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Behind the Scenes: Interview With Sarah Silver

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Recently, photographer, Sarah Silver invited me into her studio to shoot some behind the scenes photos of her photo shoot with the Stephen Petronio Dance Company, for their upcoming performances at the Joyce Theater, in New York City between April 8-13. Sarah is a fashion photographer based in New York City and has worked with clients and projects such as Vogue, Tresseme, and America’s Next Top Model.

After the photo shoot, Sarah was kind enough to let me interview her about the details for this shoot and share them here on Tuts+. In this interview, Sarah and I talked about several topics from how to organize a large shoot, to the gear she used, and even some tips on how to shoot moving subjects. Let’s take a look!

Before we get into the interview, let's take a look at some of the final imagery from this photo shoot, which includes photos, and a short film.

30 In The Sky - Stephen Petronio Company

Q. I understand that you have some history with the Stephen Petronio Dance Company. Can you begin by offering us some background about this shoot? How did you meet Stephen? How many years have you been shooting his dance company?

I first met Stephen in 2000. I saw his company perform at the Joyce Theater in NYC and I was immediately captivated by him. At that time I was looking for a subject for my graduate thesis from SVA. I knew as soon as I saw him perform that my search was over. I called him, and that was the beginning of a collaboration that started with our first photo shoot in 2001.

Stephen Petronio overseeing the photo shoot. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. What was your inspiration for this photo shoot? Why did you choose to shoot it on a turquoise background?

This shoot was extremely special because it’s for Stephen’s 30th anniversary season. We decided to go back to our roots of 2001 and use our first shoot as inspiration. The original images used a flat turquoise background that was custom painted and was much more abstract than anything we have done since.

A flat, custom painted, turquoise background was used during the photo shoot. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. You mentioned that this photo shoot was inspired by the original photo shoot 13 years ago. Did you do anything differently on this photo shoot to make it unique from the original?

We took our original shoot as a jumping off point and then moved way beyond our 2001 mindset. We were trying to abstract the movement, letting body parts flow in and out of the frame organically.

Dance photography typically has all the action in the center of the image at one key point in the top most timing of a movement. Instead, in these photographs the most dynamic part of the image may be happening just off the edge of the frame.

Sarah Silver reviewing photos on a monitor. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. A lot of things change in 13 years. How has your photography changed since then in terms of staff (number of people on set), technology, and style?

After reading this question, I really had to think: what has changed? I always liked having a large group on set. It’s kind of like a photography party and for me, the more people means the more energy colliding, and the more emotions flying. Especially when shooting Petronio, this happens automatically because there are so many dancers in the company at the photo shoot.

I also have always been a big fan of technology, and while there are definitely a lot of changes that have taken place in the last 13 years, I always try to shoot whatever is the top of the line. I think what has changed most significantly for me is my style. When I was coming out of grad school 13 years ago, I wanted everything to have a layer of polish that gelled with my personal love of perfection.

These days I’m always trying to find ways to “mess up” or “deteriorate” the image, and I want to make “happy accidents” again. Once you learn the rules the hardest thing to do is forget them.

Sarah Silver directing the photo shoot with the camera stabilized on a tripod. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. From my perspective, this photo shoot seemed like a pretty big undertaking. The call sheet alone for this shoot had 22 people on it. Can you walk us through the process of organizing such a big shoot with so much talent and staff in attendance?

I think with practice, it’s actually not that difficult to produce a job of this size. And maybe since I’ve been doing it for 13 years, this type of production doesn’t seem too tough? The key is, one must be organized, but after that it's relatively simple. Basically, you make sure you have a person for each crew slot (ie: assistants, hair & makeup, talent, etc) and then you make a call sheet that lists everybody.

The call sheet is the glue that keeps the job working and allows you to see if you’re missing any of the key players. Then just make sure you have a confirmed location and food to feed everybody and at the right time.

Photo assistants Aaron Muntz, David Perkins, and Intern, James Conkle raising a 13 foot foam core tree into place. This tree bounced light back evenly onto the background to give it a relatively flat look. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about the schedule for this photo shoot? How long did you expect the shoot to take? How much time do you typically allocate for set up, hair and make up, outfit changes, and photography?

It typically takes an hour to set up a simple shoot, possibly a whole day for a more complicated set (and in that case you would allocate a day for a prelight). I also scheduled the shoot for 10 hours. Yes, in theory you can shoot for 16 hours if you really needed or wanted to, but no dancer can keep going that long. 

