Other photographers often ask me about the best way they can become better shooters. My answer is always the same – shoot the same subject matter over and over again. It helps in quite a few ways, and in this post I’ll go over the 5 things that I learned by shooting in series.
I’ve shot American Contemporary Ballet company over 32 times in the last 3 years. It’s quite a lot considering you’re almost always in the same studio, shooting the same people, in often the same costumes, mostly with the same light, and also doing it all unstaged. My job is to be the invisible fly on the wall, not to make everyone pose how I want to. So here is a story of what I learned by going through all these challenges.
My job is to be the invisible fly on the wall, not to make everyone pose how I want to. So here is a story of what I learned by going through all these challenges.
I also shot this video clip for my DJI Osmo review last year, it gives a pretty good glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes of my ballet shoots.
Lesson 1: Don’t try to overcome fear, work through it
I remember my first season of shooting ballet. First three or five times were frightening. I’ve never shot indoor so much, ever in my life. I’ve never worked with people much, and now I had at least a dozen to work with. I was a stranger and nobody knew at that point that I’ll produce quality results and show those photos to the world in the best way possible. It’s such a stressful situation for a dancer.
Back in the day when I was playing tennis, I always though you need to overcome your fear first before you really face your opponent. So instead of one thing to deal with, I mentally created two. Not much came out of that mentality. Later, I realized I need to put my fear aside and deal with the current task at hand – whether that’s shooting ballet dancers or beating my tennis opponent. After about 3-5 shoots the fear is not as dominating and you feel more in control. The key is not to overcome fear, but to put it aside and focus on what you actually need to do.
Later, I realized I need to put my fear aside and deal with the current task at hand – whether that’s shooting ballet dancers or beating my tennis opponent. After about 3-5 shoots the fear is not as dominating and you feel more in control. The key is not to overcome fear, but to put it aside, work alongside this feeling, and focus on what you actually need to do.
Lesson 2: Come in with a plan, get the basics out of your system
I studied ballet images before doing my first shoot, and pretty much along my whole first season with the company. There are some things you just have to shoot. They are the fundamentals, the basics, the skeleton, the backbone of the series. Or so it seems. In reality, once you get those done, you’ve got a whole world ahead of you to explore. You just captured everything others saw in ballet and now it’s your turn to explore.
I remember my first pointe shoes I shot, the first stretching session, first duo dances. I was learning the rules, so to speak. And once I knew them, I wanted to break them. This is how you get unique shots – by being a nonconformist. For every shoot – you need to have a plan. You need to keep a central focus throughout the 2-3 hours you have the camera in your hand. It’s crucial. If you don’t know what the topic for today is, how can you be focused?
One of the best decisions I made several seasons back was to stay in the changing room right next to the stage for the whole duration of ballet. It was a tiny room, no place for privacy, no time to hide emotions and pressure. I shot the performance a day before and took the risk – stayed inside that room. It paid off, here are some shots from that day. Many of these are from Sony Rx100IV in the silent mode. I had to be silent. I was just 2 feet away from the stage.
Lesson 3: The more you shoot, the more you blend into the environment
Most of my series before ballet involved people being photographed from far away. It was not necessarily street photography, I always felt awkward saying that I love shooting streets with a tele zoom.
This was on purpose, because I mostly didn’t know how to work with people. So with ballet, this had to change literally on my first day in the studio. I needed to show 15+ people that I’ll capture that they do in the best way possible.
Today, many dancers at ACB don’t pay much attention to me. It gives them a sense of comfort and trust that I am not going to abuse their intimate prep moments or dance routine. It doesn’t help when you say “trust me,” you need t show it through your work. And after some time, your work becomes better because you’re capturing something you were not allowed to see before.
Lesson 4: You need to know that you’re looking for
How does a perfect image look to you? Composition? Human emotion? Unique location? How can you go to work without an idea of what you want to make or do? I used to pride myself with the idea that I simply go and capture reality.
I liked not having to stage anything. It was just simpler to me. But I thought that was my “thing.” In the last year, I realized that there are probably 95% of ballet shots that I will probably repeat. I knew I didn’t want to do that. So the task was challenging and exciting.
I observe more than I shoot. I feel like I got a Christmas gift when something I’ve been wanting to capture happens in my frame. It really is not about quantity anymore, even though you need that to pull the best selects. I try to have a visual idea of a few photos I really want to capture on that day. I know that I’m going in for just that. It’s just a great feeling to have such defined expectations of yourself. It’s even better when you’re at home loading the shots into Lightroom and see those shots you wanted. Have a plan, no matter now small.
Lesson 5: At some point, it’s not about photography anymore, but bigger ideas you shoot
At first, when you shoot a new subject, it’s about them. You think they are the center of the universe. They are the client. They need to be happy.
Then you get through a dozen of such scenarios and it’s not new or exciting anymore. Then it becomes about you and your wishes and ego. You get through that as well in another dozen shoots. So what then?
This is where the real meaning of work kicks in. What is a bigger idea? I think for me at some point the key focus became having the shots not perfectly staged, but very raw and real. Sure, you can Photoshop unnecessary cords and dust out. But what if that dust is the beauty that adds to the photo.
In this last season with ACB, I wanted to bring home different, new work. I wanted to go as intimate as I could. I wanted to be imperfect. I wanted to look at the dancers as they have never looked at themselves. I wanted to capture the perfect reflection of the things they don’t see.
For 95% of us, this is not really possible in daily life. But ballet is a form of art that demands to be captured. How can you not? I consider myself lucky to have a VIP invite into this world. I was there to do what I do from day one, no questions asked.
I never tried to please anyone. This is a very lucky situation. When you go this deep in your mind, you begin to see bigger ideas that may not be material. For me, the bigger idea was finding your art form and being completely immersed in it. This is my place to be behind the camera, this is their place to be on stage.
My place is to show what I see. My place is to carry on the tradition of ballet photography. Sounds strange until you feel it with everything you have.
I used to pot daily galleries from the first shoots, you can see them here: http://asildaphotography.com/category/portfolio-series
Here are a few more ballet related posts from the past:
- Why you should shoot in series
- Shooting Ballet with Sony FE 35mm 1.4
- Sony a6300 First Thoughts. Shooting Ballet Auditions.
- Why You Need a Manual Prime Lens in Your Kit
- Things I learned from my Leica M6