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Let's just get this out of the way really quick; Runway photography while a discipline of Fashion Photography is far more like shooting sports than shooting fashion.
Most of the best shooters in the pit either focus almost exclusively on this or shoot sports and events almost exclusively.
The shot above is typical for what the end client (in this case Malan Breton) wants from the runway for their press kits, a shot of the model walking, full body with little to no keystoning and both feet down, or as close to down as possible. While there are of course specialists even in this discipline (shooting shoes, hand bags etc) we will focus on what is the bread and butter of runway, the full look. There really is very little variation for what the end users, be it the designer or a publication like WWD wants in these situations. Let's start with basic camera requirements and lenses.
When it comes to runway photography, the camera you use must be capable of a few things – a fast burst rate (8 fps or better), large buffer that empties quickly (roughly 60 full res JPGs), ability to quickly and accurately track a moving object and excellent JPG performance at ISOs between on average 640-1250. Occasionally you may have to shoot at higher ISOs or be lucky enough to shoot at lower sensitivities, but for the most part expect to be hovering in the range mentioned. Why JPG? Many publications will turn around the images in under 30 minutes. On average a runway show will produce 300-400 images. Shooting RAW is just not an option in these situations. The camera you use should have a highly customizable JPG engine allowing modification of White Balance in Kelvin, Sharpness, Highlight Recovery, Shadow Recovery, Noise reduction et al. Before shooting you should already have optimize your JPG engine to reduce post production time to the absolute bare minimum. Cameras that can be recommended here include the Canon 1Dx, Nikon D4, Pentax K3, Canon 7D and many others. Here many will ask which is better, Full Frame or APS-C. While Full frame will give you marginally better High ISO performance, today's APS-C sensor are quite capable of producing images clean enough for nearly any client in this market. The other benefit of APS-C is the fact you can use smaller and therefore lighter lenses. This is important as the most runway shooters will be running around anywhere up to 14 hours with their gear. Speaking of lenses...
It's All About The Glass
As always glass matters. In runway photography the demands on optics is pretty much identical to sports photography. The lens used must be constant aperture if a zoom, with an AF motor that can quickly track the object and most importantly take serious levels of intense tracking. Here a consumer lens will not cut it. A lens like the Canon 70-200/2.8 IS L II, Canon 70-200/4 IS L, Nikon 70-200/2.8 AF-S VR II, Nikon 70-200/4G AF-S VR and the Pentax SMCP-DA 60-250/4 ED are all capable lenses and about all you need if you are shooting runway with an APS-C based camera. Full Frame shooters may need a bit longer reach than a 70-200 can provide. In this situation lenses like the Canon 200-400/4 IS 1.4X L, Nikon 200-400/4G ED AF-S VR II or the Sigma 120-300/2.8 DG OS APO HSM (available in both Nikon and Canon mounts) are excellent options. The big question becomes which do you prefer? F2.8 or F4? To be honest the top grade lenses by all manufacturers at either F4 or F2.8 are outstanding optics. Under the vast majority of runway lighting conditions you will never open up past f5.6. The use of 2.8 is so rare that going with an f4 optic will save you weight and therefore back ache on a long day of shooting. That said, having 2.8 available for those situations where the designer has decided to get “creative” with the lighting will be a lifesaver. Consider carefully what to go with. A note on lighting. In 99.9% of situations, flash is discouraged in a photography pit, and in many place will get you thrown out of one. This is why constant aperture glass and excellent High ISO performance are paramount in runway photography. As far as memory cards, get the fastest cards you can afford, but there is no real need for cards over 16GB unless you are shooting video. The idea is to keep 1 show per card. It makes life much easier in post.
Getting The Shot
Much like real estate, the mantra for runway photography is “Location, Location, Location!”. Models walk a fairly predictable path, usually slightly camera left from center. This is because the model returning up the runway will walk on the right hand side from the camera's point of view. The closer you can get to this line the better. At all times set up to camera left, as close to the walk line the models will take. The closer you get to this line, the more shots you can take before keystoning becomes an issue. The same goes for height above the runway. The closer you can come to having the sensor plane parallel to the model, the greater number of opportunities you will have to take a shot without keystoning. The farther left or higher in height you get, the further down the runway you have to shoot with fewer available positions t get a shot the client will accept. Setting up to the right side the walk line will pretty much give you just one shot just as the model comes out, and hopefully without a returning model blocking the shot. It is especially important to time when you shoot your bursts (I usually keep them to 5-6 shots per burst) with the walk of the model to get both feet down on the runway and the head perpendicular to the horizon all hopefully with both eyes open. The diagram below give a good idea of what good position will provide you and why the field compression effect of a telephoto zoom will help you if you are not in the optimal spot. The extreme left or right side of the riser are for the most part useless unless you are trying to do something creative with a wide angle lens.
The red FOV is the centerline camera. The blue FOV is just a little more left of center and the overlap is where it can still get a great shot.
Hopefully this short article will help you understand a little better the technical aspects and gear to use when shooting runway. Obviously this isn't an exhaustive article that covers every detail. That would be a very long article indeed. Remember to always use a monopod for stability and to help you with weight when shooting. If you have any questions feel free to ask them in the comments below.
All shots in this article by the Author, Sandy Ramirez.