A Photographer's Coda


My Moment & Basic Photography

Photographed for “CaryCitizen” 16 Oct 2010 Cary Ballet Conservatory

Nothing about this image is accidental. This was my moment. When everything I knew about Art, Craft and Discovery merged.

Having never seen or been inside a dance studio before, I explored. My task was to photograph “Children’s Celebration of the Arts”. Besides the event performances, there were also Ballet Classes being held. I saw this one through a large window in the hallway. And I watched as they interacted with the instructor.

Everyone who’s taken my Basic Photography Class has heard me say, over and over “every photograph is an idea, a capture, an edit and a presentation. And they all matter”.

The Idea is the most difficult to explain: Vision works differently than language. I think it’s instinct, wrapped around our experience and emotion. But just like dance and music, visual art requires understanding and mastery of principles. My copy of “Art and Visual Perception” by Rudolf Arnheim is well worn. The sub title is “A Psychology of the Creative Eye”. The main ideas are Gestalt Principles that originated in the Bauhaus, in Post WWI Germany. Learn the principles and with lots of practice, you’ll start to make images that work, that say what you want them to say, that language cannot. Choreographers know this.

Watching the class, I waited until the instructor stepped out of frame. It was the young dancers, their story I wanted to tell.

Capture is the easiest to explain: This is the craft part, the gear stuff. Not long after my post Paris Pickpocket replacement and upgrade to a DSLR in 2007, I very quickly, like literally every student that enrolled in my Basic Photography Classes, became dissatisfied with my photographs. My main solution was buying a copy of Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure”. And I read it, along with my camera manual until I understood it. Here is what I found worked for me:

  1. I want a camera with two wheels and an ISO button so I can easily and quickly change Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO.
  2. I need the above because the camera will stay in Manual for full control of exposure. A digital Histogram makes this easy.
  3. My zoom lenses will be constant Aperture ( no variable aperture Kit Lenses). Exposure is constant regardless of zoom. You don’t have to buy the boxed kit. You can buy the body and lens separately.
  4. I will set the camera for RAW file output to get everything the sensor records. No being locked into camera White Balance decisions. If you need immediate gratification, you choose Raw + JPEG but a Custom White balance is advised.
  5. I will disable the half press Shutter Button for auto focus and assign that function to a rear button so my thumb can stay on that to track. It’s known as Back Button Focus.
  6. I will set and leave my Auto Focus to a Single Center point. It’s my decision what to establish focus on, not the camera automation.
  7. Lastly, I set the adjustable viewfinder Diopter to my dominant right eye prescription (-2) so I don’t have to wear my glasses.

While I was watching the class, I figured out my exposure. I selected a Shutter speed that would work while they were standing mostly still, an Aperture for shallow Depth of Field to isolate them from the background and adjusted ISO to suit. I wanted to expose for the dancers, knowing the windows would be overexposed. In any sort of Auto or Semi Auto Mode, a camera will typically meter and expose for the highlights so the dancers will be dark and underexposed. I set my exposure for what was important. It takes no time at all to take a test shot and look at the instant review and Histogram to see if it’s what you want. And it eliminates any variation of camera metering if you aim at something in frame that reflects lights differently. If the meters in my cameras didn’t work, I’d never know. Everything on this blog and my event site, every thing I’ve photographed since has been made this way.

Edit is medium easy to explain: My goal is always a file I can Print from, whether I do or not. Digital really changed photography from the limited editing of film negatives in a wet darkroom. And I do not understand trying to edit in a camera or a phone. So I use a robust desktop PC with a 27″ color calibrated monitor plus Digitizer Tablet & Stylus. There are plenty of editing software applications available, even some freebies. I throw fiscal caution to the wind and pay Adobe $10 a month for the Creative Cloud Suite that I can load on as many computers as I wish and use on two simultaneously.

In this image, the workflow was something like this:

  1. Open up the Raw file in Adobe Camera Raw and make the big decisions about Exposure and Crop. Edits are non destructive so there’s no penalty for trying variations. Easy to make duplicates and compare too.
  2. Save and open file in Photoshop. Photography is a reductionist medium . There’s always stuff recorded that doesn’t contribute to the composition. Painters have it easy, they just don’t put it in! Except for journalism where you show it as recorded ( which I did for “Cary Citizen”), I get rid of it in Edit. There was another young dancer in this frame behind the one facing us. She was mostly hidden but a few parts peeked out and it made no visual sense so I removed them. The tablet & stylus works just like a painter uses a brush on canvas. There was also a Fire Extinguisher on the back wall which was distracting so it got erased.
  3. In this case, I decide Black & White worked better. Color is powerful element. We see in color. By eliminating it, we abstract the image, strip it further down to essentials. Some photographs are all about color. But not this one. I wanted the high key, ethereal quality to reinforce the nature of these young dancers. We aren’t distracted by the color variations of their leotards. There is more unity to the composition.
  4. Finally, I’ll save the edited image as a Photoshop file. And I can always go back to the Raw file if needed for another try. Sometimes, years later, I will. We change, we learn.

Presentation: You’re looking at one presentation. I made a JPEG version of the much larger Photoshop file. JPEGs are pretty universal. The default output of cameras, whether dedicated or smartphones are JPEGs. Virtually any Web browser or Operating system can display them. And most photo prints services expect them. The key is making them the right size for the application.

