Ballet dancing is a mixture of grace and explosive action, with dancers sometimes standing delicately on their toes and other times leaping high in the air. You need to be able to photograph quiet moments and fast athletic scenes, sometimes in situations where you have little or no control over the lighting or where you can position yourself. You may be taking pictures of dancers during ballet rehearsal, backstage in preparation, or onstage in performance. You might also need to take posed photos of a ballet dancer for a portfolio or for a promotional ad campaign.
Attend a ballet dance rehearsal. You may be allowed to bring your own lighting, depending on the arrangement the company makes with you. Photograph the dancers watching themselves practice before mirrors to get interesting compositions. Watch the dancers move through a routine once without shooting, and then you will be prepared for what to focus your lens on when they repeat the exercise. Get in as close as the dancers permit without interfering with their rehearsal so you can better see interesting details to document. Step back to make compositions of the changing group dynamics. Find ways to get different angles, such as by lying on the floor, or by standing in an overhead location if there are offices or observation areas high up in the rehearsal space.
Position yourself in front of the stage during a dress rehearsal to shoot the ballet dancers from the audience’s point of view. Go backstage to capture ballet dancers preparing themselves mentally and physically for the performance. Your camera may catch a glimpse of determination in a dancer’s face, or an interesting position as she stretches her body before performance.
Stand in the wings and get as close to the stage as you can when shooting during a performance. You have no control over the lighting, settings or backgrounds, so go with whatever mood the production company has set. Shoot ballet dancers entering and exiting shadows, for example, or one partner lifting another to be bathed in brilliant overhead lighting. Crouch low, or stand on a chair or a ladder to take shots from another perspective.
Use a telephoto lens to focus on an individual dancer, with a zoom ranging from 70 to 200 mm. If you are shooting in low lighting, set the lens aperture to f/2.8 or faster. Use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 when shooting action shots. Move with the dancers to catch them frozen in action while blurring the background. Try using your camera’s burst mode feature to rapidly take many photos in a row when the dancers move quickly. Otherwise, you might not capture the face of a rapidly spinning dancer or the highest point of her energetic leap into the air.
Set up back lighting behind a ballet dancer in your studio or in a rehearsal area for posed photographs. The light will filter softly through the delicate clothing of a female’s tutu, which can help evoke a fanciful tone. Have the dancer assume a variety of expressive poses to showcase her talent for portfolio shots. Find out the theme or emotion that the company wants to evoke when you are shooting promotional shots for a particular performance. For example, is it a tragic piece, or joyful exuberance that you need to capture? You might bring the lights down and focus on the face and an outstretched arm for an enigmatic mood, or set up multiple bright lights to capture a dancer’s athletic prowess.
Once you prepare yourself for the unique world of ballet, you can grow more confident in your ability to shoot evocative pictures of dancers during exercises, rehearsals and performances.