#559. Are ballet dancers better photographers?

By philberphoto | How-To

Feb 17

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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  • Jim Yount says:

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

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    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 🙂

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for breaking the ice, Pete! Your idea of trying new techniques and applying them to old subjects is cool. I wonder what that could do for me with the arum flowers. Hmmmm… you’ve peaked my interest…

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Philippe, most of us are “doing our own thing” and quite often, when we show the results to someone who’s doing something quite different, the reception our work receives is less than encouraging. But remember Van Gogh – he never sold a single painting in his own lifetime, and since his death his paintings have become some of the most prized and highly regarded anywhere on this planet.

        Unfortunately, the “turn off” that comes with disparaging remarks often results in the photographer whose work was belittled becoming more isolated and introspective, with increasing less interaction with other photographers. Ending up in that situation is unfortunate, because it would tend to reduce, rather than enhance, the creativity.

        One of the great values of a group like DearSusan is that most (?) – hopefully, all 🙂 – of the members of the group are much nicer people and offer words of encouragement – accompanied, perhaps, by sensible suggestions as to how to work forward from wherever we have gotten to.

        Another useful idea is workshop groups or photography clubs. Not being a great “joiner”, I tend towards groups. But clubs are possibly a better path towards greater creativity. A friend of mine who is a complete amateur, but keen as mustard, has joined one in the country town where she lives, and she’s having a whale of a time. They have regular competitions, where they set something everyone is supposed to try (regardless of what they normally look to photograph). And club members then have to exercise some ingenuity to hit the target & come up with a photo that is suitable.

        An obvious reason for practice is familiarising yourself with all the controls of your camera[s] and equipment, so that when you ARE on a shoot, you don’t spend all day wrestling with the manual and the controls. Taking that further, you get to know what the gear can produce, and improve the quality of the images in camera, before post processing is needed.

        When I see suggestions that you can’t really “practice” the art of photography, I think of Monet’s series on haystacks. And his Nymphéas, which Christie’s once described as “are amongst the most recognised and celebrated works of the 20th Century and were hugely influential to many of the following generations of artists”. Practice – and repetition with the same subject – clearly worked for Monet. And I see no reason why it won’t help photographers. The individual shots may in the end serve only to enhance our skills, and perhaps won’t be suitable for sharing with others (except in the context of sharing what we learned, by taking them) – they may not, in short, be suitable for exhibiting – but that’s not a reason for opting not to learn something new, by trying to take them.

        And in your case, Philippe, if you had taken that course and stopped, it would have deprived us all of the pleasure of seeing all your shots of the arum lilies 🙂

        (Taking my own advice – the sun just came out, so I’m off to take a whole series of detail shots of the extraordinary range of colors the seeing eye can find on the trunks of eucalyptus(gum) trees here, at this time of year. I’ll end up with a set of photos like postage stamps, I suppose – of no possible interest to anyone else but me. But I can’t stay away from those colors!)

  • artuk says:

    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? 😉

    • philberphoto says:

      Art, thanks for your considered response. Unlike Joakim, you are clearly on the process side, and I can hear him shouting “work! work!”. But I like your idea of a continuous feedback loop.

      • artuk says:

        I sometimes wish my style was more spontaneous and led by passion – but then I would be a different person and my photographs would be someone else’s.

        My comments are to a large extent based on my thoughts on trying to develop a style, or at least an ability, at physique sports portraits. These often involve wireless flash and simple light modifiers, where I have had to learn set-ups and techniques to create certain effects.

        An important part of the process to move beyond happy snapping is to be able to appraise your own work and understand what’s good and what’s not good, and why. Even a spontaneous approach based on emotion or passion needs this, otherwise the good photos can never be anything more than serendipitous.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Artuk, concert pianists CAN play other things – well some of them anyway. I met Winifred Atwell (famous for her “honky-tonk piano” and the “Black & White Rag”) on several occasions. She trained as a concert pianist, and in today’s world I think she would have been a very good one – I’ve heard her playing classical, and as I trained at the conservatorium, I have a fair idea how good she was. But at the time, racial prejudice prevented her from earning her living in the concert halls of Europe and America, so she turned to rag-time.
      Frankly, she excelled at both.
      The moral of that story is “never say never”. Well except for this thought – never be so hard on yourself – just leave that to other people, they do a great job of criticizing.

