Deconstruct This Photo 4.0 — Revealed

Thanks to the hundreds of you who wrote in to take a stab at how the ballet image was made [note that this thumbnail here is a crop, not the final…go to the original post to see that one]. A handful of you nailed it to varying degrees. Here’s my breakdown of shot:

First, this was not a snapshot. Anything I’d list that would be of interest has been planned, choreographed Second, this image was NOT shot through the our ground control plexiglass setup. This is an actual dancer, actually leaping, actually caught at the apex of her jump, and actually with that perfect expression, body mechanics, etc. There is no trickery going on here, it’s a real moment.

All the details, full breakdown and and gear list, plus the original image as it came out of the camera after the jump. Hit ‘continue reading’

Camera: Nikon D3
Lens: Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 (shot at 45mm)
Lighting: Broncolor Scoro Pack, 2 Pulso Heads, 2 Chimera Softboxes – 1 large, 1 medium.

The D3/s/x is my workhorse and perfectly suited for this. Although I’m not making use of any autofocus technology, it has an incredibly short shutter lag – perfect for nailing the apex of the jump. Prime lenses are nice, but in this case the zoom lens was more than adequate. It gave me some flexibility with composition as the dancer performed numerous jumps. The Broncolor setup has the quickest flash duration of any of the pro lighting setups – exactly what I’m counting on for stopping action.

The camera was set to F/11, 1/250 of a second at ISO 200.

Why? This was dictated by a few things. Shutter speed’s fastest sync on the D3 is at 1/250 (technically 1/320 with some custom tweaking, but unnecessary…). I then balanced the pros/cons of the aperture and ISO. I needed enough depth of field to get the dancer entirely in focus, front to back. My preference was to keep the ISO as low as possible to create a noise free image. And I also wanted to keep the ambient light/scene rather dark (so that my strobe light would fall off rather quickly). My original guess at this magic combination was F/11 for the depth of field. When I got what I was looking for, we played with ISO and arrived safely at 200 to get the overall desired results.

The set is a simple black seamless paper. Matte finish, rolled out, posted on C-stands and gaff taped to the floor. Two softboxes lit the subject, one to the left, slightly behind and slightly above the centerline of the dancer, another to the right and slightly in front and below the centerline of the subject.

Why? The black seamless is obvious – I clearly wanted there to be essentially no background. This shot is all about the dancer. The lighting is as such for a number of very specific reasons, all of which fall into the category of defining and sculpting the subject. You’ll notice every essential part of the dance expression is seen and yet there is enough shadow to create depth and dimension to the image–just the right amount of wrap with the softboxes. Muscles are shaped, there’s a sufficient backlight from the left softbox, and there’s even a catch light in the eye. This lighting schematic was the result of a lot of trial and error. I knew I couldn’t get what I wanted out of one light. Not enough depth, shape. Alternatively I could have brought in 23 other light sources and micromanaged them to death. But for this shot, two was right. And generally, I prefer to try to do more with less. If I had got to this point and saw that I was still in need – THAT’s when I’d have started adding lights. My personal preference told me this was nailed.

Treatment: black and white conversion was done in Photoshop. Mostly curves and channel mixer and b/w layer for the contrast and tone. It was not massaged too much because it wasn’t required.

Why? The photograph was part of a study I was doing to demonstrate my ability to make beautiful black & white images of dancers in action. It was originally in accordance with some conversations I’d been having with the NYC Ballet, but it went on to be a dance study of my own that included a bunch of other dancers, styles, etc.

This is the original capture as it came out of the camera.
Dancer Photo for NYC Ballet Study”]Original Dancer Photo for NYC Ballet Study

So that’s about it. We’ll reach out to a couple of you got closest to how it actually when down and pass along a signed book or something as a thanks for playing. Holler with questions.

What’s up, always i used to check weblog posts
here in the early hours in the morning, because i love to learn more and more.

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Ronnie says:

Late reply here, I saw the question back then but never the answer! I have to admit I prefer the original image. I find cleaning up the background and the floor when shooting dancers is always tricky. To me it adds some sort of three dimensional coordinate system that allows to truely appreciate the dancer’s skill. Inside this coordinate system I can see the incredible height of the jump, how in line her feet are and how graceful she is in that very exact moment. Without, she could almost be doing a split on the ground and it would look similar. Just my opinion of course, :)

Bluestill says:

I am now forced to go and take another look at the original post to understand how I came to the conclusion of my analysis, although I don’t think I was too far off. I assumed only one softbox and ambient light. I am bedazzled about no Plexiglas, because that was my first entry I think. Good stuff. What I learned here? To definitely record all my settings and see if I can recall them later on.

Kevin La Rue says:

Chase – I agree with others that the black and white version is more powerful than the color. What software did you use for the conversion?

karl bratby says:

thanks for sharing chase, the Scoro is truly awesome

Lloyd Barnes says:

Thanks for posting the information about this shot! You inspired me to try a similar lighting style for a shoot last week and I love the results! Here’s my blog with the photo:

Michael says:

D’oh! I nailed it aside from the angle! She appeared to be in flight, but I saw the very flat toe of her pointe shoes and my brain said A-HAH! from below! Aaarrrggg!! Great image Chase!

Nate geslin says:

Excellent! Ever since you started this series, I find myself deconstructing many of the photos I see these days. I may not always be right, but it is a great exercise.

Keep this series going, I learn so much from these posts!

