Happy Friday, friends! This post is coming later in the day than I’m happy with, but that’s what happens when your laptop is on the fritz and in the clutches of the Apple genius bar guys- no more blogging from the car/couch/anywhere that isn’t my office (where my desktop computer resides). #thatentrepreneurlife, am I right?

Today I thought it would be fun to break down my process for one of my FAVORITE photographs I’ve ever taken- this portrait of Leah, a ballerina with The Washington Ballet! This photograph is from our shoot this past Sunday, and I was so impatient to see my film from our shoot that I rushed shipping, processing & scanning in order to see how it turned out. WORTH IT!

Washington, DC ballet photographer | Abby Grace

I’d been dreaming about this photograph for months now and was waiting for the perfect location & ballerina with whom to execute my vision. My vision included a ballerina, dozens of candles, some sort of romantic dress or leotard, and a classic staircase. But there were a few obstacles I had to take under consideration:

  • In order to get the glow from the candles, I had to shoot at a time of day where the natural light was fading. The window of opportunity at sunset was a short one, so I knew we’d have to work fast
  • I wanted to shoot it on FILM, that much was absolutely certain. But because my ISO was limited to 400 (since I was shooting with Kodak’s Portra400 film), I knew I’d have to drag my shutter speed.

So, I set to work on planning. I knew I wanted my light for this photo to be a mix of ambient light from the darkening sky and the glow of the candles. This meant I needed to figure out what time sunset was (6:17pm), and be ready to START shooting right at 6:17pm, if not before. Upon arriving at our location, I realized the tree cover in our space meant we’d actually need to start shooting EARLIER, because the shade meant there would be less natural light available.

And because of how dark it was going to be and that my ISO was limited to 400 due to my film speed, I knew I was going to need to use a tripod. In general, your ability to handhold your camera at slower shutter speeds is roughly limited to 1/[the focal length of your lens].

So if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, your shutter speed is limited to 1/50. Because I was shooting with the Contax + my 80mm lens, my HANDHELD shutter speed would be [roughly] limited to 1/125 (because there isn’t a 1/80 shutter speed available on this camera). Knowing we’d be shooting at dusk with LESS light, I knew I’d need a tripod to avoid any kind of blurring due to camera shake.

We began setting up our candles at around 5:50, and it took roughly 20 minutes to get them all staged and lit. Once they were ready to go, I used my light meter (a Sekonic L-358) to meter for the place where Leah’s heart would be- high enough above the flames that it wouldn’t be fooled into thinking I had MORE light than I actually did, but not so far away from the candles that it was only measuring the light from the darkening sky. My light meter read 1/4″, so I popped my Contax onto a tripod to be prepared for the long exposure.

I also had to consider that the areas of Leah that were CLOSEST to the flames would be brighter, as the reach of light from a candle is relatively small. This meant her face was going to be in shadow if the candlelight was ONLY coming from the steps. And having the light source coming from below would also mean we’d get that ghost-like effect of holding a flashlight under your chin. So to compensate, and to ensure Leah’s face was lit as well, I had her hold a single taper candle in a brass candlestick.

Washington, DC ballet & film photographer | Abby Grace

The closer Leah held the candle, the more light fell on her face.

The light faded REALLY quickly, aided by the rain clouds that rolled in, so in total, we only had about 4 minutes to get this shot once the candles were lit. We also had to contend with pedestrians walking through the space as well, meaning I had to move my tripod a few times while shooting to make way for passersby.

I decided to PUSH this roll of film in developing, meaning my lab used the developer chemicals to expose the roll an additional stop in processing. Look how different the light is in this FIRST shot from the setup, as compared to the last one- that’s only a few minutes of difference! See how much ambient, slightly-blue light is falling on Leah on the left, compared to the light on the right?

Washington, DC ballet & film photographer | Abby Grace

The photo on the right is lit almost COMPLETELY by the candles, with little help from the sky. Look at her pointe shoes- there aren’t any shadows on the left because we were still getting ambient light from the sky, but on the right? Shadows galore, because the prime source of light was now coming from the immediate left and right, instead of from the sky above.

In total, I managed to take 11 shots before the wind blew out our candles, and almost as soon as we’d re-lit them, it started raining. So those 11 frames were all I had to go on. And I have to say- I’m THRILLED with how it turned out!

One more time, because it’s just so dang beautiful. Final settings/details: Contax 645, Portra400, f/2.0, 1/4″, push 1 stop, developed and scanned at The FIND Lab

Washington, DC ballet photographer | Abby Grace

To see more of my ballerina portraits, go HERE

To read more educational posts, go HERE

To see more of my film work, go HERE

Photog Friday: Breaking down a ballerina photograph

November 4, 2016

  1. ABBY! This is so stunning!!! Fabulous job!

  2. Rebekah says:

    Reminds me of Phantom of the Opera for some reason. LOVE IT!

  3. Jean says:

    These are stunning! So beautiful!

  4. Karen aka Mom says:

    Lovely! I liked the first photo and the second one. The story you told of all you had to do to get it all set up was fascinating. Is she from te Washington Ballet?

  5. Brittany says:

    Absolutely adore this!!

  6. […] Sure enough, she is! Leah’s a ballerina with The Washington Ballet, and I was so, SO excited she was willing to shoot with me! I’d been dreaming of the idea of photographing a ballerina amidst a a staircase full of candles, and with Leah, I knew I’d found the perfect dancer for it. We got together in DC and shot a bit while waiting for the sun to go down, and as the skies clouded over and we raced against the rain, we got the exact shot I’d bee envisioning, the one above! (You can read about my process for that here!). […]

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