  • Joakim Danielson says:

    It’s a tough but very interesting question you ask and I am not sure I have clear answer but I’ll give it a go anyway. I think the best driving force for practicing and improving yourself in an area or profession is being inspired or even passionate about it, whether “it” is photography or something else. This inspiration can come from excellent light, the subject itself, the circumstances like being out with your peers on a workshop shooting etc.
    Of course I should be able to find the discipline to go out and practice something even without that inspiration but I find that very hard to do, partly because I find it boring but also because with that level of discipline it starts to resemble work to much. I prefer to be a little spoiled when executing my favorite hobby 🙂
    I have tried to improve my discipline to analyze my photos once on the computer to spot things to improve the next time so I can balance that against a more improvised and inspiration driven learning.

    I cannot leave without comment on your lovely flower shoots, the one that stands out for me this time is the one with three flowers forming what to me looks like a circle (it’s #8 from the end). I like the individual colors of the three but also the are combined into one shape, I can’t help to think that they represent different stages of life.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for the comments and kind words, Joakim! You are clearly on the side of following passion rather than process. I am there as well, but at the same time, with a sense that I “have to” do better. Good old fashioned competitiveness (with myself, in this case). To some extent, following your line of thought, I am wondering whether more process, taking fun out of shooting, would increase my satisfaction when viewing the results. Or maybe dissatisfaction is actually an engine fueling my quest…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Joakim,

      this resonates strongly in me so I’ll jump in.

      Once we’ve mastered the basic execution skills (bracing, breathing to avoid shaking, as Pete mentions, exposure, DoF, knowing the camera …) I think the main discipline amounts to introspection. Which is why it is so hard to do without the passion and inspiration, as you describe.

      I too need to feel inspired and driven. If I’m low, the camera won’t even leve the bag for weeks. When all is well, the drive is all consuming. Passion is probably just a projection of our inner values/dreams/aspirations/beliefs … projected onto a creative discipline. Your comment on Philippe’s photographs miroring the stages of life proves that type of sensitivity.

      So, in that context, practice can only mean a reflexion on our production and how we feel about it, how to make it more aligned with what we admire and love. That’s tough because we often lack the education, vocabulary and discipline to to so efficiently and also because of outside pressure, competitions, social media’s lust for the spectacular …

      I second your comment on Philippe’s superb set of pictures. Congrats Philippe. Quite the comeback! 🙂

  • David says:

    Actually ballet dancers may be better photographers, because they train their kinaesthetic interaction with space. They may interact with space in a very complex yet felt way. There is a thing in dance called space harmony. We see in order to move and photography can be a form of dance. Seldom do you see a photographer with a good sense of space like a dancer, most are making boring pictures of things and wasting time on tech stuff.

  • Sean says:

    … I like the title … I think it tilts a cap to ‘practice’ because ballet dancers do practice to be better. Having said that, practice can be both a helper and a hindrance – whilst striving to achieve one’s style, consistency in style, and avoiding the monotony of the photographers rut … in sum, practice is part of progress towards being a better photographer … otherwise it’d be just as effective as learning horse riding skills by correspondence …

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Feeling mischievous – just found this article, and I think it should be compulsory reading for all beginners.


    It also provides a compelling argument in favour of experimenting.

  • Soso says:

    Ballet dancers, musicians or martial art fighters practice the same steps over and over again so it becomes muscle memory. The key is to not think about your body movement.

    That doesn’t work for photography until you need to practice pressing the shutter button 🙂

    However, you can – and should – practice active seeing, composition, colors, light … You don’t need to press a shutter for that. Just watch and observe. Though, a camera helps to remember what you saw and gets you the confirmation and connection between what your eye saw and what the camera made out of it. In that case, taking many, many photos helps – and is practising. But not like the ballet dancer or musician doing the same over and over again, but putting yourself into new situations over and over again. Or like you said already “appreciating the opportunity to its fullest”.

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