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Photographing Runway Fashion Shows [Fashion Week, NYC]

by Theano Nikitas, January 2010 (updated June 2010)


Off-site

Off-site shows are usually a little different from those held in the Tents. With only a few exceptions, the venues tend to be smaller and runways—when they’re used—are shorter. Lighting is often more challenging than the Tents as well. And, many of the off-site shows are presentations, with static models arranged on platforms or, on occasion, clothes displayed on mannequins. While the badge for the Tents will generally get you into off-site shows, an invitation from the designer is all you need for his or her show.

One of the things I love about off-site shows is that I often get to photograph less well-known, but interesting, designers. Other than off-site shows in huge venues, there are usually fewer photographers on the riser. It can still get crowded, though but it’s a little less stressful than shooting in the Tents. Except, of course, when you have to run uptown, then crosstown and then back downtown to get to the different venues.

If you look at the show schedule, you can usually tell if it’s a runway show or a presentation since the latter will usually list a start and an end time, while a runway show just lists the start time.

Even presentations can vary. It may be a group of models posed on a platform or on couches and chairs; they might change outfits during the presentation (be sure to find out when you get there so you don’t miss any looks), or simply stay in the same outfits throughout. Occasionally, a designer will repeat a runway show several times during the 1-3 hours allotted. Once you have your shots, then you’re off to the next assignment.

As I mentioned, lighting can be a challenge off-site. Over the past 6 years, I’ve shot under all kinds of conditions including a catwalk show in an historic 19th century mansion lit by dim chandeliers and a single window, a dark and dingy cement room on the Bowery with a single spotlight, and runway shows where the end of the runway was two stops brighter than the far end. Of course, you sometimes get lucky and photograph a bright, evenly lit show. Lighting for static presentations is often pretty good.

Gear and Shooting Tips

Now that you have an idea of the conditions and settings you may encounter at Fashion Week, it’s time to talk about what gear you’ll need and how to use it.

You’ll need a DSLR, of course; preferably two (one for back-up). I prefer full-frame cameras but have shot Fashion Week with everything from the Olympus E-3 to the Canon 30D, 1D Mark III, 1Ds Mark III and, for the past few seasons, the Nikon D700 and the D3. Whatever camera you decide to use, make sure you know how to use it and can change settings intuitively—you don’t have time (or enough light) to stop and figure out what to do next. Since you’ll be shooting verticals most of the time, a vertical grip makes life easier.

Two zoom lenses should cover just about every situation, as long as they’re fast. My ideal is a 24-70mm/2.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8, particularly for full-frame cameras. If you’re not shooting full-frame and you’re faced with a short runway, you may want to opt for the 24-70mm lens instead of the 70-200mm, depending on the length of the runway and your camera-to-subject distance when the model poses in front of the riser.

The 24-70mm lens works well when photographing static presentations since, more often than not, you’ll be relatively close to the models. These presentations can get crowded with guests, so you’ll need to maneuver around people who are there to view the collection but it’s rarely a problem.

Most of the time you’ll rely on available light when you’re shooting Fashion Week. Flash is never used for runway shows in the Tents, although people sitting in the audience will snap some shots with flash. For off-site runway shows, flash is only used when it’s really dark (as in too dark for autofocus to work reliably). A good rule of thumb is, if all or most of the photographers aren’t using flash, then you shouldn’t either.

However, flash is commonly used for static presentations, backstage and for pre-show front-row shots (you’ll need special credentials for the latter in the Tents). Forget your camera’s on-board flash (if it has one)—you may end up with redeye, harsh shadows and, when you shoot vertically, lighting may be uneven. Instead, use a flash like the Nikon SB-900 Speedlight or the Canon 580EX II Speedlite. The most useful—and versatile—flash equipment includes a diffuser as well as a sync cord and/or bracket set-up so you can use the flash off-camera.

Depending on the weight of your camera/lens combination and your ability to hold the camera steady, you may or may not want to bring along a monopod. Just be sure you can mount the camera vertically. Also, be aware that you should stand on one of the riser steps and not on floor level.

Of course, you’ll need plenty of media cards, especially if you’re shooting RAW. I generally carry enough cards—plus a few extras—to dedicate one for each show I’m covering that day. Most of my cards are high speed and high capacity; I rarely use anything smaller than a 4GB card and prefer 8, 16 and 32GB CF cards. After each show, I place the card in a Think Tank Photo Pixel Pocket Rocket card holder, labeled with a small piece of paper.

