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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Surfaces and Strategies – Shoot Mod3#1 – Ballet Shoot

As part of my ongoing project into performance, I had the opportunity carry out a ballet photo shoot. I used a professional model, Em Theresa, who came to photographic modelling from an aerial circus background.  She is able to perform ballet en pointe and is incredibly strong and flexible.  Her look is very versatile and she has an expressive face.

I want to show the focus and poised grace of a ballerina.  Within this, I was aiming to show both energy and emotion in the shots. Working with low key lighting to get a dramatic effect, my aim was to show the passion and art in the movement of a ballet dancer.

Dance, like photography, has the ability to communicate and idea in a universal manner, without the use of language.  I have no knowledge of ballet.  I do not know any of the proper names for the moves and steps, but I do know what I like to see in an image.


Figure 1: Sutherst. 2017

I quickly discovered during the shoot that achieving the perfect shot required a lot of patience.  Thankfully, in the studio I have this in bucket loads.

The first shots that I captured were timed to perfection with the model performing the pose to a countdown.  It took a couple of goes to get this right.

Em Theresa has incredible strength and is able to hold the pose for enough time to get the shot. Her face and body show no evidence of the strain she must have put her body through to hold the pose.

I am really fascinated with the idea of photographing dance because of the challenge of using the still, frozen nature of photography to capture and convey the grace, poise and emotion of the art of the motion of dance.


Figure 2: Sutherst. 2017

I chose edits that were both monochrome as well as colour to explore how each portrayed the poses.  I have mixed views about which I prefer.  There are no distractions in the monochrome images, but due to the lack of background distractions, the same could be said of the colour images. Each day I change my mind as to my preference for the images. I have decided to not make this decision yet.  I will involve the model and other to help me make this decision when it comes to finally editing the images for inclusion in my portfolio. I am hoping that fresh eyes will help me decided which way to go.

Each was shot with 2 lights placed to the same side of the model.  One lit the upper part of the body and the other lit the legs and feet.  I used a black backdrop.

The reason for this was that I wanted to pose the model against a clean background to increase the power of the shot.  I did not want the background to detract from the pose itself.

Normally this kind of image would appear as though it had been taken for a dance instruction manual, so could appear almost boring to look at.  This is where my choice of lighting and edit come to the rescue.  A normal ballet pose shot would be well lit and edited to show the glamorous aspect of the dancer and the pose.


Figure 3: Sutherst. 2017

I chose quite harsh lighting and emphasised this in Lightroom by increasing the clarity in the image. Whilst layers of surroundings may have added more of a narrative, I felt that they would have drawn the viewer’s eye away from the detail in the shot.  The ruffles of the tutu and the muscle tone of Em Theresa are key features of my images.

Additionally, I staged these shots in a studio.  They could have been taken in a dance studio or outdoor space. Personally, I feel this look has been done to death by other photographers.  I wanted to control the lighting and background in order to convey the powerful nature of a ballet pose en pointe.

We also worked on a few non-traditional poses that showed off the strength of Em Theresa and that provided really interesting shapes (figures 4 and 5).


Figure 4: Sutherst. 2017


Figure 5: Sutherst. 2017

Having  produced all the standard shots, it was then time for me to step it up. As I had previously experimented with getting dancers to wear trainers and perform dance moves, that was the next step.

Initially, I chose to use Em Theresa’s talent as an aerial performer and the flexibility that this requires, to produce images that have my characteristic oddness about them. (figures 6 and 7).


Figure 6: Sutherst. 2017


Figure 7: Sutherst. 2017

Figure 7 was an unplanned, serendipitous shot.  Em Theresa was responding to a conversation that was happening off set.  I was all set for a shot and was able to capture the moment.

In the shots Em Theresa was able to produce poses that look uncomfortable and to me, impossible.  She finds them quite comfortable!

For the next images, I had a discussion with Em Theresa and she was more than happy to perform ballet poses in trainers.  The co-ordination and timing of the shots was crucial.  My intention was for a shot that would portray movement, power and intensity.  The resultant image could also also be rotated clockwise to make the model appear as though she was falling.  The image below is my favourite from the whole shoot.

Jo Sutherst - 2-1-2

Figure 8: Sutherst. 2017

The intent stare and dramatic pose of the image above was the final one shot in a sequence of 5 as shown in figure 9 below.


Figure 9: Sutherst. 2017

The chosen image from this sequence portrays to me that dance is a full body experience.  Em Theresa shows the viewer in the image that her body is made up of many parts and that each is playing a part in this pose.

The viewer is drawn into the image by the intensity of the gaze. The position of her arm behind her body adds balance to the pose and you really get a sense of movement from her leg position. These also help to push the viewer’s eye around the image, again suggesting movement.

So again, the question why trainers and not ballet shoes?  Well, the answer is why not.  It make the viewer ask this question and that helps to engage them in the image.

Overall this was a fun, challenging shoot that explores the strength in performing dance poses and moves.

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