Photographing A Dancer: Guest Post by Josh Brewster.

Photographing the Dance by Josh Brewster, Austin Texas Photographer
This and all photos in this post copyright Josh Brewster, Austin TX.
(Looking for Project 52? Hit the “52” link in categories for all the linky goodness. Visit for ongoing assignment notes.)

Josh took my workshop in Houston a couple of times. His work has really grown. I saw these images and asked for a write up from him. It is this guest post. Welcome Josh Brewster to Lighting Essentials. BTW, Josh will be assisting me at the Austin workshop. A great opportunity to meet him and learn a ton about lighting and photography. Let’s let Josh tell us about the dance images.

The Assignment
My girlfriend manages a dance studio, so occasionally small gigs float my way. A few days ago, I received an email from a parent whose daughter, Kaila, is enrolled at the dance studio. Her daughter was applying to a number of intensive ballet camps this summer; each application required her headshot as well as photographs of a few dance poses. The applications were due in less than two weeks so the images needed to produced and delivered quickly.

Research and Preparation
Dance, especially ballet, is very detailed and very precise. A pose or leap can be ruined by a shoulder that is slightly too high, or an arm slightly too straight. In real-time, an incorrect pose can be covered up by swift motion or forgiven due to the complexity of the dance routine. A photograph, however, freezes that motion and removes the dancer from any form of context. Any mistake, slight or significant, becomes glaringly obvious. So in terms of an application process, she had to look perfect.

With perfection in mind, I made a few executive decisions:

1) Big lights – I like to think I am a good photographer, and I know Kaila is a phenomenal dancer, but I was fully prepared to shoot the same leap over and over again until everything (my shutter finger, her pose) matched up. Wall powered units were a must; battery powered speed lights just would not be able to keep up the pace that was required.

2) Support squad – I invited my girlfriend, Kaila’s dance instructor, and Kaila’s mom to the shoot. Between two trained dancers, a high school musical theater teacher, and myself, we were able work with the subject through every aspect of the shoot. I made sure she was aware of the key light, the dancers scrutinized her movements, and the musical theater teacher (her mom) helped her project her personality.

3) Shoot tethered – Shooting tethered into Lightroom 3 allowed the aforementioned support squad to have quick visual feedback for Kaila. More importantly, we were able to decide as a group exactly when the winning shot was captured so we did not tire Kaila out through excessive repetitions of the same dance step.

4) Shoot low – For the poses, I knew that I would want to get my camera lower to the ground, perhaps just below Kaila’s hip level. This lower perspective would make her leaps look higher and her legs longer.

Artistically, I wanted to create images that really showcased Kaila and only Kaila. Something inside me screamed “gray seamless,” so I went with it, knowing that it was versatile enough for both the head shots and the poses.

Day of the Shoot
Since the dance shots would require Kaila to be leaping around and eventually putting her hair into a bun, we decided to start the shoot with her headshots while her hair was looking nice. I wanted to deliver two different looks: one that was open and one that was slightly more dramatic.

For the first look, I set up a large 6x6ft diffusion panel to the left of where Kaila would be sitting. Then I set up a strobe with a socked beauty dish to fire through the diffusion panel. I could have forgone the beauty dish and used a standard reflector, but I wanted to diffuse the light as much as possible before it hit the subject. I was also planning on using the socked beauty for the rest of the lighting setups, so it saved time when transitioning to the next setup. To the right of the subject, I placed a large white reflector for fill and positioned a smaller silver reflector to be in her lap to bounce some light up from below. A final low-powered, gridded softbox from behind and to the right brightened up her hair and added a highlight to one side.

Photography by Josh Brewster

Photography by Josh Brewster

The second look was a classic butterfly setup. I moved the socked beauty dish directly overhead and tilted it down towards her face for the key light. The silver reflector in her lap stayed in place and the power on the hair light softbox was increased significantly. A gridded strobe was aimed to hit the background right below frame, creating a nice gradient on the background.

Photography by Josh Brewster

Photography by Josh Brewster

Photography by Josh Brewster

After getting the head shots, Kaila went off to change into her first costume; I got to work modifying the lighting setup. There were a number of considerations that I took when I chose my modifiers and placed my lights. I knew I wanted my key light to be the beauty dish and I wanted it to project Kaila’s shadow on the background. I set it up camera right.

To prevent the shadow-side of Kaila from going dark, I setup a large softbox directly to Kaila’s side. This served a double feature of filling in the shadows and creating a kicker highlight to outline her figure. To keep the light from spilling onto the background, I added a grid to the softbox. The final light was a gridded strobe high and back to camera right, once again helping outline Kaila from the background.

Lighting Diagram by Josh Brewster

This lighting setup was pretty loose, meaning that there was a wide area in which Kaila would be acceptably illuminated. We shot the Kaila in her blue lyrical costume for an array of freeform poses and leaps, and then shot her in her ballet leotard for her more technical arabesque and second position en pointe poses (apparently it is really hard to hold this position on her toes… I tried and failed spectacularly).

The entire shoot went quite smoothly, with plenty of energy and laughter. Aside from being impressed with her athleticism, I was continually impressed with Kaila’s desire for perfection and great enthusiasm throughout the shoot.

