CBA Winter Program 2016 - Stephen Jennings Photography
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CBA Winter Program 2016

01/05/2017


I thought I'd talk a bit about a project that has taken over my life for the past 2 weeks :)

I shot the Nutcracker. A lot.

Classical Ballet Academy asked me a few weeks ago to photograph their ballet performances for their 2016 winter program. Which was .. let's see .. 9 shows (4 Nutcrackers, 3 Children's Nutcrackers, 1 Sweet Suite -baby Nutcracker- 1 Christmas Carol.) 4 in-Theater dress rehearsals and 4 in-studio dress rehearsals. I also photographed another studio's theater productions but that's for another day. This was the most continuous shooting I've ever done - racking up 48,000 shots (5,000 more from the 4 in studio sessions.) Now.. that's an obviously absurd number of shots, one would think I just had my finger pressed on the shutter and prayed for the best. The reality is I actually shoot with my shutter restricted to 1 frame or 2 frames per second - absurdly slow.

The thing is ... I've never seen the Nutcracker before. I've never seen a ballet performance before. I've never been behind the curtain or backstage. The last time I was in a theater was for a 3rd grade field trip to see Don Quixote ... uh ... that must have been in 1994 or something. 

But that's not why I took so many photos. I had been trying to get an academy to let me photograph their productions since August, I had a plan, a mission of sorts.

I wanted to photograph EVERYONE. Not just the Sugarplum Fairy, or Clara, or the Rat King. I wanted portraits of people off to the sides, those supporting actors that lend their skills, toiling along with their own choreography, to tell the story of each BonBon, not just the group as a whole........

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You must be thinkin "Steve, you's crazy!" 

Yes, yes I am. 

And I did it - at least, as far as I know, every single kid on that stage got a few portraits of them during the shows. And not just standing around looking at their shoes - but rather playing their roles. If I was in a play, even if I was in the back, way in the back, under the absurd blue light that makes you look like a giant blueberry (sorry Ainsley) I'd still want some documentation. If it was my son I'd certainly want a photo. It's not some marketing ploy (I actually have no idea, not even a guess, how much I'll make from all this effort) but more of a challenge to myself. I'm a master of my equipment, I know my cameras intimately (it's a complicated relationship) and I know I can shoot in any situation thrown my way. 

Yet... it presents a problem. Specifically during dress rehearsals, I needed to be able to do these portraits I wanted to do, yet not miss the show. To get the portraits I'd need a 'long' lens - a lens that can reach people in the back row and capture them. Professional lenses just don't have that versatility, to reach long distances and snap back to a position to photograph a wide scene. I shoot with two cameras, but to take wide shots while roaming would create an ugly distorted view of the stage - the only thing that it would highlight is inconsistency. 

So... I came up with the idea of using an intervalometer attached to my portrait camera (because it captures more detail when downsampling the photos). The intervalometer is a wireless remote that lets me manually control the shutter time, time lapse shutter release and bulb (manually timing the shutter) as well as frames per second and single releases. Each scene I set the sensor sensitivity and focused on the center of the stage at a small aperture so it'd be in focus... then manipulate the shutter from the seats. With one long lens to take portraits, timed to the music I could release the shutter or time the shutter to follow the beat (I found manually releasing easier after a while.) The result is .. well you can see below:

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Genius!

Does it really matter? Does anyone care? I have no idea, I just know it was fairly difficult and I pulled it off perfectly. :D

I used a shallow depth of field, particularly during shows, to isolate individuals from the crowd. Instead of taking a photo of a line of snowflakes and saying ... eh, I think that 3rd girl is who that photos of.. then a parent has a photo of a bunch of kids - instead down the line everyone but the intended dancer is out of focus. The lenses and aperture I used vary depending on the distance of the dancer and the frame I needed to shoot in.. generally I used a 105mm prime lens and a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens to isolate effectively. I used a 35mm lens if they got too close to my little hiding spot in the corner. 

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Conclusion...

I love photographing ballet - it's challenging, it's artistic, athletic, the dancers are amazing and their dedication is admirable. The response I've gotten from the photographs so far has been overwhelmingly positive, which as an artist to know people appreciate your artwork is thee greatest feeling. Hopefully I'll be able to continue throughout the year with my dance photography with individual portraits - and perhaps the academies I shot for will welcome me back to shoot again.

The photos SHOULD be done (for CBA) this weekend ... maybe.

By the way - assuming people read this - I set up the galleries for all these shows so that you have to register. The point of that is so that when you go from gallery to gallery you can save photos to a personal gallery. So your gallery might have 25 photos from 4 different sets.. with the link that gets e-mailed to you, you can go back to that gallery and view the photos on your own subdomain. The effort to design a backend user list for people to sign into and all that is too much - creating a subdomain for individual e-mail accounts is so much easier and, if you  bookmark the link, quite effective. :D

Thanks for reading!

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