Pack extra batteries for your cameras and strobe. A lens cloth, brush and blower bulb will help keep your lens and LCD clean, while a tiny flashlight comes in handy when searching in your bag or looking for something you dropped on the floor.

There may be times when you’ll need something to stand on in order to shoot over the person in front of you or, if you’re on the floor, you may need something to sit on, especially if there’s a double-row of photographers down in front. Some photographers cart their gear around in hard cases that can be used for sitting or as a platform to stand on. Others carry a folding step stool like the plastic Turtle Stool for the same purposes.

Shooting Tips

Your job during Fashion Week is to capture images that show off the designer’s clothes. For runway shows, the general rule of thumb is to shoot at least one full length, one ¾ and a close-up. If you’re shooting from a distance or from an angle, you may be able to get a full-length shot when the model poses at the end of the runway. It takes some practice to get the ideal shot with the model’s feet flat on the ground and arms at her/his side.

I also often shoot the backs of the outfits as the model is walking away and will sometimes shoot the sweep of a hemline, an interesting shoe or accessory if there’s time. Unusual make-up and/or hairstyles also deserve attention, as long as you have the main shots.

During the finale, all the models walk down the runway, which can make for some interesting shots with selective focus. The designer may walk the runway with the last model in line. More likely, he or she will make a quick appearance (be ready for the shot) at the far end of the runway after the models exit.

For static presentations, models are usually grouped together and, depending on the arrangement, it may be difficult to photograph individual looks. Instead, you can use a wide angle lens, like a 24-70mm, to capture several outfits at one time. Just be aware of distortion at wide angle—models at the edge of the frame can look pretty bad.

Not everyone has access to shoot backstage before a show but if you have the opportunity to go behind the scenes, you’ll be well-rewarded with candid shots of make-up artists and hair stylists preparing the models for the show. Backstage is usually crowded, noisy and hectic but it’s fun and you may run into a celeb or two.


Original text and images ©2010 Theano Nikitas.

Article revised June 2010.

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Chris Gampat , January 25, 2010; 10:22 A.M.

Hi Theano, Great article. A lot of this sounds like the candid celebrity photography that I used to do. We always had to shoot full frame and my agency always wanted F2.8 or faster for optimal sharpness. Here's an example of Sarah Jessica Parker. Sarah Jessica Parker on the set of "Sex and the City II" In the fashion world is it also important to capture great emotions from the models besides just the 3/4th closeup, full body shots and detail shots? Also, how does autofocusing usually do in environments like that? I can imagine it would be better to manually focus.

Theano Nikitas , January 25, 2010; 04:32 P.M.

Hi Chris,

Glad you enjoyed the article! Yes, I imagine runway is similar to the candid celebrity photography you've done although it some ways it's easier since you're not constantly jockeying to get close to the subject. Once you have your spot at a runway show, you're set.

You asked whether it's important to capture great emotions from the model in addition to the full, 3/4 and detail shots. During the runway shows I've shot, it's rare for the models to show much emotion as they're walking. More often, they'll show some personality when they pose at the end of the runway. Of course, there are some exceptions--Betsy Johnson and Heatherette models, for example, are usually very playful on the runway. Needless to say, it's critical to photograph them with their eyes open!

During presentations when the models are sitting or standing, they usually will pose when a photographer approaches them. I'll often ask them to turn around, if possible, so I can photograph the back of the dress or ask them to pose a certain way to show off an aspect of the clothing better.

As far as auto vs. manual focus, it's a mixed bag. I'm more comfortable with autofocus and there's usually enough light for that, but I know a couple of photographers who always focus manually.

It's interesting how technology can alter a skillset. When I was testing the Leica M9, I really had to slow down so I could focus and expose manually--a totally different experience and one that I really enjoyed.

Thanks for your comments and questions! And thanks for sharing the cool photo of SJP.

Cheers,

Theano

Mark Anthony Kathurima , January 26, 2010; 09:54 A.M.

Great article. Thanks :)

Theano Nikitas , January 26, 2010; 02:02 P.M.

Thanks, Mark! I'm so glad you liked the article and that you took the time to let me know.

Cheers,

Theano

Chris Gampat , January 29, 2010; 05:01 P.M.

Maybe I'll see you at this year's fashion week. I'd love to get into that business.

Teddy Hla , February 14, 2010; 05:26 P.M.

Thanks very much. I am a student and was just about to shoot two runways. one for my uni fashion soc and the other LFW for our student newspaper. i normally do studio stuff and your article is a big eye opener to me.

my kit : 5d , 70-200, the usual stuff etc.. seems not enough. i'm thinking of getting a vertical grip but still can't afford with zero budget from uni. well, anyway, as long as i got a couple of good shots,i should be fine.