What’s even more magical about your ability to capture this beautiful image is the ability of the amazing dancer! Beautiful and effortless.

I actually like the original a lot more than the final. I’m not saying i dont like the final but the original was such a great image already but I know you knew what you wanted and had your reasons for going black and white and I respect that…

Thanks and Please keep these coming!!!

nate parker says:

yikes, i like the original for the color nuances, it really struck me- like a slap- that i like the color better. i watched the Zack creative sessions where he pulled you in to talk about flash duration, you had this up your sleeve the whole time! wicked!

Love the deconstruct blog posts! Please keep them coming.


CallumW says:

Hey I was …. pretty close (other than the lens choice) :D

P.S. I’m no pixel peeper, but there’s no mention of editing out the second ‘fat’ crease on the dancer’s thigh ;)

Will Austin says:

As usual, another awesome shot Chase, thanks for sharing!

Chase says:

I aint buying it Chase, theres too much trickery going on, wire removal, etc.

LOL, just kidding, nice pure capture, glad I was wrong on the plexi table.

Bill says:


nailed except for the trampoline part : )

chase – i really admire your work for the beauty of it’s simplicity.

you don’t get caught up in all the gearage. yes, you are a geek, but for good.

you go with the minimum that works and in the long run, the less moving parts the less breakage and downtime.

fas says:

AWESOME. So much goes behind a photo you can never ever think the efforts.

I was close! The take away for me in this is that I’m actually growing as a photographer! Thanks Chase! This is very helpful.

celso says:

Very informative. A good way to help us, beginners to understand how some great images are made.
Thank you!

Bengt Juliusson says:

Great shot Chase!

I love shooting dancers too. Now I challenge you to deconstruct this dance shot by me:

Eric Calabros says:

lets be honest, we underestimated her talent :-)

Michal says:

Hi Chase,
The image is great, as always. You can balance beautiful framing, with beautiful lighting and perfect, not overdone, postprocessing. But I can see on the original picture from the camera, that the dancer is out of focus…Is it true or it’s just seems to be, becouse of the jpg compression?

Thank you for sharing – your stuff is so helpful for a beginer like me…:)


DanielKphoto says:

Thanks a lot Chase, I feel like I got pretty close which feels good :P

Nice to know i work in a theatre an this give to me some imagination to take some shots lightning
To all the dancer it’s nice to see works like that that you can learn and explore you’re own way to do it thanks chase

Sherry Fagan says:

Thank you for the updated info. Great to know I still got it.. or, I mean am aquiring it still ;)!!

Laurie says:

Bet the dancer appreciated your removing the two creases on her upper right thigh. ;)

Steve Hebert says:

I am just surprised this wasn’t taken with your iPhone…. :)

Amy Kim says:

thanks Chase. it was a good study indeed. perhaps we can do a couple more of these.

Moritz says:

nailed the camera settings… even though i didnt say anything about iso.
all in all a great shot and in black and white it really stands out.


Alessandro Rosa says:

Wouldn’t have guessed the Softboxes would have given you that dramatic a lighting look. Is it that they are positioned further away from the subject that gives the impression of a harder light? Were the lights both at f/11 or were they more like f/13 or f/16?

Beautiful shot.

@ above comments, he didn’t amputate or crop her leg, that’s just the thumbnail preview. If you clic the image it gets bigger, and you can see her full legs, hands, fingers etc.

Mikael says:

She looks so relaxed with her face and arms. I really liked the original capture because I could relate to where the environment is and her relation to it. Got a bit dizzy trying to analyse the b&w.

ken says:

sooooo..why that particular crop? I find the amputated arm and toes a little disturbing… :-)

Chase says:

that’s not the crop on the final image–you’ll need to reference the original post to see that in any sort of scale. the crop in the thumbnail is a function of wordpress cropping. i’ll try to change that now ;)

Chase says:

couldn’t get a full crop without the image displaying too large, so I updated the intro… thx

ken says:

Damned WordPress…I should have clicked through. I had forgotten the original crop, which I do like :-)

David Johnson says:

You know what makes this work so well? The skill of the dancer.
NY Ballet, makes sense. She has the skill and strength to make the jump, hit the position and for an instant create the calm and poise that personifies Ballet. Every nuance in her position bleeds decades of training. Once again Chase, its about having the talent that can tell a story in an instant. The rest is you figuring out how to catch that moment. Well done.

Lynn says:

Oh sweet, nice to know I was pretty darn close including some of the equipment (which was obviously some luck and a bit of past knowledge from the livestreams). Great shot, your bw conversions still own. Would love to see some more originals from the Seattle 100, I really enjoy that book.

Chris says:

Nice to know that despite not being very experienced with flash yet (I only own a single speedlight) I was pretty close.

I doubt I’m close enough to get a prize, but at least I took the time to think about it and try and learn. One day I’ll be able to teach you… Or possibly not.

Miranda says:

It’s great to learn so much about your process. Thanks for sharing another one!

sam says:

got it pretty much right! :)

Jin says:

Love the crop!! The tension in the B&W is so much more powerful than the original shot.

Bo Boswell says:

Very cool. Thanks for posting stuff like this, it’s very informative.

I would’ve guessed the dancer was using a small trampoline for this. Great control on her part.

Great work and great image!

Ryan says:

Great crop. Makes such a difference. Adds an intimacy that’s unseen in the original. Thank you as always Team Chase.

Hank Graham says:

Thanks for sharing the info!

David Teran says:

great shot… love it.

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