Exposed : The ballet dancer capturing it all

The ballet dancer’s snapshot

ballet dancer smiles to camera

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a higher than average proportion of professional ballet dancers use a camera (often a high-end model) as a hobby and a way of recording the backstage preparations and after-show celebrations. You often find dancers at the side of the stage capturing the action. It’s easy to see why; visual by nature, they have the access and the trust of their colleagues. By and large the photos won’t make it beyond their Instagram, twitter & facebook social media accounts, and sometimes they’ll blog, like Royal Danish Ballet dancer Shelby Elsbree does – taking her own photographs to supplement her words in a portfolio she calls Captured. Less often, it’s with any eye towards a potential second career as a professional photographer.

Making the jump from amateur to pro is difficult, in part because there’s no defined path.  For a start, there are no industry-recognised qualifications, so what does ‘professional’ actually mean – that your last pay cheque was for taking photographs or that you really know what you’re doing from a technical standpoint back to front and inside out in the dark ? Acquiring the technical knowledge is one thing and having the talent and people skills to see and capture a great shot is another; to make a successful career out of photography you need a very strong business approach and this acumen is in itself hard to accrue while busy performing. But without this triumvirate, failure looms large.

In my Cupcakes & Conversation interviews I always ask my interviewees what their exit strategy is, for a very good reason. Invariably there isn’t one, with rare exceptions. It makes me nervous.  A professional ballet career is over so incredibly swiftly, even if everything goes well, that it pays (literally) to at least consider other options & interests, including re-training, so that there is enough time to make the transition as smoothly as possible.

Exit strategy

Sometimes fate will force the issue; in Martin Bell’s case, as a Soloist with Northern Ballet, serious injuries gave him time to focus on his other interests and he began to formulate his own exit strategy. Now retired, (he says of his last performance with the company, “my last performance was very emotional. It was Northern Ballet’s production of I Got Rhythm, which is really lively and has the orchestra on stage with the dancers. It was my wife’s last show with Northern Ballet as well and we danced the Man I Love Pas de Deux together. We hadn’t danced together too much during our careers but it was one of my favourite moments of my career when I turned around and saw her coming towards me”), Bell is working as a professional photographer, making his living from it, and I wanted to catch up with him to see how he did it, how he’s making it work, as well as delving into the technicalities of photography for those of you who know something about it already. Plus Bell offers great tips if you’re at the other end of the lens.

ballet dancer on stage

I began by asking him why photography had captured his imagination in the first place. He says, “when I was a dancer with Northern Ballet I got to work with some outstanding dance photographers such as Hanson, Johan Persson and Bill Cooper to name only a few. I loved working with them as a dancer, but I was more fascinated with watching them work as a photographer. I worked with Bill Cooper a fair bit whilst I was at Northern Ballet and he even took my audition photographs when I was in my graduating year at the Central School of Ballet. I am a huge fan of his work. His ballet and dance production photography is amazing, in my opinion the best there is. He sees positions before they happen and his timing and camera technique is outstanding. As a dancer I watched him once during a photo shoot and it was then that I realised that dance and theatre photography was what I wanted to do with my life once I’d finished dancing so when I had a serious injury in 2010 I decided to put my savings towards my future and bought my first DSLR camera. Since then I have taken every opportunity to get behind the camera and practice, practice, practice.”

“A photograph is a secret about a secret.  The more it tells you the less you know.” Diane Arbus, 1985

Still, most dancers are single-minded in their approach to their ballet career to a fault, and finding the time to explore other interests, however beguiling, can be difficult.  How did Bell combine the two ? “I had my fair share of serious injuries during my dancing career and while that was a huge disappointment from a dancing point of view, it did enable me to get behind my camera. I also used every technical or dress rehearsal I had off to go into the stalls and try to recreate what I was seeing in front of my eyes. I have tried many different types of photography; weddings, portraiture, sport etc, but none of these are as hard technically as dance and theatre. Capturing very fast movement in near total darkness becomes quite challenging! You have to use fast shutter speeds to freeze the movement and high ISO’s to keep the camera’s sensor fast. Using an f/2.8 lens also helps with this.”

ballet dancer holds up her hands on stage

Turning pro means a lot more work which requires a great deal of self-motivation; it’s not enough to understand photography and know your camera inside out, and Bell told me, “when I bought my camera I also took out a home study course with The Photography Institute. The course was fantastic and I have already introduced two other dancers to it. The course, along with a tutor who was assigned to me, taught me everything I needed to know. Although he didn’t have experience in dance photography, his knowledge of entering photography as a profession was very valuable. I would have loved to go to a university to study full-time, but I just didn’t have the time or money. Fortunately, I have recently been awarded funding through Dancers’ Career Development, which has really helped me make the transition from a dancer who takes pictures casually, to a professional dance photographer. Without their help and support I would not be where I am now.”

The business end

Turning to the business angle specifically, as an area that’s often under-studied, I asked Bell what he had done to hone the business skills he’ll need as a self-employed photographer. “I have read countless books, two in particular; The Bigger Picture by Jeanne Griffiths & Setting Up a Successful Photography Business by Lisa Pritchard, I found very helpful. I’ve made sure that the courses I’ve taken included business sections for photographers and I’ve read websites specialising in business and marketing. I do have one fortunate ‘card up my sleeve’ and that is my dad is a bank manager, so if I ever have a question he is always a good person to ask!!

