#559. Are ballet dancers better photographers?

#559. Are ballet dancers better photographers?

For many weeks, my condition prevented me from any interaction with the outside world. During that dark time, Pascal sent me almost every day a “picture of the day”, complete with questions/reflections/musings on what is photography. Beyond the extraordinary friendship and generosity that this shows (what else is new, for those of us who know Pascal?), he mused over one point which I want to elaborate on in this post. He said that photographic skills can (should?) be perfected and honed with much rehearsing and practicing.

Being the son of a concert pianist, I am no stranger to the many hours a day it takes to be at the top of one’s game in many types of performing arts. Ballet dancing comes to mind as the one art form demanding a huge commitment to often painful training. So my first reaction to Pascal’s piece was “Great! The man is right” (it always hurts to come to this conclusion…:-). And I began to wonder how to go about doing this. What to see/shoot/process over and over again that it might become second nature, and free me from execution so that I might concentrate on artistic conception and delivery?

The answer wasn’t forthcoming. I couldn’t see how doing something over and over again would have anything to do with capturing scenes which are unique in nature. Or rather, I could see how this would lead to formulaic photography. That is something that Pascal has a bizarre love/hate relationship with. Just look at his post from Berlin, and you will notice the variety and creativity of his “eye”. I am very envious of this ability of his to “see” so many different subjects as we walk together, and he creates many more shots -and worthy ones!- than I can manage. Yet, he chastises himself for not endowing his pictures with a “common look” as a professional photographer would. Pshaw!

As an example of the benefits of rehearsing, he mentioned my series of pictures of arum flowers. The reason I shoot them often is that they are in a greehouse very close to where my mother lives, soon to be mauled by the extension of the Roland-Garros tennis stadium. So, yes, I have many such shots, over a few years. If Pascal’s point is correct, then my shots should be getting better. Not necessarily because I am getting better, but because my many sessions there are making me better at them.

Fact is, looking back, such is not the case. To some extent, I might be getting worse. A sense of “been there and done that” means I now look for less obvious, less attractive angles, as I’ve covered the favorites ad nauseam.

So, does that mean that no amount of “work” will let me get better? I think there is no simple yes/no answer to this question. Where I am at right now is that

(a) photography is not a repetitious exercise, the way executing a dance choreography or playing a music part is. Hence, rehearsing the “finished product” doesn’t apply. Shooting, and shooting more, and yet more, only goes so far. Yes, it will help, but with all the efficiency and finesse of brute force.

But (b) “seeing” is like a muscle. It can be trained. So practicing definitely applies. How to do it? One simple thing that works for me, and I kick myself for doing it so little, is going out with a target. Concentrating on “this” or “that”, rather than “whatever happens to cross my mind, my path and my lens”. Some thing like being a pro rather than a dilettante. Or appreciating the opportunity to its fullest, because it (or I) may not be there for an encore.

And (c), mastering one’s equipment is key (that includes your PP software). Being able to previsualise a result, and pre-selecting the best setting/composition is hugely valuable; To wit: it takes me but a couple of minutes to  get a first impression on a given piece of gear I am trying out. It takes Pascal a couple of months to master a lens. No connection to the fact that he can wring many more shots out of an opportunity? I rather think the opposite.

Lastly, (d), execution does matter. But that is a case of being disciplined, focused, thorough, relentless. Typical of my friend Boris (not his only strong points, far from it), and, again, the very opposite of a dilettante attitude.

What this eventually boils down to is a much-debated question, how much photography is creation, and how much a technique. My answer is to compare it to driving a racing car. It can be driven fast by a gentleman-driver, who relies on pure talent for speed. But, ultimately, it is the more professional sort (Lauda, Prost, Schumacher) who collect the more titles.

Just to show you what I mean, 3 examples. The first one is taken from the same group of blossoms, if they can be called that, as the very first picture. What didn’t I do it first time around? Did I not see it? Was I too lazy to change lenses?

The second one is due to chance. I feel that the blueish spot in the background and the square crop make to shot, but I hadn’t seen “it” on shooting it, nor on the LCD. Dilettante’s luck.

