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 www.mbfashionweek.com/newyork] the 2011 spring/summer collections will be shown in September, 2010.
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.
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.
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:
- Aperture priority or manual exposure mode (I tend to use the latter)
- Wide open aperture for shallow depth-of-field (e.g., f/2.8 or f/4)
- Minimum shutter speed of 1/250th second (increase the ISO if necessary)
- Center-weighted metering (wide area metering can be fooled by dark or bright areas surrounding the model)
- Continuous AF to track models
- 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)
- 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.
Original text and images ©2010 Theano Nikitas.