Photography by Josh Brewster

After the Shoot
That night after the shoot, I sent off a proofing gallery where they could look at all the images and choose which would receive the final edits. Before I shut down my computer for the night, I did a quick check on Facebook, where I discovered that she had already posted eleven of the photos to an album and given me proper photographer credit and a link to my website. Nice. Part of me writhed, knowing that those images had not yet received the royal editing treatment. However, her friends were commenting up a storm despite my loose crops and slightly crooked horizons, so I did my best to cope.

The next day, I received a list of the photos they had selected. I edited them and sent them off. I got an email back asking if I could create a black and white version that they could hang on the wall; I obliged.

So far feedback has been pretty positive: “These are amazing. We are so happy with how they turned out! Thank you SOOOOO much. Everyone is flipping out over the pictures.”

As much as I liked hearing this, I will not be fully satisfied until I hear the news that Kaila was selected to attend the summer camp. My bet is that she will breeze on in. Until that time, however, I’ll just occupy myself by taking more photos.

Thanks Josh. Nice work and explanations as well.

Hope you all enjoyed this piece by Josh. Make sure you visit his website, and send a comment his way if you enjoyed it.

As always, follow me on Twitter, join us at Project52 and remember to check out Learn to Light for information on the workshops for this year.

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  1. Fantastic shots, Josh! Especially love the b&w.

  2. Amazing, beautiful photos!

  3. Loved the pictures… as always!

  4. Love the lighting in that last one especially… very pretty!

  5. I had been looking forward to this post since I try to photograph dancers fairly regularly. Josh’s “executive decisions” seem right on the mark, and I especially like his two lighting setups for headshots; that’s learning I’ll be able to use. The final lyrical shot is great.

    I’m going to call him out, though, on the arabesque shot that leads off the piece. It might not be a big deal in a lyrical or theater-dance program, but I’m pretty sure the reaction of most ballet hardcores would be, “OMG, tell her to pull up her supporting knee!”

    Aa Josh rightly points out, you need a “support team,” and this kind of technical fine point should be their bailiwick. But one thing I’ve learned the hard way is that even really good dance teachers are more accustomed to looking at DANCERS than at PHOTOGRAPHS, so sometimes the photographer needs to direct their attention. I’ve gotten to the point that when doing student photos, I run through a mental checklist — “Hair…hems (for costumes)…knees…heels…ribbons (for pointe shoes)” — and make sure the teacher looks specifically at those items on every final-candidate shot.

    Unfortunately, some of the summer intensive and college scholarship auditions have gotten so competitive that a slightly janky application photo might be a deal-breaker, so in the long run subjects will appreciate the extra sweating of those details.

  6. Wow Josh. I mean WOW! If our small one (6) sees these, she’ll ask us about joing the ballet again. This is really nice work, and I surely hope that Kaila will win.

    Had to RSS-bookmark your blog as well, like Don’s, and Kirk’s. You know it when you see another league…


  7. Breathtaking shots, Josh!

  8. These so beautiful! There’s nothing better than a gorgeous black & white photo.

  9. If your pictures were a foreign language – you are the perfect interpreter. True sensitivity of the goal to be achieved. – I would give her a scholarship and hire you to take the pictures of the summer camp! mmmmm????

  10. I’ve been shooting a lot of ballet recently, and one important thing that isn’t mentioned here is to use a long lens if at all possible to ensure that proportions are not exaggerated. 50 mm is the absolute minimum I would use for full-length shots (especially important on APS-C where many photographers I know for some reason automatically default to around 35 mm for anything full-length). Also make sure the lens doesn’t have a lot of distortion. Medium format or at least a full frame sensor/film would be ideal since the focal length is longer for the same angle of view than with crop sensors,

    Knowing as much as you can about dance, or even actual experience is also extremely helpful. Most ballett studios offer special introductory classes for grownups. At the very least know the names of a few poses (arabesque, attitude, etc.), as that will allow you to direct the model yourself or at least know what the dancer is going to do when an instructor calls out a certain pose. The dancer won’t have to hold the pose as long that way because you get a chance to adjust your framing and angle in advance.

  11. Pretty amazing — felt as though I was in the same room watching the dance. And the explanation of the process was impressive. Thumbs up!

  12. Excellent shots, and great information!

  13. Josh you are definitly becoming a master of your craft. These shots are absolutely outstanding. Your talent, or better yet your gift for finding the perfect shot at the perfect time is unmatched. Keep it up buddy. I leave you with one word, simple as it might be, it truely fits perfectly…. WOW

  14. Hey Josh! I am SO proud to tell anyone how talented my cousin is with all this photography stuff! Great job!!!!

  15. Nice! See you at the Austin workshop.

  16. Great work Josh! Thanks for sharing all the details of the shoot.

  17. A classic beauty captured in point perfect style!

  18. Thanks for the detailed, valuable information. Beautiful shots too!

  19. this is amazing work, not just the shot, the whole explanation and tutorial of how you fix the light in each photograhp….very educational.

    Thanks so much for shared it

  20. Josh !

    thank you so much from the other side of the Atlantic ! Extremely educational (some of the comments were interesting too) and of course great shots !

    I really love pro photogs being generous and taking the time to explain how they do things, so once again thank you !



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