The third one is one I worked on hard. Shot it many times, to get the most out of it, consciously, and, I hope, not without result

There you have it. One in three, not even counting the ones I missed for want of seeing. I must make sure to go there with Pascal one day, and see how much more could be done.



It is good, if painful, to know how much I have yet to learn. But I would be hugely grateful for approaches, methods, tips and all, because I am sure not to be the only one grappling with this issue….


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  1. Avatar
    Jim Yount February 17, 2017

    This is just excellent. Thank you so much for posting it

    • Avatar
      philberphoto February 17, 2017

      Thank you, Jim. Congratulations are always most welcome, as are kind words. Others, please abstain! :-)))

  2. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron February 18, 2017

    Perhaps it depends what Pascal means, when he says “practice”.

    Example – we are all urged to avoid camera shake, and we’ve all taken shots that were spoiled by it. We learn from that, and from what we read or hear, and improve – so it happens less often (or not at all). But nobody I know of goes around practicing not to shake the camera, using “practice” in a narrow dictionary meaning sense.

    A while ago, I’d never done stack shots – a friend asked me to produce some shots for a catalogue, so I started taking them. And like anything else, the more I did, the better I was at creating them. Again – “practice”. Do I want more practice at it? – I didn’t think so, till I turned from her subject matter to something nearer to my heart, and tried the same techniques on a different subject. It bombed, for technical reasons unassociated with any of my skills. In a sense, though, trying stack shots on a different subject was “practice” – and I learned from that experience too.

    (Actually I learned quite a bit from it – I went off looking for alternative solutions to the same problem, and was thrilled to find I could do exactly that!)

    Everyone knows I can rabbit on for ages on a bad day, but I’ll leave it there. Hope this breaks the ice and other members of the group add their thoughts, because this one interests me greatly. As I’ve said any number of times, I’m relatively new to the world of digital, and the experiences other ‘togs share is a huge help to me – as well as making sure I “practice”, of course 🙂

  3. Avatar
    artuk February 18, 2017

    I do feel that practice helps to perfect. When you photograph the same type of subject again and again, the familiarity allows you to concentrate on what one knows already “works”. When you start, you may try lots of things, and on review you realise that occasionally you got it right with some. Hopefully, the next time you photograph the same subject again, you remember what worked, and try to repeat it. Often, when concentrating on something about a particular (type of) photo, you miss an issue that you never considered to be a problem. Once again, on review you may notice this thing that slipped past you when you released the shutter, and hopefully next time you remember to take care of that issue before the photo is ever taken.

    It is certainly my experience that when I take physique portraits now, I have a much better idea of how to go about it, how to try and light it, and what things to try and avoid. I still have off days where I’m not on my best game, and on other days the magic happens and I get something better than I might ever have expected or hoped for. Much of the improvement has come from “practice” (repeating the process) and then looking at and understanding what “worked” and what didn’t afterwards.

    Of course, all of this has the danger that your photographs become somewhat staid or formulaic, with a risk of never looking at a subject in different ways, because you have “practiced” so hard at a particular technique. Concert pianists probably can’t play boogie-woogie (I may be wrong!); ballet dancers probably don’t know how to body-pop. They learnt to approach a problem in a specific way, and only have a specific set of skills that they can employ to solve it. Landscape photographers probably make terrible portrait photographers; wildlife photographers probably don’t understand how best to shoot architecture.

    I came to realise that my photographic “talent” was mostly at a technical level, so I knew roughly how to approach a subject to get an acceptable picture, but the resulting photographs lacked much artistry or inspiration – they were competent but unexceptional. I wouldn’t say I have a “style” as I photograph many different types of subject, and therefore whatever talent I may have is spread very thinly across a number of genres – indeed during a portfolio review by a reasonably well known nat-geo type portrait photographer the comment was that I had a “simple style” – damning with feint praise indeed.

    Where I think my photography has improved has been through “practice” – photographing the same type of subject again and again over time in the hope that I see some improvement in technical ability and artistic style. There’s a lot to be said for repetition, but it only adds value to a process if they is some type of “continuous feedback loop” that allows for process improvement, otherwise it’s just doing the same thing badly again and again in the unjustified hope of improvement.

    Perhaps we need an ISO9001 / BS5750 standard for photography? 😉

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