Photographing Runway Fashion Shows [Fashion Week, NYC]

Fashion photographers can spend more than six months on the road each year circumnavigating the globe from the twice-yearly Fashion Week in New York to London, Milan, Paris and continuing on around the world to such diverse cities and countries as Berlin, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Sydney and New Zealand. Even in the U.S., there are more than a few Fashion Week events including those in Miami (swimwear), Atlanta, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Montreal, Portland (Oregon) and even Washington, DC. But New York, London, Milan and Paris are the “big four” and attract the hottest designers and the most important editors and buyers. Over the years, celebrities, socialites and, especially in New York, reality TV personalities have become front-row regulars at the shows.

Spring/summer collections are shown in the fall and fall/winter collections are shown in the spring, to give buyers and editors plenty of lead time. For example, from February 11-18, 2010, fall/winter 2010 collections will be shown at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York [see] the 2011 spring/summer collections will be shown in September, 2010.


The Shows

I’ve only photographed New York Fashion Week (NYFW), so I can’t speak directly to experiences in other cities but, after chatting with photographers who cover international cities, and from what I’ve read, the set-up and scheduling at the major shows is similar to New York’s. With the economic downturn and the upcoming move in September 2010 of NYFW from its traditional venue at Bryant Park uptown to Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, certain aspects of Fashion Week are evolving, but the basics remain the same.

In NY, collections are shown either at the main Tents or off-site. The Tents offers a trio of spaces: the Tent (the largest), the Promenade and the Salon. Off-site shows are held at various venues, which can include photography studios, art galleries, designers’ showroom, huge spaces like the Hammerstein Ballroom and hotels. The occasional show may even be held outdoors at a park.

Registration for photographer passes starts at least a couple of months before Fashion Week at the title sponsor’s website (in this case, Mercedes Benz). Accreditation requires proof that you’ll be shooting the shows for a publication, whether you’re on staff or a freelancer. Detailed information can be found on the Mercedes Benz website. Invitations can also be provided by individual designers, but only for their shows.

If you’re just starting out or don’t have an assignment to get a photo pass, explore local fashion events to gain experience and expand your portfolio. Community organizations and schools often stage runway shows and will probably be happy to have you photograph their events.


In the Tents

The first show of the day in the Tents generally starts at 9am (10am on Saturday/Sunday), with shows running every hour, on the hour, with a couple of one hour breaks at around noon and 4pm. The last models walk the runway at either 7pm or 9pm, so it’s a very long day if you, like many photographers, are covering all of the shows in Bryant Park. Unfortunately, there are few amenities for photographers in the Tents other than wireless, a press room and public port-o-potties.

Sponsors, including Mercedes Benz, exhibit their products in the lobby of the Tents with some giveaways including water and the occasional snack. In the past, UPS gave away yummy brownies (brownies are brown, just like the UPS uniforms), Fage distributed Greek yogurt and Haviana created custom flip-flops for free, if you had the patience to wait in line. But for real food, you’ll have to run to one of the nearby delis, bring something with you or both. Whether you’re shooting in the Tents or off-site, it’s always a good idea to bring some water and snacks to keep you going throughout the day.

Prior to the Fashion Week start date, photographers wait in a group outside at the Tents to pick up their badges and, once in the Tents, use tape to mark their spot on the risers.
Shows generally run anywhere from about 15-20 minutes, depending on the number of looks in the collection. Photographers who don’t have all-access passes that allow them to go backstage and onto the photo risers early, wait in a group outside until security lets them in. At that point, it’s a mad rush to get a good position in the aptly-named photographers’ “pit.” There’s a definite hierarchy in the Tents, with the house photographer (who is shooting for the designer or for IMG, the producer of Fashion Week) getting the prized center positions, along with photographers shooting for high profile publications and clients, as well as those who have been covering NYFW for years.


That doesn’t leave much space for the first-timer and that’s something you’ll have to live with—even if it means sitting on the floor (not ideal because you’re shooting up at the model when she or he poses at the end of the runway) or standing off to the side.

Being in the photographers’ pit isn’t quite as bad as it’s made out to be—I’ve met some really nice people, from all over the world, by standing next to them during the shows. Occasionally tempers may flair, particularly at the end of a long day or after a pressure-filled week of being elbow-to-elbow, and hip-to-hip with so many people. A little respect, a calm demeanor and a few polite words go a long way when trying to find a place to shoot from. If you stand in a spot that has been taped off, don’t be surprised if the photographer comes in at the last minute and asks (or tells) you to move.