Cheers!

Mike Jones , February 17, 2010; 10:18 P.M.

Theano,

Thanks again for writing a great article. As a first timer to MB FW it was really helpful. What was even better was meeting up with you and having such a great time chatting, time just flew by.

I wanted to add a couple of other things to the list that might be helpful to future first timers:

INVITES

IMG state that you need invites from the designers to get into the shows. This is not strictly true. If you want to go back stage and shoot the make-up and hair then you will need to be on the back stage list. Its not impossible to get on the list. I got two invites for back stage access when I emailed the designer requesting just riser access. Now of more importance to me was knowing whether I could get onto the riser. You do not need an invite to get on the riser. Your Media pass is sufficient. This week I attempted to access 21 shows and got into 20, without the need to show invitations. When I attempted to pull rank, for the shows where I was lucky enough to have an invitation, the security guards ignored them for the most part. (one guy let me go with the A-List media)

There are two distinct groups the A-List are the priority media, House, Designers Photographer, Gettys, WWD, AP, etc. They have a separate pen to queue in, and they get access to the riser before everyone else. Then there is the B-List they queue in another pen behind the A-List. Once the B-list are released then you need to find a spot pretty quickly as they good ones go fast.

THE RISER If you happen to get in early don't try and sit in the empty spaces looking down the centre of the runway, because someone will come and move you and by that time all the other decent spots are gone. Position yourself a safe spot, as close to the side of the runway as possible. There are two rows on the floor. Front row: on your butt Second row: either sitting on a step stool, a turtle stool ($14.95 bed bath and beyond) or if you are nice and polite ask the video guy on the first riser to move his tripod back 3inches. That will give you enough room to fit your turtle in front and between his tripods legs and gets you shooting at about 3ft height. If you are really cheeky ask him if you can store your bad under his tripod as well.

If you plan to go back behind the video guys be prepared to have a large step ladder 3ft high or a high box to stand on. Even though the riser have a gradual stepped incline the guys built themselves the most precarious vantage points. You will not get a clear shot and will get frustrated if you are not carrying heavy duty steps. Stick to the front row or shoot from the sides if you want to travel light. Its also more intimidating the further back you go, people are still pretty accommodating and friendly, but there is a certain tension back there. Primarily because there is always someone getting frustrated that their view is getting blocked. At the front you have a worse shooting angle but less obstructions. However, if you are on the front row and too far to the edges then the first row of seats will start to block your view.

LENSES Front row: My preference is 70-200, but a lot of togs were shooting in the 24-105 range. Anywhere on the 3rd level and back. 70-200 preferably with an x 1.4 extender

Cards. I took on average 500 images per show and shot full raw on Canon 5d mkii (21mp) so about 14GB per show. But some shows run longer and the card may fill up (in my case 16GB cards). Have your back up card easily accessible, you are crammed in, often unable to put your hands into your pocket and your bag will most likely have moved places several times as people squeeze into the smallest imaginable spots. As the show progresses keep an eye on your image count and switch cards at an appropriate moment. Normally just as you are about to switch models. Its better to leave 40 images on the first card and switch when it most favourable, than to wait until the card is full. Practice switching cards in almost darkness and definitely know which way around your card should be placed. If you are quick you might miss about 3 shots and still get the next model well before she reaches the end of the runway. Know your shooting style, Card Size and image count, and you will well prepared.

Camera settings: Theano's recommendations above are very good. Mostly I was using F4 ISO 500 and a shutter speed between 250-500. and 3200 Kelvin. But there are shows that will completely use different light set ups and most likely you wont know this until the first model steps into the runway. Take two shots and take a look. If its a different light set up you need to react quickly. If its too dark best bet is not to mess with your aperture or shutter speed, although I would start by bring it down from 500 to 250. If its still too dark get your ISO up to 800 and test again. If you are quick you should be set by the time the model is 3/4 of the way down the runway, just enough time to grab a successful shot. Worst possible scenario is that the white balance is not in the normal 3000-3200 range. If you know your Kelvin range really well you might be able to make a quick change, otherwise switch to AWB. If you are shooting raw you can leave it and fix it in LR or ACR later. Basically you need to know how to change your exposure settings quickly and in the dark. If you plan on switching from portrait to landscape also know how to quickly change the AF points. Knowing which way to scroll the wheel to get from your current point to your desired point in the least number of clicks is really important, especially if you are trying to shoot the both orientations for one model.