  1. Web Display – You don’t need a lot. The image above is 720 Pixels (Picture Elements) by 900. The color space is sRGB. I have zero control of the color on your Phone/Tablet/Chromebook/Laptop/Desktop/TV Monitor/Projector. sRGB is sort of the JPEG of color spaces. This file would work as a Print if the Print was 3″x 2.4″. As an example, IG profile photos are maximum 320 x 320.
  2. Print File – You need a lot more. Optimum print file resolution is typically 300 PPI (Pixels Per Inch). So an 8″x10″Print works out to 2400 x 3000 Pixels. The files are needlessly large for displays so right sized is the key. The last Print I made of this image was 16″ x 20″. Depending on the resolution of the camera and the crop decisions, you may need to upscale or downscale the edited file for the Print size. You can use Photoshop or some dedicated third party applications. The finishing steps I take are three.
  3. Print File Final Steps: I will soft proof the Print file with my vendors published ICC ( International Color Consortium) and adjust if necessary. Then I will use another 3rd party application to sharpen it for a Continuous Tone Print at 300 PPI. Lastly I’ll duplicate the file to another layer in Photoshop and add a Levels adjustment with the Screen option to lighten the entire file about 10%, flatten and save. If your prints look too dark, add this step. A paper print is reflective and your monitor is luminous. Run a few test Print with a new print vendor is highly recommended.

Later that evening, looking at this, I knew where I wanted my work to go. As a Dance photographer, I’m a bit of a fraud. It was always about Portraits.

Portrait of a Dancer

208 VoSP Sat 7 PM 2191

Cary Ballet Company “Visions of Sugarplums” 15 December 2012.

Last spring, I deleted some online galleries to avoid increased hosting costs. I thought no one was looking. Most were 2011 and 2012 rehearsals and performances by Cary Ballet Company and 3D Project Jazz.  Right away, I got e-Mails from Moms asking where they’d gone. They wanted to order photographs that now weren’t available. Of course, it was the busiest time of year with portraits, recitals and graduations.  I promised to restore them by summers end. Ironically, a week later my hosting provider increased the capacity of my current plan. C’est la vie.

Since I only keep the DNG or Digital Negative file, I needed to make new JPEG files for upload. Which meant pulling up hundreds of files per performance, updating the Adobe Camera Raw processing version, and practically, a new edit. The bad news was, weeks of work. A lot of weeks. Still working on it. The good news was, it gave me a chance to improve the old versions. Editing with 3 more years of experience makes a difference. The new versions are better..

Theater, dance and music all exist in time. A photograph is instant and timeless. The camera extends my vision and enables me to discover what I can’t see with just my eyes.  I want to hold the moment that is an instant and never the same.  I want to show the audience what they can’t see. I want to tell all the story.

At rehearsals, I learn lighting cues, staging, costumes and choreography.  A bright stage with dancers in white tutus ( aka reflectors) is very different than low key lighting and dark costumes. Camera meters are useless so it’s all manual exposure and experience.

During performance, I’m shooting from rear of theater, alternating between two camera bodies.  My longest and heaviest lens is on a tripod, the shorter other is handheld.  With the two, I can cover the entire stage/proscenium or zoom to a near head shot.  I adjust aperture & ISO up and down as needed. Sounds easy but like hitting a baseball, it ain’t. Anticipate big exposure jumps on quick lighting cues and change settings quickly, in the dark. Low light and movement means fast shutter speeds, high ISO and large apertures.  High ISO means lower dynamic range and more image noise. Large apertures ( f2.8 & f4 ) means shallow Depth of Field so it’s very easy to miss focus. At long focal lengths ( I’m in the back), one dancer can be in focus but not the one if front or behind her.  In the image above, my Depth of Field was about 10 inches so her face can be sharply focused but her parasol will be soft. The tighter I zoom, the easier it is to miss.  And when costumes and lighting are close in value and color, lack of contrast makes focus a real “maybe”.

Time is the other challenge. Each piece lasts for a few minutes. A move may occur just once. I have to decide what to cover.  If I follow one dancer, holding focus and watching, I sacrifice the others. It’s why, besides rotating casts, I photograph all the performances. I wish everyone had a solo.  Don’t think, just watch and shoot, timing is everything. Normally, I average about 2000 to 2,300 exposures per full length performance, double for a matinee and evening performance, about 12-15K total for Christmas and Spring, 20K for annual recital. No high speed shutter, all single exposure. I’m watching and listening to the music and I know the dancers.

Shooting is the shortest part of the process. Transferring memory cards to my workstation takes about an hour or so of download each day.  Rough editing averages 2 to 3 hours per 1 hour of performance.  Batching out JPEGs and uploading online, about one hour per gallery.  Then it’s just adding pricing and IPTC description data.

  I delete about 80 to 85% of images during rough edits.  Lots of reasons. I was early or late on the shutter. I missed focus. My exposure was off. The composition doesn’t work. The move isn’t expressive  Out of sync. Out of character. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  What looks good to the eye can look awful when recorded at 1/320 sec.

So why put up with his torture?  Magic happens. The hardest part of editing is not stopping to fully explore and edit an image like this when you’re working towards a promised deadline for the entire performance.

 There are eight large framed photographs on my office walls. Six are dancers, all essentially portraits of our better angels.

Silver Screen

Logo 019 Rolleri Rev A 4789

Part of a Senior Portrait Session, this was made with classic Fresnel movie lights and a modern digital camera.

Four Dancers

346 3D Space & Tech 8502Space & Tech Rehearsal, “All Wrapped Up”,  3D Project Jazz CompanyCary Ballet Conservatory,  Cary Arts Center, 11 Dec. 2012.

Dancer Watching Dancers


Leaning against the barre, in front of a window of heavenly light.  Cary Ballet Conservatory,  Studio Dress Rehearsal, 8 Dec 2012.

Black Swan

Cary Photographic Artists hosts an Annual Open Juried Exhibition each October.  Submitted work was judged yesterday and the results announced tonight.  This photograph was awarded first prize.

The Border of Neverland.

Wendy weighs the future.  From a Senior Portrait Session