid-leap and possibly flailing. Shooting on burst is NOT the best option; this is ballet, not Nascar. The “Spray ‘n’ Pray” method is great when you are starting out, but leads to clinical, boring photos that don’t always capture what you were hoping. As you get better and more familiar, you will learn to time your shots. The point is to capture, through photos, the beauty that they are portraying on stage. Just like photography and any other art form, ballet is a DISCIPLINE. To be truly great, you have to work for it. Unlike photography, most ballet dancers start very young and work for hours a day, several days a week to be even considered good. Greatness is much harder to achieve. So remember that while you’re shooting and try your best to make them look their best.
Get the Proper Gear
There are somethings you can compromise on. But for the most part you need to have a good, well performing DSLR that has decent low light performance with at least “adequate” results using a higher ISO (1600-3200). It should also have minimal shutter lag (time between when you press the shutter button and when the camera actually takes a photo) and AI SERVO Auto focus. AI Servo AF allows your camera to continually auto-focus and track moving subjects when they are moving left-right, front-back. Perfect for spry dancers. I use a Canon EOS40D. They don’t make this one anymore, but a newer version would be something like the 60D. I’m not sure if I know a DSLR that doesn’t shoot in some kind of RAW format… but…. you need it to be able to shoot RAW. Stage lighting is going to confuse the hell out of your camera… so WB will need some tweaking later on.
For lenses, I am a minimalist myself. And since each person’s needs are unique, I’ll just tell you what experience has taught ME. A good zoom lens in the 70-300 range is perfect for capturing a single dancer. Now I know not everyone likes zoom lenses (hello, prime-snobs :D), but look, when you shoot a ballet you don’t have the luxury of standing up and zooming with your feet. Where you are is where you stay for the remainder of the show. This is why zoom lenses come in handy. In addition to a zoom lens, I suggest a fast lens (lens with a wide aperture to let in lots of light), 2.8 is on the low end of a fast lens… 2.0 or wider is better. If you shoot Canon, the 70-200 USM IS L is perfect for this task, as it is a fast lens AND a zoom. A fast AF motor (USM on Canon, for example) is crucial since your subject will be moving quite a bit. And IS is necessary (Image Stabilization) since you will likely be hand holding, pointing it at a low light situation and using JUST a fast enough shutter speed to capture your subject… it’s not worth risking blur on your part. I use the 70-300 USM IS. It’s NOT a fast lens (I don’t have an issue because … well.. I just don’t. But a faster lens would have made the learning curve less steep…), but is a fraction of the price. Only you know how much you can spend on a lens, so that decision is yours. I will also sometimes use my trusted nifty fifty (50mm f/1.8) if I am right up against the stage and feel the itch to use it. This is tricky, but when I pull it off… magic!
Don’t worry about flash; you won’t be using one. It’s absolutely unacceptable to be firing a flash at a dancer onstage (stage lighting is bright, so all they see of the audience is dark… don’t blind the dancers by flashing them). So don’t even think about it. Some photogs will mount flashes up in the rafters… but… ya know what? Learn to use what you’ve got available to you and you won’t have to deal with the hassle.
Finally you will need a memory card. Make sure it’s really big and make sure it’s really fast. It needs to keep up with your camera’s write speed (especially important since you will be shooting your ballet in RAW) and needs to be large enough not to miss shots by trading it out. I use an 8GB Extreme III card.
Know Your Gear
If you don’t know how to work your camera, you might be in for a hard time. Learn where all the important functions and controls are on your camera, and learn to change them in the dark. If you have a pro-sumer model (like the 60D from Canon or D90 from Nikon), you should have a dedicated status LCD on top of the camera. It should have a nice little light that you can use to check settings not seen through your viewfinder. Be careful about where you are and when you use it. Some people may find that little bit of light in the darkness a distraction. This goes for “chimping” too. Now, I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of a chimper myself in normal circumstances. Mainly because I’m not a heavy editor and I don’t do head swapping, so I need to make sure that people aren’t blinking or making faces. But during a ballet, the only time I check my LCD is when the lighting changes. I want to be sure my camera (in all it’s wisdom) isn’t tricked/fooled by the AWESOME challenge of stage lighting. If you need to check your LCD, do it quick and turn it off. Learn to use your viewfinder display (I refer to this as the Heads up display, giggle) as much as possible and get really familiar with your cameras metering system. Learn what situations trick your camera’s meter and how to compensate. For example, my particular camera always underexposes in red light because my meter SAYS it’s right, but then I take a photo and BAM! Underexposure… so I know that if a red light is shining on the stage, I need to OVEREXPOSE the image compared to what my meter tells me. Make sense?
