Spotlight Interview … Dance Photographer Richard Calmes

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Richard Calmes has turned his highly distinctive photographs of ballet dancers into stylized assets of art. I first became aware of his work on the PBase.com website. It is with pleasure I welcome him to JRP Blog.

Thanks Richard for sharing a moment with us.

Richard Calmes: It is an honor and a pleasure to have another opportunity to tell the world about dancers.

JRP: Where do you call home?

Richard Calmes: I am from the Atlanta area and I currently live in the North Georgia Mountains … nowhere near ballet dancers. However it is only 80 miles to Atlanta and the dance world.

JRP: How did you get started in photography, and do you have any formal training?

Richard Calmes: I bought a camera at the PX in DaNang, South Viet Nam in 1968. I was in the Army and I had struck up a friendship with the company photographer who was actually a combat photographer. My first camera was a Canon FTQL. I think I had wanted a Nikon like he had but the PX only had the Canon. He taught me the fundamentals of photography and how to use the darkroom and develop and print B&W and slides. I was hooked!

When he left to return home, I had my job description changed and I took his place as the company combat photographer. Many of the images I took in Viet Nam are posted on my site.

I have had no other training although I have attended a few photoshop seminars. I am self-taught by trial and … mostly error.

JRP: Why do you photograph dancers?

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Richard Calmes: There are many reasons why I photograph dancers. At the root is the challenge. The challenge to me AND the challenge to the dancer. Each image I shoot in the studio or “out there” is the result of collaboration. A while back a professional dancer at a prestigious dance company commented after looking at an image on my laptop “I did not know I was that good” I knew at that moment that my work had made a positive difference in her life.

That scenario has grown and repeated itself many times until now I consciously push dancers beyond where they think they can go. Not to the point of risking injury but artistically and athletically beyond their self-imposed limits.  In this process I push myself as well. They are always pleased with the results!

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Another reason I photograph dancers is to show the world what 15 to 20 years of daily training can do. When you watch a ballet dancer on stage you have a certain level of appreciation. But because the dancer moves continuously from pose to pose and from pose to jump, you never see the details. I freeze those beautiful moments so that the world can appreciate the details: the lines of the body, the position of the foot, or the beautiful smile that masks an incredible effort or even pain. All of these skills have been developed and honed in class after class over many years.

JRP: You are well-known for your work in dance but what other aspects of photography do you cover?

Richard Calmes: I enjoy wildlife and travel photography but I have fully devoted my focus now to dance. There is a lot to dance and it offers continual challenge. The challenge is one of the main drivers.

JRP: What would I find in your camera bag for a typical dance assignment?

Richard Calmes: Actually, I have 2 camera bags: A small one that is easy to carry on my back even in a theatre with second camera and lenses and flash. And the big one with all of the other stuff. Here is the list:

Canon Mark III D for well-lit fast action
Canon Mark III Ds for studio and low light performance
Canon 70-200 f 2.8L IS  This is my most used lense for dance.
Canon 24-105 f4L IS
Canon 17-35 f2.8L
Canon 580 EXII and 2 Canon 550 EX Flashes
Gitzo tripods and ball heads
Lumiquest flash modifiers
Sandisk Extreme III cards-32gig
Norman Studio Lights and softboxes
Pocketwizard to fire studio strobes
Fujitsu 17” laptop It has a fabulous bright screen.

JRP: Describe your digital workflow and the software you use.

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Richard Calmes: I shoot only RAW so I use Adobe CS4 Camera RAW to open the image and get it as close to perfect as I can before opening in Photoshop CS4. When I shoot in the studio, my Mark III Ds is attached to my laptop and images go directly to Adobe Bridge for viewing and opening immediately in RAW for evaluation.

Either way, I use CS4 for image manipulation. I am not a photo purist, I believe that the image starts in the camera and it is just the beginning. So in post production, I use Photoshop to adjust the lighting in ways that may be impossible to achieve in the studio or in the field.  I do not create images by compositing or cutting and pasting.  A shot of a dancer in Times Square is really the dancer in Times Square but the background may be darkened to make the dancer pop for example. I also use Neat Image to reduce the inevitable noise of ISO 1600 live performance shots and Focus Magic to reduce motion blur. These are the only 2 plugins I use.

