Douglas Dubler: Master Of Balletic Motion

Motion and stillness—two elements of the dance that must be carefully balanced and interwoven to create compelling choreography, and that must somehow be captured and expressed in compelling dance photography. While readers of this magazine know Douglas Dubler for his striking fashion and beauty work, he also has been experimenting with new ways to portray the movement of dance for more than three decades.

When asked about influences on his motion photography, Dubler recalls the bullfight photographs by Ernst Haas taken in the 1950s. Haas used long exposures to blur the colorful spectacle and imbue it with a flowing sensation of the movement of matador, cape and bull. As well as recording time, Dubler saw this approach as adding three dimensionality to a two-dimensional medium, an impression he seeks to impart in his own motion work, albeit via different techniques.

In the 1970s, the photographer traveled with the Cincinnati Ballet for several months. Photographing during performances using only stage lighting, Dubler recalls, "The cameras, lenses and films in those days were all slow, so I had to do long exposures, both handheld and on a tripod. When Nikon introduced their 80-200mm ƒ/4.5, I began to use it for dance work, zooming during part of the exposure, but pausing without zooming at either the beginning or end of the zoom in order to get some sharpness combined with movement. To me, sharpness and motion in the same frame best evoke the dance."

The images on these pages show Douglas Dubler’s interest in ballet photography from early work in the 1970s with the Cincinnati Ballet (top) to his current project with the American Ballet Theatre and Irina Dvorovenko (above).

Earlier this year, inspired by the film Black Swan, Dubler decided to apply his motion and lighting techniques to ballet in the studio, where he would have full control.

"In the past, I had been bored with the sharp, frozen images that the ballet companies wanted," he notes. He contacted the American Ballet Theatre, ABT, and ultimately he sought out Principal Dancers Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky, both of whom were classically trained in the Ukraine and joined the ABT in the mid-1990s.

"Whoever I’m photographing, whether a model or a dancer, I always work with the best. It both inspires you and allows you to participate in a dialogue with the subject to create the best work," he affirms. "This applies to the support staff as well—the digital technicians, hair, makeup, stylists and assistants."

My concept with these dancers was not only to do the moving images, but to also combine them in some kind of a sequence via a composite, to take it to another level," says Dubler. "So during the shoot, I was both creating stand-alone shots, as well as images that would work well with one another.

To combine stillness and motion with these two top ABT dancers, Dubler combined continuous light and action-stopping electronic flash. For the background, he used continuous HMI lights, Kobold 800s, their daylight color balance matched to the studio flash packs. Each of two HMIs was set at either side to illuminate the white sweep background at about a 45º angle. However, the HMI light on the right side of the set was aimed through a large cucoloris or "cookie," a 4×4-foot opaque panel with irregular-shaped holes. This cast a subtle abstract pattern of shadows on the backdrop, adding atmosphere and a touch of mystery.

The composite image of Irina Dvorovenko as both White Swan and Black Swan. The digital work on this image took approximately 15 hours to complete.

Working with Broncolor electronic flash, Dubler used two light bars vertically (Broncolor Lightbar 120s, 4 feet by 5 inches), one on either side of the dancer, about 10 feet away. Immediately behind the photographer, a huge eight-foot para umbrella with a diffuser provided fill light. For other shots, he positioned the Lightbars horizontally and moved them closer to the subject. For some shots, he added a focusing spot on a boom from above right.

As always, Dubler spent a long time in preproduction, planning and preparing this shoot, with a list of poses, costumes, and different sets and lighting variations. He asked the dancer to perform certain movements, such as a pirouette—a controlled spin ending on one leg on the tips of the toes. "A lot of the success of this project was dependent on Irina’s ability to end her whirl on a precise spot marked on the studio floor. Flawlessly repeating this movement many times, she demonstrated her great ability, expertise and precision," Dubler asserts.

A spotlight was temporarily switched on prior to each shot to check focus, with the continuous background lights staying on throughout. Using an exposure varying from 1⁄15 to ¼ sec., Dubler anticipated the ballerina’s movement and pulled the trigger on the camera’s pistol grip, firing the flash units. Due to the extremely short duration of the flash, it freezes the dancer in a sharp image. But since the shutter remains open for the time exposure, a dark area with some motion blur surrounds her and separates the figure from the background. The result is a marvelous melding of the sharply delineated ballerina’s still image enveloped in three-dimensional motion blur.

Today, Dubler is more subtle because he can exact a much finer amount of control to give a sense of the motion of ballet. For the ABT images, makeup was done by Bernadine Bibiano, hair by Kazunori Ueda. The stylist was Jersey, and the video was shot by Thomas Wirthensohn.

As well as changing the shutter speed, Dubler also varies whether the flash fires at the beginning, middle or the end of the exposure, a feature available with Broncolor. A technique Dubler has been refining since the late ’90s, it’s tremendously aided by the instant feedback of digital to check focus, motion blur, lighting and other variables.

Dubler sat behind a Mamiya RZ67 Pro IID fixed atop an Arca-Swiss ballhead on a Gitzo tripod, with an 80-megapixel 6×4.5 Leaf digital back connected to a Mac Pro with a solid-state hard drive from Other World Computing. Lenses from Mamiya included a 110mm, 140mm and 180mm. Two seconds after the strobes fire, the image appears on two large Eizo CG monitors, one for Dubler and the other for the digital tech. One benefit of such a high-resolution back is that Dubler plans to make digital prints 8 feet tall of the single images, with composites stretching to 5×18 feet.

"My concept with these dancers was not only to do the moving images, but to also combine them in some kind of a sequence via a composite, to take it to another level," says Dubler. "So during the shoot, I was both creating stand-alone shots, as well as images that would work well with one another. My inspiration for this was a still picture I did years ago of a ballerina who’s moving in a line frontwards and backwards. With a long time exposure, the result was a series of repeated images of her connected by a sort of haze. It reminded me of a Greek temple frieze. My idea with the ABT shoot was to aesthetically interpret that."

Adds Dubler, "When I shoot, my vision and my pre-planning incorporate retouching that will be done in postproduction. Fo
r 20 years, I’ve relied on Willie at Cursor Ctrl. Even though he has been working in Australia for the last few years, we simply push around these big files via FTP over the Internet."

This is a totally self-assigned project. To fund such an involved venture with the required extremely high production values (there were about 12 people working on the set with an estimated $80,000 of lighting equipment alone), Dubler found sponsorship from Nik Software and Eizo Nanao Technologies. He plans to expand this project to include dance companies beyond the U.S. and perhaps do a large-format book. Like his subjects, Dubler is a guy in constant motion.

You can see more of Douglas Dubler’s work at

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