Backstage with SFB’s Staff Photographer


SF Ballet dancers in Robbins’ Glass Pieces. © Erik Tomasson

© Erik Tomasson

Preparing for Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet (© Erik Tomasson)

SF Ballet in Robbins’ Glass Pieces © Erik Tomasson

Clara Blanco backstage (© Erik Tomasson)

© Erik Tomasson

As the staff photographer for San Francisco Ballet, my job is to photograph the Company for advertising, press releases, brochures, and programs. Most of my time is spent in the rehearsal studios photographing the dancers and choreographers while ballet’s are being created. But during the Company’s season, I’m fortunate enough to be able to photograph the dancers on stage and backstage in the War Memorial Opera House. I find shooting backstage to be a very interesting part of my work and yet, at the same time, the most challenging. This is basically due to shooting in near darkness or directly into bright stage lights and trying to stay out of the way of dancers, crew, and moving sets.

Recently, I started focusing less on what was on stage and more on what was happening backstage. My camera of choice for photographing backstage is the Leica M9. It’s very small, lightweight, quiet, and doesn’t attract a lot of attention. I mainly use the Leica 50mm Summilux-M F/1.4 ASPH lens wide open due to the fact that it’s very dark backstage. This lens is one of my favorites in terms of sharpness, contrast, and its beautiful out-of-focus quality.

When I’m shooting the dancers on stage or during rehearsals, timing is the most important factor in getting the shot. Of course, timing is important in most types of photography. But in dance photography, the difference between a good and bad shot can literally be a fraction of a second. When photographing dance, you really have to be “on your toes” (sorry, I couldn’t resist.) There are other photographic variables that I’m thinking about but timing is key. When I’m shooting backstage, it’s more about looking for little ‘moments in time.’ I have a bit more time to stop and think about the shot, and how I want it to look in terms of focus and composition. It’s definitely not a lot of time but it feels like that compared to the fast shooting style of photographing on stage.

I also approach shooting backstage a little differently than on stage. On stage, I’m looking for a more polished, slick look, almost as if it looked like it was shot in a controlled studio setting. Backstage, I think of things in a more gritty, documentary- style. I’m still aware of things like lighting, separation of subject to the background, and composition but my main goal is to grab ‘the moment.’

Sasha DeSola © Erik Tomasson


Charlene Cohen © Erik Tomasson

© Erik Tomasson

Backstage during Nureyev’s Raymonda Act III © Erik Tomasson

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  1. avatar Catherine Al-Meten
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    What beautiful photography, and what fortunate and magical experience for you, the photographer. I am a nature photographer, and I would trade my eye teeth for such a gift as you have. So wonderful. Hope I can view your work on exhibit.

  2. avatar Clarissa
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Love your photos. Do you keep a website for your dance photography apart from the SFB publications?

  3. avatar Osnat Ringart
    Posted April 18, 2012 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    Great photographer! truly bringing the vitality and the truth of the Classical Ballet! Thank you!

  4. Posted April 19, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Thank you for all the kind comments both here and on SFB’s Facebook page regarding this recent backstage series. I’m hoping to share some more behind the scenes photos in the future.
    Clarissa: Yes, I do have a website but its mainly composed of the photography I do for the San Francisco Ballet. The website is

  5. avatar Chris
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    What beautiful photographs. As a life-long lover of both dance and photography I have to say that I really love your work!!

  6. avatar Angula
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    It’s unfortunate that your blog format constrains so much the presentation of horizontal orientation images.

  7. avatar Mike Bertinetti
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Lovely shots of wonderful people.

  8. avatar Lisa Frey
    Posted May 4, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Love your work! I have watched it for many years, and your work just continues to improve, impress and amaze! If you ever offer a “tag-along” with the photographer, as an incentive for a gift to ballet,…I would love to Tag-along with you!!

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