“It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer.  You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things.  But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary.” David Bailey 1984

I was interested to know what sort of photography kit Bell likes to use, and how that’s changed as his experience has developed, because it’s an expensive hobby and as a profession, there’s insurance and a myriad other expenses to add on. It’s often said that the only way to make money from photography is to sell your camera. Bell tells me, “I am a Canon man. You’re either a Canon or a Nikon usually, but I chose Canon. It felt right in my hand and to be honest they are both amazing manufacturers. When you get to the pro level cameras, there is little difference between the two makes. When I was starting out I had a Canon 50D and an 18-200mm f/5.6 standard kit lens, which was not ideal. It is a very slow lens for theatre photography, and a camera which can’t really go above ISO 2000 without giving the picture too much digital noise, makes the pictures seem like they are distorted. When I purchased my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L MkII IS USM, my theatre work really improved. I gained roughly four stops of light and so could shoot a lot faster. I then purchased my 24-70 f/2.8L USM, which enabled me to capture whole scenes of dance rather than just picking out individuals. When I was awarded funding from the DCD I knew I needed to upgrade my camera and also knew I would need two camera bodies to be able to use both lenses without having to keep change them. I opted for the Canon 1D MKIV and have not been disappointed. I won a Dance Photography competition at The Place a couple of weeks ago where I was 1 of 5 young dance photographers to be given the opportunity to shoot the London Contemporary Dance School Graduation dress rehearsal. It was near total darkness at times and I was shooting at ISO 5000. My old camera would not have coped well but my Canon 1D mark IV’s were outstanding.” And, as with every photographer, there are some items on his wish list, “there are three lenses on my wish list: Canon 200mm f/2L IS USM, Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM and 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM. My list could go on but I think they would be my top three for sure. My own studio would be great too if I had an endless pot of gold!!”

ballet dancer crawls on stage

“Photography is the truth.” Jean-Luc Godard 1960

Not everyone likes being photographed; some people positively avoid it, but ballet dancers have advantages in that they are used to taking direction, they know how to stand and all those hours in front of the mirror might lead them to be self-critical but they do know how to act and show themselves off to best effect.  So what are the challenges for the photographer and what does Bell hope to capture in every shot ? “I think the hardest challenge is capturing the exact moment. Whether that is emotionally or technically, or quite often both together. The best dance photographers are able to do this in nearly every shot they take and that is what I try to do. When you get that ‘moment’ you have to be ready because you only get one chance and then that moment is lost. Just like any live performance, you can’t rewind and do it again, you have to be ready and anticipate what is about to happen. Being an ex-dancer really helps with this because you know the preparation a dancer on stage is going to take when they are about to do a big jump or hit an arabesque.”

To the dancers, Bell offers this advice, “Act as naturally as possible and try to pretend the camera is not there. It’s definitely easier to say than do but it’s the best advice I can give. I know when I was a dancer I was always really excited when the photographers were in, but just do your rehearsal like you would do a show, emotionally as well as technically. It will make the images so much better and the photographers will be able to see what you are about to do before you do it.”

Low light, noise and photons

Ballet productions often leave the stage an inky black, and low light levels are de rigueur in most of them. Professional digital cameras are adept at counteracting the ‘noise’ that is associated with low light levels, but the photographer needs to be on top of his game, as Bell explains, “you have to have fast lenses, f/2.8 or lower, a good low light camera with an ISO range up to ISO 6400 and tripods to make sure camera shake is completely eliminated. Camera equipment is extremely heavy too so the tripods really come in handy as two hours holding 10 kg of camera will really tire your arms!! You also need to know your camera inside out and back to front as theatres are pitch black. If you need to change settings during the dress rehearsal you’ll have to know where the button you want is without being able to see it.”

So what are the technical aspects behind this approach ? “I always shoot in manual mode as I like to be in complete control of the camera all the time. My shutter speed is at least 1/200 with my 70-200mm and I usually shoot with my ISO between 800 and 2500 depending on the lighting on stage. Like I said earlier, I did shoot at ISO 5000 for the London Contemporary Dance School Graduation dress rehearsal but that was a rarity. I always spot meter on my zoom lens to get the most accurate exposure on faces and evaluative meter on my wide-angle lens to make sure the whole scene is metered correctly. Metering is very hard when the lights on stage change, so I always keep an eye on how my exposure is doing and also check on the back of the camera when a scene changes just to make sure I have adjusted the camera accordingly and am exposing correctly.”

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” Dorothea Lange

Setting up any business is all-consuming; having put everything in place, how do you develop it further ?  Bell told me, “I’d love to do more dance production work in and around London and work closer with the top four dance companies across the UK. Working with professional dancers is fascinating as just when you think they have given you their maximum, they give you that little bit more! I’d also love to go back to where I came from, the little local dance school, and offer photo shoots to the students, where they can be coached by an ex-professional dancer at the same time. I have done this with the Northern Ballet Academy and it was very popular. All local primary schools do it each year where a photographer comes in and does formal portraits of each child. It is an opportunity for parents to buy beautiful photographs of their child, and I think a similar thing can be done with dance, posing the next generation of aspiring young dancers in balletic poses. I’m also breaking into the wedding photography industry at the moment. Living in Hampshire I am in the ideal place as thousands of weddings happen here every year.”

“What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.” Karl Lagerfeld

The ballet world is a small one, and in a compact, crowded field I wanted to find out what Bell thinks will make his work stand-out from the crowd. “That’s a tough one. I think capturing emotion is one of my strongest points. I can tell from a persons’ body language when they are about to hit the peak of their emotion and usually that is when they are at their maximum for the step they are doing. For example a split jete is a good image to capture but a split jete with emotion makes it stand out from the crowd. I also like to have variety in my theatre work, combining group shots, full length individual shots and close-ups of the emotion running through the dancers’ body as they put everything into the character they are playing. That is what I feel makes my work unique.”

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” Ansel Adams


Visit Martin Bell’s website to see more of his work and to contact him for commissions

Read The Bigger Picture


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Read Setting up a successful photography business

Setting Up a Successful Photography Business: How to be a Professional Photographer (Setting Up Guides) (Paperback)

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