Ballerina – oh my

This is likely to be a fairly long post so please hang in there.  The main story is about two ballerinas, Gavin and Nikki.  The nerdy substory is about the lessons we learned during the process of photographing these two wonderful dancers

We were given the opportunity to photograph Gavin Larsen, Prima Ballerina, at the Oregon Ballet Theater thanks to a friend who is painting her into a series of extraordinary oil paintings.  Gavin is one of these people who exudes kindness and grace.  She gave us a couple of hours of astonishing dance and poses and we did our best to light her and capture the dynamic grace and strength she controls.  We learned a lot.  We learned even more when we sat with Gavin a few months later to share tea and have her critique the entire set of images from the shoot.  Since it was our first time shooting a dancer of any sort our direction to Gavin was a simple “try to center on this spot and keep your face to the main light”.  She’s done this before and knew what we needed even if I didn’t.  It was a wonderful series of moves and poses, all of which looked good to me.  Gavin talked about her position to the camera, the camera position to her and distortions that were created by shooting from too high up.  We learned to understand the pose or move and when the peak occurs. Like I said, we learned a lot.  At the end of the critique session I asked Gavin to please let her students know that we would love the opportunity to implement our new knowledge while photographing them.  We didn’t wait too long before Gavin connected us to a young lady named Nikki.  After a few email exchanges we set a date and time to photograph Nikki. I’m serious when I say that I was very excited about the opportunity.  I love our images of Gavin and had high hopes that I could do Nikki’s talents justice.

We got to OBT after a rehearsal for Giselle, a ballet in which Nikki is performing currently.  She met us in the lobby and we began the set up.  This time I was determined to shoot from waist height, use a different lighting setup and to use a tripod to assure sharpness… or at least help.  We got set up in near record time and Nikki took the stage.  She needed portfolio shots to accompany audition packages she is submitting as she moves toward being a professional ballerina and all her poses for us were static.  The fact that she was not jumping, twirling and moving was a bonus for us and allowed her and Gavin to fine tune her posing as we shot.  Later in this post I’ll share my trials with shooting tethered to a laptop… great idea if I’d not had some technical issues.  More on that in a bit.

Please meet Nikki.  She is, like Gavin, quiet, confident and extremely talented.  We’d shoot and then examine the images to make any adjustments needed to the pose. I’m always amazed at how precise and deliberate a ballerina can be while performing in a position that requires great strength and flexibility.  To say I’m impressed is a huge understatement.  Please click on the images below to see them larger.

I’m thrilled with the images and Nikki has a collection that she is pleased with and can use to support her interviews.  Another great opportunity to provide a photographic product that matters to someone.  I still pinch myself that we got to photograph a talented lady like Nikki and we give her our most sincere thanks and best wishes for a wonderful future.

Now the nerdy, not-for-everyone story behind the images.  If you aren’t into digital cameras and computers and all the issues that they create at the worst possible moments then you can just move along… the rest of this is not for you.

Still here?  Welcome to my nerdy confession and public disclosure.  I’ll start by saying that if the images had not turned out well I’d never bring this up in public.  Since the images are, in my opinion, quite nice, I feel I can talk about the errors I made during the shoot.  It’s how I make sure they are ingrained in my head so I don’t repeat them.  Hopefully they will be of some use to others who may have an opportunity to shoot like we were.

The basic gear was a D700 camera and a 50mm f/1.4 lens tethered to a laptop computer running the beta version of Lightroom 4.  Tethering is possible in LR3 as well but I put LR4 on our new laptop so that was what was in place.  No problems at all making the tether work.  And then I took the first shot… SAY WHAT?  The image appeared on the screen as expected… mostly.  What I saw on the screen was about 60-70% of what I saw in the viewfinder.  My first reaction was that I had LR zoomed in on the image preview. That was not the case.  I began to sweat.  I shot several more images hoping that something magical would happen and all would be well.  It didn’t.  My next instinct was to change the lens so I put on the 70-200 and found that the lens was not the problem.. it just looked bigger. I unplugged the tether to see if that was a problem.  Nope. Dianne always encourages me to be quiet when I have problems while shooting for a client.  That’s darn good advice but I’m lousy at it.  I started to mutter but did not swear.  I called a break and walked to the side of the room to review the menus in the camera to see if I could find something that said “hey, look at this” and provide a cure.  It didn’t happen.  I was beginning to frame a way to tell Nikki how sorry I was but that we’d need to reschedule.  GULP.  That was when Dianne walked up and suggested that I use the backup camera (D200).  Did I ever tell you how smart she is?  Duh… have a backup but don’t think to use it?  Hmmmmm.  Thanks (again) Dianne.

We put the 50 mm lens on the D200, adjusted the settings and took a test shot.  All was well in the world again.  I took a couple more shots just to make sure I had a camera that would work as it should.  I began to calm down and Nikki smiled as we began to seriously take some photos of her.  I thanked her for her patience and she just smiled… “no problem” she says.  Whew.

So then I thought “why don’t we hook the tether to the laptop up to the D200 so we can review the images on a large screen rather than the little LCD on the camera.  Dianne goes to get the cable and hands it to me.  I realize that I need the little pigtail USB cord that is firmly attached to the D700 and enclosed in a bracket that allows the cable to move between the camera and tripod when it is mounted in vertical position.  I can’t get the USB cable out of the bracket without an Allen wrench to loosen the bracket.  The Allen wrench is at home.  I don’t have another mini-USB cable.  So we go back to shooting the old fashioned way but you know what…. we’re making images.  Gavin and Nikki are making adjustments to the poses and I’m content to sit there and take pictures until they are content with what they see on the LCD.  In one hour we are done and head for home.

Once I got home I sat down with the D700 to see if I could resolve the problem somehow.  I put a different memory card in and confirmed that there was still a problem.  The camera was only recording a part of the scene.  Then I realized that I’d been troubled by a small signal prior to the shoot that should have been enough clue to tell me that something was amiss.  I use a 16gb CF card most of the time and I’m used to seeing about 740 images available when the card is formatted and empty.  I was seeing 1300 images available.  I didn’t understand why but did not worry about it.  But the issue was that the camera has a menu setting that comes into play when a lens that is designed to be used on a camera with a crop sensor is in place on the camera.  When that happens the camera wants to adjust the active part of the sensor to record the image the DX lens sees.  I don’t expect you to fully appreciate this but the result was I could get more files on the memory card.. they just wouldn’t be the full image that I was seeing in the viewfinder.  Good grief.  The default setting in the camera is to turn the DX switch “on”.  I turned it back to “off” and a miracle happened.  I took a photo and all was well.  The file counter was back down to about 740. The full image was present.  It took all of 2 minutes to do this.  I sure wish that I’d had the awareness to connect the dots and make the correction while we were with Nikki and Gavin.

So, we have images that I can be proud of.  Nikki has her images and seems happy.  We walked away without sacrificing a session or a relationship.  As Joe McNally says, there is always something that will go wrong while shooting on assignment… it’s how we learn.  Consider me better educated.

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3 thoughts on “Ballerina – oh my

  1. The shots are lovely Bruce and the technical explanation while not to everyone’s taste speaks highly to how complex things can be. Your skill and tenacity resulted in some beautiful shots. I would bet she is trilled. Nice job my friend.

  2. Good post, Bruce. I think my favorite of the three photos is the middle one, primarily because of the image size of Nikki, and because of the symmetry with the fingers of her hands. I don’t think we have to worry about you becoming a prima ballerina, but you’re sure working at becoming a prima photographica!

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