Carlos Acosta

Photographing the most famous dancer in the world

Canon Ambassador Clive Booth is renowned for his atmospheric fashion, beauty and commercial work, but he began his career as a graphic designer. This has given him a passion for the entire photographic journey from input to output, and he has recently been turning his stunning images of ballet director and dancer Carlos Acosta MBE into detailed large-format photographic prints using the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300.

But how do you capture the radiance of an internationally renowned ballet superstar in static studio portraits? That was the challenge posed to Clive when he set about photographing Carlos for a special anniversary issue of Digital Photographer magazine. “When I was asked to guest edit the 250th issue of the magazine, I thought, ‘What a great opportunity to go to Birmingham Royal Ballet,'” says Clive. His relationship with the BRB began in 2017, when principal dancer Tyrone Singleton came to a talk that Clive was giving at The Photography Show. Clive has now worked with Tyrone and the BRB on several ambitious projects, including the launch of the Canon EOS R.

The timing for the shoot was perfect, as Clive’s portraits would be used to promote a new production of Don Quixote that Carlos was directing. He says, “I knew that working with Carlos would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as well as a fantastic feature for both the magazine and printing.”

The shoot with the dancer-turned-director took place in a studio at the ballet company’s home, Birmingham Hippodrome. As it was Clive’s first major post-Covid job, he admits to feeling pressure. “I’m always scared of failure and I get so nervous before a big shoot, but that fear ensures I plan properly,” he says. On the day, Clive had Tyrone Singleton on hand – himself an accomplished photographer – to offer his dancer’s eye and some dynamic posing suggestions. “​​I know I can call on the expertise of Tyrone to tell me what to look for,” continues Clive, “such as whether Carlos’ hands and poses are accurate.”

Clive’s go-to camera is the EOS R5, and its 45MP sensor offered plenty of resolution for detailed portraits and later prints. He describes cameras as enablers – tools that are no different to using a pencil or a paintbrush – and has put his faith in Canon gear for 20 years. “As a photographer, you’re an artist, you just paint your pictures with a camera,” he says. “The reason I use Canon is because it enables me to do the most. In my opinion it has made the most technologically enabled cameras both from the point of view of hardware and software, and this releases me to form that bond with my subject.” The camera’s built-in image stabilisation enabled Clive to shoot entirely handheld, even in low lighting, which freed him up to try plenty of creative angles.

With only a limited amount of time together, it was important for Clive to maintain a connection with his sitter and draw out the most expressive poses. Using the Canon EOS R5’s advanced eye-detection autofocus, he was confident of getting sharp results where it mattered. “With a Canon EOS R5 or Canon EOS R6, even a Canon EOS R, when I’m shooting a portrait and switch to head and eye recognition to focus, I can just completely let the camera do that side of the work,” says Clive. Because the EOS R5 has an AI-based ability to track and detect the eyes of subjects, the autofocus locked onto Carlos’ face accurately, even when his features were obscured by his hands.

Many photographers view 85mm as the ideal focal length for flattering portraits, and Clive used the Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS on this shoot. The Defocus Smoothing coating on the lens softened the defocused areas of the image and helped him to achieve the beautifully blurred, subtle backgrounds that he is known for. While Clive attributes building his career with the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens, he says: “The RF version takes the brilliant focal length to new levels with increased speed and sharpness.”

The Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens was also vital for some more intimate close-ups. “I’ve had the 50mm since the launch of the EOS R. I absolutely fell in love with that lens and it’s still my favourite to this day,” says Clive. From the outset, Clive knew that his portraits would be printed in Digital Photographer magazine, so he shot in Canon’s Dual Pixel RAW mode to ensure the highest quality, and to enable him to access advanced adjustments when editing. “It definitely makes me think differently when I know I’m shooting for print,” he continues. “You’re almost imagining that ink on paper. My process is always to shoot RAW, as I want to extract the greatest amount of data from the file.

“With Canon, shooting DPRAW gives you extra advantages, as you can use Digital Photo Professional to access excellent tools like micro adjustment and bokeh shift,” Clive continues. His DPRAW images were shot in colour, but then converted to black and white in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic to create a timeless feel. He prefers to keep that part of the process as simple as possible. “Some people have very complex ways of doing a black and white conversion, but I use a standard profile in Lightroom Classic,” he says.

As part of the job, Clive also wanted to make his own set of large-format prints that could be presented to Carlos and the Birmingham Royal Ballet. He turned to Canon’s Professional Print & Layout application and soft-proofed images for the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 printer. “You can start to get a feel for what your picture is going to look like, and some of the sliders are amazing with what they can do,” says Clive.

“You can read the depth map data from the DPRAW files,” he continues. “There’s a checkbox called Contrast Reproduction, which improves the sharpness degradation that you get when you print – with your paper in mind. Taking you from a soft-proof on a calibrated monitor to accurate contact prints, it’s a no-brainer.” The software also offers him profiles, plug-ins, tone correction, layout designs and even borderless printing in one neat package.Rather than sending his portraits to a professional print lab, Clive enjoys making gallery-quality prints at home. “With the printers that we have now, you can actually realise the image that you’ve seen in your mind’s eye,” he enthuses.

Thanks to the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300, in combination with Clive’s favourite Hahnemühle FineArt Pearl paper, he could produce A3+ prints of Carlos at archival quality. He chose a dedicated Matte Black ink to give his monochrome images vivid blacks. “The PRO-300 comes with 10 LUCIA PRO pigment inks, and these produce really deep tones for black and white printing,” he adds.

Ultimately, Clive believes that we should all appreciate photographs in a physical form. “A set of prints in a handmade portfolio with a certificate of authentication is a very special thing,” he says. “I would encourage everybody to try making their own prints, to just enjoy the process of input to output, because it really is so rewarding.”

Lauren Scott for Canon Europe