The idea here is to maximize the amount of time you have with each dancer and not to “over shoot” them because they get tired of jumping over and over. So with the idea that we had 10 hours to shoot I allocated time for hair and makeup and then divvied up the shooting time with what was left after fast wardrobe changes and a lunch break. Special thanks to Jordana Abisdris for contributing to this answer.

It is essential that the background be as clean as possible. In this photo, Nicolette Sarsoza takes great care to keep the background free from debris. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. Each of the dancers had their hair and make up done before the first shot and touched up during the shoot, with at least one or two outfit changes. Did you and Stephen have any particular thoughts about hair, make up, and wardrobe before the shoot?

Stephen chose these costumes because “We [were] focusing [on] black for new costumes and wanted the contrast with set.” Makeup and hair were chosen in a similar manner – something to contrast with the set and also to accentuate the minimalist concept of this year’s shoot.

Davalois Fearon having her makeup touched up by Jen Navaro. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. During the shoot, you were working very close with Stephen to shoot photos in line with his/your artistic vision. How important is it to have a close working relationship with your clients on set?

You don’t have to be best friends with your client but you DO have to understand their vision and their concerns. Once you know what they want (even if they can’t directly explain what they want) you can take the shoot so much further. The ultimate goal is giving them something they always wanted but didn’t even know they wanted.

Sarah Silver and Stephen Petronio discussing the photo shoot. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. One of the first things that I noticed during the shoot was that you were not shooting with your Hasselblad. Can you tell us a bit about the camera you were shooting with, and why you chose it over the Hasselblad for this particular shoot? What settings did you choose to use for this shoot? What lens or lenses did you use?

I wanted to shoot video and stills for this shoot concurrently so I needed to use continuous light that would also freeze motion. Because we were limited by the light - this meant I had to shoot a high ISO. I also wanted a lightning fast auto focus and quick capture in tethered mode in Capture1. This was easiest to achieve on a Canon.

  • Camera: Canon 5D Mark III
  • Lens: 70-200 mm lens f2.8
  • ISO: 800
  • Shutter Speed: 1/200TH Second
  • Aperture: f/ 6.3
Sarah Silver attaching a lens before the shoot. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. During the shoot, the dancers would jump in the air, but I would only hear your shutter click once. Were you shooting on continuous, or were you only shooting one photo per movement? What auto focus mode were you using?

When I’m shooting dance I usually pre set the focus and then have the dancers move on or into my plane of focus. The light is set to be optimal in this position as well, so everything is best in this ONE place.

I also don’t shoot a continuous shutter because in my experience dance is NOT sports, there aren’t multiple beautiful moments, but carefully chosen places in the moment where the feet are pointed and the body taught.

Sarah Silver shooting photos from a low position on the floor. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. In addition to shooting still photos for this shoot, you also directed a film, with the help of DP Ryan De Franco. Ryan used a rare camera for this shoot. Can you tell us a bit about the camera that he used?

Ryan used the Ikonoskop A-cam dII, a 16mm digital cinema camera. The Ikonoskop uses a sensor made by Kodak. The interesting thing about it is the technology inside isn't possible to manufacture for 35mm sensors.

From a $700 DSLR to a $70,000 Arri Alexa, almost every digital movie camera uses a CMOS camera, basically a black and white sensor with a Bayer "mosaic" in front of it. With CMOS, each photosite only knows how red, how green or how blue it is, so color is always an interpretation. On the Ikonoskop, light strikes the sensor through layers of red, green and blue, much like on film. The output is 100% uncompressed RAW, so there's no compression at all -- the result is a beautiful film look that's extremely flexible in post. The camera gives you a folder full of raw stills, just like a roll of movie film.

These stills become clips when opened in software like Da Vinci Resolve, Adobe Premiere or After Effects, and the control over color and exposure is amazing. Ryan and his colorist Sanja Blau used Resolve to match the Photoshop process we used on our stills. This created a look that brought my film into the world of my still photography. Special thanks to Ryan De Franco for contributing to this answer.

Sarah Silver and Ryan De Franco shooting photos and film simultaneously. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. With 9 dancers to photograph, and video being shot, at the same time, you needed a pretty extensive lighting set up for this shoot. Can you tell us a bit about how you lit the scene? What type of lighting was used, and how many lights did you need?

