As the staff photographer for San Francisco Ballet, my job is to photograph the Company for advertising, press releases, brochures, and programs. Most of my time is spent in the rehearsal studios photographing the dancers and choreographers while ballet’s are being created. But during the Company’s season, I’m fortunate enough to be able to photograph the dancers on stage and backstage in the War Memorial Opera House. I find shooting backstage to be a very interesting part of my work and yet, at the same time, the most challenging. This is basically due to shooting in near darkness or directly into bright stage lights and trying to stay out of the way of dancers, crew, and moving sets.
Recently, I started focusing less on what was on stage and more on what was happening backstage. My camera of choice for photographing backstage is the Leica M9. It’s very small, lightweight, quiet, and doesn’t attract a lot of attention. I mainly use the Leica 50mm Summilux-M F/1.4 ASPH lens wide open due to the fact that it’s very dark backstage. This lens is one of my favorites in terms of sharpness, contrast, and its beautiful out-of-focus quality.
When I’m shooting the dancers on stage or during rehearsals, timing is the most important factor in getting the shot. Of course, timing is important in most types of photography. But in dance photography, the difference between a good and bad shot can literally be a fraction of a second. When photographing dance, you really have to be “on your toes” (sorry, I couldn’t resist.) There are other photographic variables that I’m thinking about but timing is key. When I’m shooting backstage, it’s more about looking for little ‘moments in time.’ I have a bit more time to stop and think about the shot, and how I want it to look in terms of focus and composition. It’s definitely not a lot of time but it feels like that compared to the fast shooting style of photographing on stage.
I also approach shooting backstage a little differently than on stage. On stage, I’m looking for a more polished, slick look, almost as if it looked like it was shot in a controlled studio setting. Backstage, I think of things in a more gritty, documentary- style. I’m still aware of things like lighting, separation of subject to the background, and composition but my main goal is to grab ‘the moment.’