You will need to be able to quickly change the following settings: ISO, Shutter speed, Aperture, metering mode, focus points, WB. The last two are optional since you can always just track your subject for focus (although they will be centered always if you don’t recompose, and you can’t recompose if you’re using a very wide aperture or they won’t be in focus anymore). Changing your exposure on the fly is CRUCIAL. Because of this, I always shoot ballet performances in Manual (M) mode. I need to be able to change both my shutter speed (if I decide I want to freeze/blur action) AND my aperture (for when I need to stop down a bit to control light or if I need greater/less DOF) simultaneously. My ISO is usually always locked into 1600 or 3200 (which is as high as my old girl will shoot).
SO! How DO you capture ballet photos??
I usually sit in the first two rows, always on the end or I stand by the edge of the stage and back a few feet. I use my 70-300 IS USM lens at the WIDEST possible aperture at all focal lengths, ISO set to 1600 or 3200 and shoot using a shutter speed between 1/100th of a second or 1/250th of a second. Occassionally, if I want to capture the blur of motion, I knock my shutter speed down to 1/60th of a second and stop down my aperture the appropriate number of stops. I can handhold that lens down to 1/20th of a second and not have any blur on my part, so I shoot as slow as I decide I need to to blur tulle and feet spinning. I always use available (stage) lighting. I always try to attend the dress rehearsal so I know what to expect when the show is performed. Also, dress rehearsals are a great time to get angles you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get, or get right up close to the stage without being in someone’s way. Bonus: there are less people and often times dancers perform a motion more than once, so you have lots of time to practice and get your settings and timing right for all those changes in stage lighting.
I set my camera to burst, but fire it one shot at a time. Burst is JUST IN CASE. I never fall back on Spray n pray; I always time my shots carefully. This helps me ensure I’m also composing carefully and cutting off as few fingers/feet as possible. Sometimes this is unavoidable when there are many people on the stage, but if it’s just ONE dancer or you can isolate ONE dancer… no excuses for cutting off perfectly good body parts with poor framing.
I pick a subject. I’ll take a “group” shot for safety (and because people like to see all the dancers together), then I start picking on individual dancers. I look for form, more than anything. I follow them for a few seconds and wait for them to do something either amazing, adorable or both. Then I move on. The whole process of picking out a subject and taking a photo lasts about 4 seconds. And usually when I’m skimming the stage for a subject, I see something else interesting and snap it. That’s the beauty of digital… you can take as many photos as your card will hold and you are willing to sort through. I shoot around 500-600 photos at a dress rehearsal/performance, and keep around 300 of them. My first ballet I shot over a thousand and kept 100…
Panning is a helpful technique, and I frequently pan when dancers leap, jump, spin or run across stage. Get good at panning and you can get some spectacular shots! Try doing what I did and practice on cars or your dog…
Ballet dancers will almost ALWAYS perform a move more than once. The choreography tends to feature patterns. So I recognize the patterns and time my shots accordingly. Ballet is not like a wedding; this is not a case of “if it’s happening, shoot it”. It’s a case of “if it’s interesting, shoot it”. Interesting poses, faces, moments of the performance… that’s what you want to shoot. No one wants 4000 images of dancers standing around. They would gladly trade those 4000 for 10 interesting shots showing motion and emotion.
Mostly, I watch. I take this technique with me for everything I shoot. Just watch, follow along and go with the flow. You’ll be a pro before you know! (see what I did there… I made a rhyme).