We used 2 Kobold DW800 HMI’s on each side of the background facing 13 foot foam core trees that bounced the light back evenly onto the background to give us a relatively flat look. For the key lights we used a Broncolor Para 222 parabolic reflector with a Kobold 400 HMI head high off the ground and angled quite acutely.

The light was off to the left and cast beautiful direction light on both the subject(s) and the background. For a little fill (especially on the feet) I had a 4x4 kino on the bottom left foreground of the set.

Dancers were lit with a massive Broncolor Para 222 parabolic reflector with a Kobold 400 HMI head. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. Shooting tethered allowed you to monitor the photos you were taking in real-time. The set up you were using seemed rather extensive, with several monitors, and a digital tech monitoring the photos as they came in. Can you tell us a bit about the set up you were using? What hardware and software were you using?

I have a really killer digital cart that has space for two shoot computers and two monitors mounted as well as bunch of other accessories. Then I have a third monitor on a rolling stand connected to a long cord so that I can be far away from the shoot station but still see exactly what’s on the screen (especially when I’m shooting from the floor). The computer was a Mac Pro with three Eizo CG210 monitors and Phase One’s CaptureOne software. This setup is ideal for a client to watch from the shoot station on one monitor and not be standing on top of the tech who has his own monitor.

Digital Tech, Frank Thompson managing his workstation. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. One thing that I noticed fairly quickly was that the BTS photos that I was shooting didn’t look like the photos that you were shooting, even though our cameras, and the settings we were both using were fairly similar. I learned during the shoot that you were making some adjustments to the images in Capture One. Can you tell us a bit about the settings you were using, and why?

I like to “tweak” the images in the capture software because you have so much control and you can show the client exactly what he/she is taking home with him/her. It’s not a good idea to say “just imagine that …” and much better to just deliver to them on set what they will be having in the final images, or at least as close as possible.

And if you’re going to make any special color adjustments they see it from the beginning and are on board. Basically it makes the whole process easier when everybody is a-ok with the final product.

Minor color adjustments were made to the photos automatically in Capture One and displayed on large Eizo monitors during the photo shoot. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about what happens after a photo shoot? How much postproduction is involved with the photos and video?

Most of the time it works like this: As soon as the shoot is wrapped the rough selects are exported and then uploaded to a dropbox folder or exported to a drive/DVD that is shared with the client. The client then picks his/her favorites and those shots are sent to the retoucher along with a drive with the entire shoot.

I send everything because you never know when you need a piece from another shot. The only difference on this shoot was that the selects were made 100% on set by Stephen and the retouching passed along immediately after the shoot.

Stephen Petronio Dance Company dancer, Natalie Mackessy. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. What will the photos and video be used for? Will the photos and video be on display anywhere that our readers can see?

The photos will be used online and in print to promote Stephen’s 2014 Season which will premier a new work entitled Locomotor at the Joyce Theater in NYC between April 8 -13.

Stephen Petronio dancer, Jaqlin Medlock. Photo by Grant Friedman.
Q. Finally, thanks for taking the time to talk with us about this photo shoot, and thank you for allowing me on set to shoot the BTS photos for this article. Do you have any final thoughts? Is there anything about the Stephen Petronio Dance Company that our readers should be aware of? (good place to mention kickstarter project.

Thank you, Grant, we loved having you on set. I would like to tell all aspiring photographers that finding a strong collaborator is an immensely rewarding process. I can’t even guess where I would be today without Stephen and our yearly collaborations.

Working so closely with other artists really gives a photographer new perspectives, and so much of what I do first on my sets with Stephen end up in my own commercial and editorial work. It’s a great backdrop in which to try new things.

More Behind the Scenes Photos

Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.
Photo by Grant Friedman.

Related Links

Credits

Crew

  • Photographer: Sarah Silver
  • Photo Assistant: Aaron Muntz
  • Photo Assistant: David Perkins
  • Digital Tech: Frank Thompson
  • Producer: Troy Covey
  • Studio Manager: Jordana Abisdris
  • Director of Photography: Ryan Defranco
  • Makeup/Hair: Jen Navaro
  • Behind the Scenes Photos: Grant Friedman
  • Intern: James Conkle
  • Intern: Nicolette Sarsoza

Talent

  • Davalois Fearon
  • Josh D. Green
  • Gino Grenek
  • Barrington Hinds
  • Natalie Mackessy
  • Jaqlin Medlock
  • Nicholas Sciscione
  • Emily Stone
  • Joshua Tuason
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