A Legend In Ballet

If you told me, a couple of years ago, when I first started photographing dancers in Chicago, that I'd have the chance to photograph the queen of ballet, the one and only, Diana Vishneva, I'd say you are crazy. Well, I guess the world is crazy, because I found myself backstage, camera in hand, in her dressing room, capturing a legend getting ready for her show in Chicago!

This behind the scenes photo shoot for Diana and the Sleeping Beauty Dreams production in Chicago was a departure from anything I've done before. When a dancer books a shoot with me, there is a lot of communication and collaboration. We go over the location choices, outfit choices, theme and the story we want to tell.

With a behind the scenes shoot, there was no communication with the dancers. It's totally understandable! They are trying to prepare for a performance. There was a certain disconnect that I had to get used to. It was a fair trade. I had to give up certain amount of control, to gain complete control of what and how I shot.

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New Found Creativity

The shooting condition inside the Auditorium Theatre was quite difficult. It was dimly lit, yet, occasionally, the large interactive screen behind the dancers would light up the whole theatre. The only area I was asked not to step foot in was the stage. With my regular client shoots, they have expectations of what the images will look like, because they have gone through my portfolio on my Instagram, or my website. This time, I can be as creative as I'd like.

If you look at the set of images below, they don't have the same feel and style of my other images in my portfolio. I have to be honest, I was a little frustrated at first. I'm used to shooting outdoors with plenty of natural light, or indoors using flash, where I control the light to my desire. I had to bump up my iso, which introduces a lot of noise. I had to slow down my shutter speed, which results in more motion blur. Those are the compromises I avoid when I shoot my clients. I had to step out of my comfort zone and surrender myself to the environment. I was there to tell a story, so focus on that!

Once I switched my mindset, something clicked. The techniques I acquired from years of shooting kicked in like muscle memory, they were just used in a different way.

One thing you will notice right away is the negative space in the images. I love the mystery the pitch black, and the blinding white areas brings. The actual subject, in this case, Diana, takes up only a fraction of the real estate, but it's undeniable, the spotlight is squarely on her! This is what negative space can do for the images...it creates tension, gets rid of all distraction, and really focus on the story.

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Technical Difficulties

Like I mentioned earlier in the post. The lighting condition was less than optimal. It was especially jarring for someone like me, who prides myself on delivering clean, high quality and crisp images. Photography, a lot of times, is about compromises, and work within these limits. Don't be afraid to bump up your iso. Noise can be your friend. The reason film photography is making a comeback is because of the imperfections. A lot of the film master pieces were out of focus, blurry and full of grain. Compared to the cameras, lenses, and editing softwares...they look almost too perfect, and lacks certain character. Focus on the story, and composition, and use your imagination during the editing process. I promise you will be surprised with the results in a good way.

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Photographing Etiquette

When you are invited to document a behind the scenes of a performance, try to be a fly on the wall, even if you have an all access pass like I did. Talk to the producer in charge and find out what the limits are. All access isn't literal. For example, bust in the dressing room of the lead, before the show, could get you kicked out of the place. Performers have their own routines before the shows. They are artists, likes like us, the photographers. Respect them as you would like to be respected.

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Diana Vishneva, True Master

I am a huge fan of all the dancers I've photographed. Regardless of their level, I'm always inspired by their hard work and dedication. However, not too many dance photographers get to work with one of the greats. Diana commends attention. She could have just stood there and all eyes would be on her. She has a present and an aura (I hate that expression, but there is no better way to describe it). Every little thing she does is effortless. A little turn of the head, a small step she takes, a flick of her wrist...even for a layman like me, the subtlety and grace in her movement hits you like a truck.

I was especially grateful for being asked to photograph her in the dressing room. It's her sanctuary where she can relax, focus, and prepare for the performance. And to be a small part of that and document her in an intimate setting was an experience I won't forget.

Jeff Yin Is an international award winning Dance Photographer from Chicago.