It’s Fashion Week in New York City, and that means the city is teeming with models, fashionistas, socialites, editors, buyers, celebrities. And more photographers than the already photographer-saturated city sees on any given day.
They descend on New York (and London, Milan and Paris, among others) twice a year for the privilege of working long hours, elbow-to-elbow and hip-to-hip with other photographers on a riser that’s meant to hold half the number of people that have photo credentials.
Although the sponsored Mercedes Benz NY Fashion Week venue is at Lincoln Center, there are hundreds of shows that take place all over the city. Locations for these off-site events vary dramatically and include art galleries, photography studios, ballrooms, hotel terraces, parks, clubs, and a few spaces that defy description (dark, dank, and cement walls come to mind).
The four spaces—called the Theatre, the Stage, the Studio and the Box—at the Lincoln Center venue are generally well produced, with professional lighting. Going off-site is more of an adventure when it comes to shooting conditions. Occasionally, you’ll find perfect lighting and will be able to work with a low ISO, fast shutter speed and perfectly-tracking continuous autofocus. More likely, though, you’ll walk into a runway show or a presentation (where the models statically pose on platforms) that presents challenges.
You might find a room that’s lit only by chandeliers that were designed more for quiet dinner parties than runway shows, or maybe get stuck with a show that’s lit by a single, misplaced spot that casts horrid shadows on the models’ faces and clothing or a runway that’s so unevenly lit that exposures change by about 2-3 stops from one end of the runway to the other.
Or, how about the time all the photographers (me included) pulled out our flashes—which are rarely used during runway shows—because there was barely enough light to focus? Lessons learned: You need to be prepared for pretty much anything, if not with gear, then at least with skills.
You don’t necessarily need a lot of gear, nor do you want to lug around every piece of kit you own since space is at a premium on the photo riser. But there are certain criteria to keep in mind when you put together equipment for a runway shoot.
First, you really need a DSLR; Nothing else is fast enough—at least not yet. The camera you select needs to have good all-around performance: autofocus (continuous and single shot), burst speed, read/write times. You might want to bring a back-up body, even if it’s a lower end model. (I shoot with a Nikon D3s and often bring D700 a D7000 as back-up.)
Most fashion show images, whether the models are walking the runway or statically standing in a presentation, are shot vertically so a vertical grip is recommended, albeit not absolutely necessary.
Other factors to consider include battery life, especially if you plan to shoot from morning ‘til night and then cover an after party. A second battery is a good back-up option.
Bring the best and fastest glass you own. Alternatively consider renting a lens or two if your current lenses don’t provide the speed and focal range you need.
For runways, an f/2.8 70-200mm image stabilized lens works well. If you’re shooting full-frame, consider adding a tele-extender (I generally shoot with a Nikon 70-200mm VR II, sometimes with a 1.7x Extender for long runways.)
For backstage, front row, presentations, smaller venues and general shooting, an f/2.8 24-70mm is a good second lens. (I have a Nikon 24-70mm and/or a Nikon 16-35mm lens in my bag.) If your camera has a cropped sensor, you might be able to use the 24-70mm lens as your sole lens.
Bring multiple cards of at least 4GB each. High speed, high capacity are best, particularly if you’re shooting RAW or RAW + JPEG. If your camera has dual slots, consider using the second shot for overflow. This past weekend, the last show of the day had 71 looks (outfits)—two or three times as many as are typically shown—so there was a real danger of of filling up my card(s) before the end of the show. (I generally shoot with 8GB and 16GB SanDisk Extreme Pro cards and use 4GB cards in the second slot of the D3s for overflow.)
While you’ll rarely, if ever, use a flash during a runway show, you may need an external strobe for backstage, front row, presentations, or red carpet/step-and-repeat. Built-in flashes are okay in a pinch but a speedlight provides more control and power.
- A monopod, ballhead, and quick release plate (for your camera or lens) is a good idea if you’re shooting with a long lens. Shorter lenses are usually handheld.
- Light modifiers for your speedlight can be helpful when you’re not shooting the runway, but most speedlights come with a snap-on diffuser, which can be used as well.
- A Lens Pen and/or a microfiber cloth and soft brush should always be part of your kit.
- A small flashlight is helpful when you’re digging around in your bag or drop something on the floor.
- Camera bags should be as compact as possible; there’s very little space to stow your gear bag.
- A small, collapsible stool, generally referred to as a “Turtle,” comes in handy to sit on or stand on so you can shoot over the head of the person in front of you.
But not even the most expensive camera or the best-equipped gear bag will get the shot if the person behind the lens can’t operate his or her camera intuitively and quickly.
For the best results, avoid shooting on Auto or Program. Become familiar with your camera’s manual and semi-manual exposure modes. Know how to change exposure without moving your eye from the viewfinder since lighting on a runway may be uneven. A good starting point for a 70-200mm lens is f/4, 1/500th second; adjust the ISO accordingly.
Learn how to adjust white balance; automatic white balance will, more often than not, results in color casts that may be difficult to adjust in post-processing (unless you shoot in RAW). Most well-lit shows use tungsten lighting, so you can use the tungsten pre-set or, better yet, set the Kelvin temperature, if your camera offers that option, to around 3200 and adjust it as you’re shooting.
Focus mode is a personal choice. Some people use continuous AF, some use single AF, and there are more than a handful who focus manually.
Metering is best sent to center-weighted or, possibly, spot since the camera can easily be confused by the white surface of the runway and the dark sidelines where the audience sits.
Can't make Fashion Week? Good news! Fashion isn’t just on the runway
If you don’t have the opportunity to shoot a runway show or presentation during Fashion Week, check out local boutiques, community groups and organizations who may hold fashion shows of their own and will probably be happy to have photographers to capture the event.
Shooting fashion on the street is very popular these days and is accessible to everyone. If you’re in NYC during Fashion Week, head up to Lincoln Center where there are plenty of opportunities to photograph some stylish (and unusually outfitted) people who are happy to have their pictures taken. For the ultimate in shooting fashion on the streets, check out Bill Cunningham’s Sunday presentations in the New York Times and the movie, Bill Cunningham New York. Mr. Cunningham has been capturing street fashion for decades and can often be found front row at fashion shows and events all over town.
Fashion style shooting has also become popular in the Senior Portrait photography markets. While some Seniors will have a sense of fashion photography (for better or worse, and often the latter) from reality shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, as the photographer you’ll need to direct them during the shoot. For research, fashion magazines and advertisements are probably the best source of the latest trends in fashion photography. You may want to offer special services such as a make-up artist and hair stylists to ensure that your clients look their best.
Whatever your interest in fashion photography—or any photography for that matter—it’s important to shoot as much as possible and evaluate your work with a critical eye. Be sure to experiment and, yes, to have fun, too.