A Dancer’s Tips for Dynamic Dance Photos

Tips for Dance Photography - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

On a recent weekday afternoon, a group of ballet dancers ducked into the shell of an abandoned Strip District building for an impromptu photo shoot. Like the greenery sprouting between the slabs of concrete, the dancers made this unlikely spot their studio for a few hours, striking pose after pose against the graffitied cement walls.

Tips for Dance Photography - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Emily Northrop

Behind the lens was someone with an eye for a good location: 20-year-old Emily Northrop, who’d noticed the wide-open space, the light streaming through the steel frame and the chance to juxtapose the gritty space with graceful dancers.

But she also brought something even more important to the table: an innate sense of timing. Northrop, along with her subjects, is a pre-professional dancer in PBT School’s Graduate Program.

It’s no small task to translate the dynamism of dance to a still photograph. In dance photography, much depends on the timing. It’s the key to catching a fully extended arabesque or a grand jeté at the pinnacle of its arc.

Tips for Dance Photography - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Northrop photographed these PBT School pre-professional students in the ballet’s New Byham Center for Dance in the Strip District.

So it’s no surprise that many successful dance photographers, like Northrop’s role model Rachel Neville, are former dancers. It’s essential for capturing both the energy and the technique at their peak.

A Florida native, Northrop grew up in Seattle and started dancing around age 10. She trained at Pacific Northwest Ballet through high school, where she took her first photography class, and just finished her second year in PBT School’s Graduate Program.

Tips for Dance Photography - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Photographer Emily Northrop just finished her second year in PBT School’s Graduate Program.

“I think I really enjoy how you see your hard work pay off,” Northrop said of her love for ballet. “It’s a great way to express yourself and work through feelings. When I have stressful stuff going on in my life, when I dance it just completely erases all of the stress.”

Between her own performances, Northrop photographed her fellow pre-professional student dancers onstage in PBT School’s Spring Performance and Pre-professional Showcase performances.

Over the past year, Northrop began merging her two artistic passions. She saved up to buy a camera and started heading to photography classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers after ballet each day.

Tips for Dance Photography - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Northrop framed this photo for an art project exploring beauty standards in society.

She started her practice with portraits.

“I like to do portraits that have meaning behind them. They’re not just faces, they have an important message to say.”

Around the New Year, she began experimenting with dance – and that elusive ability to effectively freeze motion into one frame.

“Being a dancer helps immensely,” Northrop said. “When I’m taking the photos I can feel the timing in my body. Knowing the technique…you know how to turn the angles to make the dancers body look the best.”

Over time, and after taking a weekend workshop with Neville, whose photographs have been featured in Dance and Pointe magazines and by a variety of dance companies, Northrop began cultivating more detailed concepts for each shoot.

“I’ve been thinking more in the form of shapes rather than dance poses,” Northrop said. “For some of my dance photos, the ones that are a little bit more thought out…I thought of a word I wanted to express first and we did a bunch of different poses that expressed that word.”

Tips for Dance Photography - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Northrop shot this photo in an alleyway in the Strip District, and started with the word “serenity” as inspiration for the photos.

For inspiration, Northrop scrolls through thousands of Pinterest photos, admiring other photographers’ work and filling her mind with ideas.

“I’ll look at thousands of images. When I go to bed it will be in my brain and when I wake up usually there will be some ideas there.”

She’s also taken inspiration from Neville’s ability to coax peak performance from her subjects and to conceptualize photos that put interesting  dynamics at play.

“I noticed that (Neville) definitely pushes the dancers to their limits technique wise to get the best technical photo,” she said. “Now I am definitely more picky. I will give many, many corrections for one pose…to get the very best that they can make it look.”

Whether it’s dance, portraits or artistic side projects, Northrop showcases her work on Instagram under the handle @NorthropPhotography and on Facebook. One day she hopes to make it professional. For now, much like her 10-year pursuit of ballet, it’s all about the practice.

“I feel like the only way you get better is by practicing more and more. I really do love it.”

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