I save all of my files on 4 different external drives. They are stored in two different locations 100 miles apart.

JRP: How do you handle image printing?

Richard Calmes: I have always used Epson Printers. I currently use an Epson 3800. I print almost exclusively on glossy stock.

JRP: What is your philosophy on lighting? Are there some technical details that one must be aware of when doing this type of photography?

Richard Calmes: As I said before, I am not a photo purist. In the studio I constantly experiment with lighting. Shooting dancers, I frequently try to duplicate stage lighting. I am more concerned about capturing the dancer in perfect form than having perfect lighting.

I will adjust the lighting in post. I am asked constantly how I handle my lighting because a photographer wants to duplicate it. I usually tell them that it is a combination of production and post production techniques that I have spent years developing. I encourage them to develop their own style rather than try to copy mine. I do help photographers all the time with technical questions.

Same goes for shooting in the real world. I will use external flash on or off camera and adjust lighting in post. There is no Photoshop technique that will fix a bad jump …. I have tried. So I concentrate on the dance art first.

JRP: How do you handle the most critical moment in the capture of an image?

Richard Calmes: This is what it is all about: Capturing the moment. First, I have spent years around dance and years videotaping dance. My daughter grew up dancing at a prestigious ballet company. I helped out by videotaping rehearsals for the dancers and director’s review. After so many years, I can see the preparation for certain moves coming. I can usually shoot a performance cold and catch a few good moments. If I see a rehearsal, I will catch a lot more.

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When shooting in the studio or “out there” the moment is collaboration between the dancer and me. I know what is coming and I tell the dancer “go when you are ready”. And they go, and I shoot.  Then there is the challenge of actually capturing the moment. There is the human delay between brain and finger and the delay of the electronics in the camera. This means I have to shoot early … how early is the art and the challenge. When I miss a shot it is almost always late. Most of the studio shots in my galleries took a number of tries. The reason is that serious dancers are very critical of themselves and if there is an artistic director on the set, that is an added level of inspection of each image. Add the “I missed the timing” factor and the result may be as many as 25 attempts. Some of your readers may not know that studio flash is ONE SHOT AT A TIME, no holding the shutter down at 10 frames per second. Each attempt if it is a jump is full-out.

If I am using a prop like fabric, or the costume is a dress, or if I am trying to catch hair flying, then there will be many shots just to get the props to work. And they NEVER work the same way twice.

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Speaking of the “moment” sometimes things happen at the moment you cannot control. I have images of Yannick Labrun in an incredible split at Times Square.

We waited on the pedestrians to cross but there was one lagging behind as Yannick did the jump. At the critical moment, here is this gawking pedestrian. I asked him to do the jump again.

This is an example of a well-trained dancer being able to repeat a move … almost exactly and “out there” anything can happen.

JRP: What has been the best advice given to you by another photographer?

Richard Calmes: This is not going to be a philosophical type answer but a practical one with philosophical overtones. Lois Greenfield is a very talented studio dance photographer with several books and dozens of dance magazine covers in her 22 years in business. I was shooting dancers in her New York City studio one day and she told me to get my shot, then turn the dancer 90 degrees, get a shot, turn again, get a shot, and turn again. This has resulted in better shots at times because it gets my head “out of the box” it was in.

JRP: What advice would you share with photographers starting out?

Richard Calmes: First, there is not much money in dance photography. There are a few magazines but they do not pay a lot. There is catalog work for the costume companies but most of the opportunity for compensation is in photographing students at the many dance studios across America. Parents always want pictures of their children performing. I do not do this type of work.

As I said earlier, I am asked all the time how to shoot dancers. The non technical advice I give is obvious and that is keep doing it and learn by your mistakes. I believe that any artist will get better at their art if they first, love their art, and second keep at it! This is how dancers learn, they do the same thing over and over correcting their mistakes… and they LOVE IT!

JRP: Thank you Richard for sharing your thoughts and images with us. It has been a pleasure talking with you. I wish you continued success.

Richard Calmes: It is my pleasure to talk about dance. I would like to encourage everyone to find what they love and focus on it!

JRP: To view more of Richard Calmes‘ fine photography please follow this link: http://www.richardcalmes.com/
Click on “Main Galleries”

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