Last summer, I was lucky enough to be asked to attend the first dress rehearsal of Beauty and the Beast at Karen Chapman School of Dance in Harlow to take their performance photos and class portraits.
Here’s a little known fact about me; I attended dance school for around 10 years.
Although my epic dance skills don’t get used every day, the experience I gained has come in very handy for all of my dance and theatre work. This includes understanding choreography, the chaos of dress rehearsals, positioning on stage (and navigating backstage), and endless costume and class portraits.
The day wasn’t without it’s challenges, but I managed to navigate them and had more than one learning to take away!
The space and lighting: The dance school is located in a Grade II listed manor house that’s surrounded by trees. The room only had a few windows, with very little natural light, and was small considering the number of dancers moving about. Luckily there was a little space for me; my setup included the use of one window (on the left of my models) and 2 soft boxes. This soon became 1 soft box after an unfortunate incident involving a toppled soft box and a smashed lightbulb. I set the soft box up opposite the window to try and balance out the light levels, opting to turn this off for some of the images and using the light just from the window.
If you’re struggling to balance the light on one side of your portrait, turn your subjects towards your strongest light source or increase the number of static lights on the darkest side. Be careful that your subjects aren’t squinting!
Shoot with black and white in mind – I found that those portraits with the most dramatic light suited a monochrome edit. Plus, it’s nice to include some of these as an option that’s different to the usual class photo on offer.
Make sure you weight your soft boxes and don’t knock them over.
The kids: I met a huge range of personalities on the day, we had some right little performers, but getting the most out of the kids was quite challenging. Most kids are fine once they know you’re not as scary as you look (although there was one girl that refused to help me out and smile at me just once), but it only takes something small to put them off when you’ve finally got them where you need. This is especially true when there are chaperones coming in and out of the rehearsal room; as soon as their parents come in they get super self-conscious and retreat back into their shells.
Get there earlier and say hello to the kids before you set up as sometimes it’s the lights and camera that put them off. Show them that you’re nothing scary or different, and that they can be themselves around you. Don’t forget, they’re not used to having an interloper in their rehearsal sessions.
Be vocal: tell everyone that they’re doing a great job, make sure you direct them confidently, and ask questions. If you’re not confident, your subjects will notice!
The poses: This is the most difficult part; what do you need to capture, and how many final images should you end up with? As standard, I usually go with 2 poses per costume; one in character, and one as a generic pose. Think; hands on hips, toe pointed, looking back over their shoulder, etc. However, it’s always good to ask your client what they’re after as quite often these will be the official portraits available for purchase and for use on promotional materials. They need to be fit for all purposes, and they might have something specific for each character in mind.
Prep your poses; you’ll need to get what you want very quickly, especially if there are a lot of portraits to get through. Come with a list of generic poses that work well – ballet positions, eye line, arm positions. What key dance moves need to be included with each costume portrait? How do the characters they’re portraying need to interact with each other?
The performances: As well as capturing traditional portraits, I was asked to shoot the dress rehearsal performances. This was difficult because the space was small, I’d never seen the choreography, and had to rely on my instincts on where I needed to be. To make this slightly easier I fell back on to a sort of documentary style shoot that gave a more personal account of the dancers rather than just documenting each dance number from a distance.
Ask for the choreographer to give you an idea of where you need to be to capture what they need. Do you need to stay stationary for particular numbers, or do you need to follow the dancers around the room?Have they given you free reign and less direction? Look for smaller details; are the performers interacting with each other, who’s on the edge of each formation, is anyone waiting at the side ready to make an entrance?
Move if you’re able – don’t just concentrate on capturing what you can from one spot (even if it is tempting to stay at the side of the stage where you get a half decent view). If the space is big enough, and you’ve been told it’s safe to do so, walk/move amongst your subjects.
There is no real rule for shutter speed. Personally, I prefer to use a faster shutter speed to freeze each movement, and capture candid moments more easily. However, that’s not the only way to shoot moving subjects. If you have time and are familiar with your settings, try slower shutter speeds with a flash to shoot images with movement in them.
The ‘behind the scenes’: I found that I had around 10-15 minutes between costume changes when we were taking character portraits due to costume and makeup changes. These, however, weren’t quiet rest stops. There were so many other things going on; students were constantly coming and going, one of the dancers had her son with her, and costumes were being altered and prepped. Rather than wait, I tried to have a wander around to see what I could shoot behind the scenes. As long as you’re mindful of your surroundings, and you’re not in the way, it’s worth using every moment you have on the day to make sure you don’t miss anything!
I never go into these shoots feeling fully prepped; there are simply too many things going on, and the day is generally pretty disorderly so nothing ever goes to plan. I do what I can to make sure I’m sorted for as much as possible. That’s what makes it fun though as you get to do a little bit of everything; planned work, documentary work, and collaboration with engaged students who love what they do.