- Mike Jones (www.Firetog.com)

Theano Nikitas , February 18, 2010; 09:26 A.M.

Hi Teddy,

I'm so glad the article was helpful for your upcoming runway shoots! You'll be fine with the gear you have. A vertical grip is nice to have but not critical to getting good shots. Just try to keep your elbow down when shooting vertically, to help steady the camera (and not block other photographers' shots). Your wrist might get sore, but you'll get the shots!

Please post some of your runway photos after the shows!!

Cheers,

Theano

Theano Nikitas , February 18, 2010; 09:28 A.M.

Hey Mike,

Wonderful to meet you!! And thanks for adding your insights about shooting in the tents--great advice!!

Can't wait to see your images! Safe travels,

Theano

Pi Levyadophy , May 18, 2010; 07:19 P.M.

Theano Nikitas and  Mike Jones (www.Firetog.com)

Thanks a million for the very informative tutorial on catwalk shooting. The practical titbits are ever so useful.

Theano Nikitas  re manual focus

You mentioned that some photogs manually focus when shooting the runway. Wow! How on earth do they do that, do you know?? If not could you find out please as I am REALLY curious to know. I wouldn't have dreamed it would be possible to do such a thing with a fast moving subject and have your shots in focus (last year I shot a university fashion show, and the "models", not being seasoned pros, were coming down the runway at supersonic speed and I could barely keep up with them using autofocus). I am particularly keen to learn how to manually focus during a catwalk show as I have a manual focus lens that I would love to use for such an event.

Theano Nikitas  re JPEG submissions

Do you know if it is at all common for photogs to submitt only out-of-camera JPEGs after having shot a show?

On a side note, I noted with interest that you say you have shot with an Oly E-3. What lenses did you use with that camera, and for what type of show? And did you submit raw or out-of-camera JPEGs.? (curious to know as I now have a Four Thirds camera)

 

Thanks in advance.

Warm regards,

plevyadophy

 

Ade Olumide , June 16, 2010; 02:56 P.M.

Theano,

Thanks for the insights into catwalk photography. I'll be doing my first one soon, so I REALLy appreciate the info here.

Cheers,

-Ade

Steven Dobo , July 10, 2010; 10:00 A.M.

Hello Theano,

Very helpful article. I am hoping to have the opportunity to attend this fall. I am beginning my runway experience over the summer and hope to meet you at some point.

All the best,

-Steve

Shaojin Alianto Tio , December 02, 2010; 12:01 A.M.

Thanks for sharing the very useful article, so enjoy reading it.

Theano Nikitas , December 02, 2010; 08:30 P.M.

Thank you, Shaojin! I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

--Theano

damian godley , May 16, 2011; 09:44 A.M.

thanks,doing my first runway show soon & this was just the artical i was looking for.top tips

Damian

Ashley Hicks , December 07, 2011; 04:45 P.M.

Hey there,

I have been trying to get in contact with someone who could direct me in a way to get ahold of a pass for NYFW to shoot behind the scenes. I know that majority of the time you have to be invited by the designer themselves, and talking to certain people from all over the US have kind of discouraged me in my thinking that I will be able to score a pass. However, I am only nineteen and my credentials are limited when it comes to my list of clients. Shooting behind the scenes during NYFW is my dream, and the photos would be for my sole benefit because I know there's a huge implication that the photos should not be posted anywhere prior to the designers release. Is there any advice you could give me, or any way you could possibly assist me in being able to get the opportunity to experience shooting at NYFW?

 

Thanks,

Ashley

Linda Covello , February 17, 2012; 12:36 P.M.

This was a great article, thank you! You answered every question I had about shooting the runway shows.  You covered all of it, right down to the agony of carrying heavy equipment up and down subway steps. I just wish I had thought to read this BEFORE Wednesday.  Oh well, next time! Thanks again!

Theano Nikitas , February 18, 2012; 11:28 A.M.

So glad it was helpful, Linda! 

Edwin Ochoa , March 28, 2012; 06:19 P.M.

Hi Theano,

Thank you very much I enjoy reading such great very helpful article of yours and I have learn a lot. I always wanted to try fashion photographer just don't know where to start.

Regards,

Edwin

Theano Nikitas , March 28, 2012; 07:03 P.M.

Thanks, Edwin! Glad you found the article helpful.

 

Best,

Theano

katybags chan , January 15, 2013; 02:28 A.M.

Amazing work! 


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