In addition to having a good attitude, be sure to have your gear organized beforehand. You won’t have much (if any) room to dig in your bag to set up your camera.


Most runway shows are configured with a single runway down the middle. A few, however, may be set-up in a U-shape with additional rows of chairs in the center. Your best bet is to get as close to the first runway (on your left, when you’re facing the runway). Occasionally, models will walk down both runways, but you may not know this ahead of time so assume that the models will walk down one side and up the other. If you get stuck in the middle, facing the chairs, you can still get decent shots when the model poses at the end of the runway.

Lighting in the Tents is generally good, although not always. Betsy Johnson, who stages the most interesting and fun shows, will sometimes use colored lights in the background and have spotlights follow the models down the runway. It’s a bit of a challenge but well worth the effort. Don’t forget to be ready for her signature cartwheel at the end of the show.

When a show ends, be ready to run to the next show or, at the very least, get out of the way of the other photographers who need to move quickly. Photographers not only have to shoot back-to-back shows but have to file their images as well, so the pace is pretty intense.



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.


Technical Tips

Camera settings will, of course, depend on your camera and the lighting conditions but here are some suggestions to get you started for shooting the runway:

  1. Aperture priority or manual exposure mode (I tend to use the latter)
  2. Wide open aperture for shallow depth-of-field (e.g., f/2.8 or f/4)
  3. Minimum shutter speed of 1/250th second (increase the ISO if necessary)
  4. Center-weighted metering (wide area metering can be fooled by dark or bright areas surrounding the model)
  5. Continuous AF to track models
  6. Single or continuous shooting (I prefer single shots but shoot continuous as well, particularly when the show is fast paced and the models are walking very quickly)
  7. White balance can be a little tricky, especially when the lighting is mixed, so I generally shoot in RAW + JPEG, with a preset (usually tungsten) white balance or a Kelvin temperature of around 3000-3200. I know a few photographers who use auto white balance. If you’re there early enough for the run-through, you can evaluate your settings and make adjustments before the show starts.

Theano’s Current Gear Bag

  • 1 Nikon D700
  • 1 Nikon D3 (soon to be D3s)
  • Extra batteries for each camera
  • 1 AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
  • 1 AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED
  • 1 Think Tank Photo Pocket Rocket CF card holders with ten 4-32GB SanDisk and Lexar Cards
  • 1 Nikon SB-900
  • 2-3 sets of rechargeable AA’s
  • 1 NIKON SC-29 synch cord
  • 1 Custom Bracket CB Junior
  • 1 Gitzo monopod
  • 1 Acratech GP Ballhead
  • 1 Lens Pen
  • assorted lens cloths, blower bulb and other miscellaneous accessories


Shooting fashion shows is hard work. The hours are absurdly long particularly if you attend any of the afterparties and have a 9am show the next morning. And the job is physically demanding—you’re on your feet almost non-stop and when you’re not standing still (or figuring out how to squeeze into that 3″×3″ space on the riser), you’re lugging your gear up and down subway steps. Yes, shooting Fashion Week can be tough. But it’s also really exciting and exhilarating. From the minute I photographed my first runway show at Bryant Park six years ago, I was hooked. If you have the opportunity to photograph a runway show, go for it. You’ll probably either hate it or love it. My money’s on the latter.


Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for the past 15 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, “how to” articles and images have appeared in a wide variety of publications and on Websites including American Photo,,, Digital Photographer, First Glimpse,, macHOME, PCPhoto, PC How to Digital Photography Buyer’s Guide, Photo District News,, and Popular Science. Although she loves digital, Theano still has a darkroom and a fridge filled with film thanks to her long-time passion for alternative processes and toy cameras.

Original text and images ©2010 Theano Nikitas.

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    • 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.
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    • 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
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    • Great article. Thanks :)
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    • Thanks, Mark! I'm so glad you liked the article and that you took the time to let me know. Cheers, Theano
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    • Maybe I'll see you at this year's fashion week. I'd love to get into that business.
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    • 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!
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    • 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 (
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    • 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
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    • 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
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    • Theano Nikitas and  Mike Jones (

      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,



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    • Theano,

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



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    • 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,


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

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


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


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    • 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?




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    • 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!

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    • So glad it was helpful, Linda! 

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    • 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.



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    • Thanks, Edwin! Glad you found the article helpful.




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    • Amazing work! 

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