Earlier this summer I was privileged to take photos at a special ballet class that my daughter attends on a Saturday. I was asked to photograph the children from all the classes with ages ranging from 3 to 19 years old, with all sorts of different abilities. The photos were put together into a slideshow that was played during the intervals of their annual performance.
I took their photos over three weekends during rehearsals. Spending that amount of time on one subject really helped me to refine my composition and figure out what worked and what didn't. Even though the room was relatively dark, I chose not to use any flash because I didn't want to distract the children and I didn't know if it would cause problems for some of them. So I was shooting at ISO 1000 f2.8 125/s most of the time.
The location was a school hall with full length south facing windows on one wall and a row of east facing windows about two metres up on another wall. Shooting into this light created some really lovely highlights. The high windows in particular allowed me to get some cool backlight without getting into the shot. The biggest problem for me was that the walls of the room were very busy and distracting, getting a clean shot was a problem. I found that using a 135mm lens at f2.8 was blurring the backgrounds nicely. It would have been very easy to just go for tight headshots, to keep the backgrounds clean, but I also wanted to show a bit of the environment, so I started looking for shots where I could put kids in the foreground and background out of focus and have just the one child in focus. I think I cracked it with the Photo of Kimberly shown left.
I took some 3000 photos over the 3 days which I edited down to 300 for the DVD. I wasn't able to go along to the show, but the feedback I got was tremendous. One mother was telling me how her husband was in tears when the DVD was being played. I was a little overwhelmed by the response if the truth be told because I was looking at the images with a very critical eye. But when I watched the DVD again I started to see what the parents saw.
If I do this again next year, I think I would do some things differently. I would certainly take a more active role in managing the space. I wouldn't want to direct the kids, but I think I would make some suggestions about where the kids are located within the room and what direction they should be facing when they are performing so that I can get them in the best light.
One disappointment was that I didn't get great pictures of every child, I need to make sure I get at least a decent headshot of each child before moving on to the more tricky shots. There were certainly plenty of opportunities to do this.
I also want to shoot less and take more time over the design of the shots, be more pro-active and less reactive. The shot of Kimberly was done like this, I thought about how I wanted the shot composed and then I waited until Kimberly turned her head towards the camera.
As a direct result of doing this little project I have been recommended to the school by the parents to shot the school portraits. Apparently they haven't had a school photo in over two years. That's going to be a whole new kettle of fish. I have done a bit of research into photographing children with special needs doesn't lend itself to the sort of production-line flash lit school portraits you usually get. I'm excited at the prospect but also a little daunted.
You can see more of the ballet photos in my flickr gallery