Now that you know the basics of Fashion Week from Part 1 of this article, it’s time to learn about the types of conditions you may face, and the needed gear (and settings) for getting great images.
Shooting Conditions and Gear Requirements
Each venue and runway show is unique. Some shows are well lit, while others may have no professional lighting or minimal illumination (I once shot a show in an historic building where the only illumination was from old chandeliers—talk about a challenge!).
When shooting presentations, backstage, or celebrities in the front row, it’s fine to shoot with a flash gun—forget the camera’s onboard flash; it has a limited range and lacks the versatility of a speedlight like the Profoto A10 or Godox V1. But remove the flash for runway shows—imagine 100 strobes going off at around the same time: nobody gets a good shot. I’ve even had the occasional shot horribly over-exposed from somebody in the audience using a flash. On the other hand, if the ambient light is too dark and there’s a consensus among photographers, then a flash may be the only solution.
With that in mind, for best results shooting runway, use a camera with good low light/high ISO performance. I prefer to shoot with a DSLR like the Nikon D6 or the Nikon D610 though modern mirrorless cameras are quite excellent today. If you are looking for the latest and greatest then the Nikon Z9 or Z7 II might be what you need. If you prefer Canon then the EOS R3 and R5 are going to be the cameras to look at and if you shoot Sony you can't go wrong with an a1 or a7R V. If you can it’s always good to have a second body as backup, when possible. But keep in mind: You don’t need the most expensive gear to make great runway photos. There are plenty of more affordable models that are equally well suited for the runway.
In addition to good low light/high ISO performance, basic parameters for the ideal camera include fast autofocus, good continuous shooting speed, a large buffer and, my personal preference—dual card slots. Yet, most important is knowing your camera inside and out. Changing settings should be second nature, since you won’t have enough time (or light) to figure this out during a show.
Two zoom lenses should cover all situations you’ll encounter. A 24-70mm f/2.8 works for backstage, front row, and presentations. If you’re using a crop sensor, the 24-70mm is fine for shorter runways, as long as you’re positioned close to the runway and not on the riser’s upper steps. For full-frame cameras and longer runways, a 70-200mm (or longer) is preferable. I’ll sometimes even add a teleconverter when I need the extra focal reach.
Since you’ll be shooting mostly in portrait mode, a vertical grip comes in very handy if your camera doesn’t have one built in. Unless you have rock-steady hands, use a monopod when shooting with long lenses. When I shoot with a 70-200mm, for example, I always use a monopod with an Acratech GXP ball head and a quick-release plate. For maximum efficiency, I mount the lens’s tripod collar on the quick-release plate, which allows me to break down my gear easily and make a quick getaway at the end of the show.
Bring plenty of high-capacity, high-speed cards. Use both card slots if your camera has them. I usually designate the second slot as backup.
Be sure you have extra batteries for your camera and your flash. I also carry a lens cloth, Lenspen, and a small flashlight in case I drop something on the floor or need to retrieve an item from the depths of my camera bag. Don’t forget business cards—this is the perfect opportunity to network! Other necessities include a bottle of water and some snacks to help get you through the day.
Shot List and Tips
As a Fashion Week photographer, your main job is to show off the designer’s clothes. For runway shows, there are standard shots that you need to capture. Keep in mind, though, that it’s sometimes good to break the rules and create images that are different than everyone else’s. Sometimes the models will really play to the photographers—which always makes the show much more fun and results in more interesting pictures.
Standard Shots include:
- Full-length shot of the model walking down the runway. Time the shots (count the model’s steps to get the “beat”) so that both feet are flat on the floor, both arms are visible and eyes are open. At the very least, make sure the front foot is flat and eyes are open.
- Aim for a ¾-length shot, and a head-and-shoulders portrait when the model stops at the foot of the runway.
- If the models don’t stop in front of the riser, time your close-up early. Right before the model begins to turn they’ll usually look down to see where they’re turning, so their eyes appear closed. They’re often lightning fast, so be ready. Don’t forget to photograph the back of the clothing, too.
- Also pay attention to hair, makeup and accessories. Some photographers are hired to shoot only shoes or handbags. I once shot a Vivienne Tam show focused on the HP mini netbooks models’ carried, since Tam designed the cover.
- At the end of the show, the lights go down, and then come back up for the final walk, with all the models flowing single file. This is the perfect time for shallow depth-of-field—focus on a single model in the line, and let bokeh take care of the rest.
- Don’t put your camera down yet! The designer(s) make an appearance at the very end of the show. Most take a very quick bow at the head of the runway, while a few walk the runway and stop in front of the photographers for some final shots.
- Presentation shows offer a little more flexibility, since the models are usually static. Depending on the setup, you may need to shoot several models . You can usually get quite close to the model and clothing, so pay attention to fine details.
- Always keep an eye out for celebrities or uniquely dressed audience members. This is a good time to put on your long zoom and/or teleconverter. If you don’t have an all-access pass, security may stop you, so you may not be able (or want) to leave the riser. Also, unless you can get a neighbor to hold your spot, you may return to find someone else in your place.
- If you do get access to backstage, you’ll be treated to some candid shots of the designer, makeup artists, and hair stylists preparing the models for the show. Check out the clothing and accessory racks, too. And you may run into a celebrity or two—I once had the opportunity to photograph Whoopi Goldberg and Iris Apfel chatting with designer Carmen Marc Valvo (amid a crush of other shooters). It was crowded but fun.
Tech Tips and Suggested Settings
Conditions can—and usually do—vary from venue to venue, and even one runway show to the next, so your settings may change several times during the day. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
- Aperture-priority or manual (I tend to use the latter). There may be hot spots along and/or at the foot of the runway. Be prepared to adjust your exposure accordingly.
- Keep your aperture fairly wide—try f/4 (Beware, f/2.8 is such a shallow DOF, it’s often hard to nail AF of a moving model).
- Minimum shutter speed of 1/250 (higher if the models are walking quickly). 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 in motion.
- Single or continuous shooting (I prefer single, since limits the number of shots captured and saves time when you’re dumping GBs of data to your computer; but, if the show is really fast-paced, I’ll shoot in short, high-speed bursts).
- White balance is critical, but a little tricky, so I usually shoot RAW + JPEG to cover all bases. Most professionally lit runways average around 3000-3200K. The show producer, or another photographer who viewed the pre-show run-through may be able to help you out with white balance. If the lighting is mixed or features colored spots, switch to Auto White Balance.
- Finally, if you have a preferred set of parameters for shooting sports, you can probably translate them to the runway.
The Bottom Line
At the end of every Fashion Week, more than a few photographers proclaim that they’re done shooting runway. It’s physically exhausting—standing on your feet, traveling around the city carrying pounds and pounds of gear, missing meals, all on minimal sleep. But when the next season comes around, we’re all back on the riser, exhilarated by the anticipation of what (and whom) will be walking down the runway. Yes, it’s hard work; yes, it’s uncomfortable fitting yourself and your gear into a 3 x 3-foot space for hours on end. But from the moment I set foot in this scene more than a decade ago, I was hooked. There’s nothing like it in the world, and if you have a chance to photograph a runway show, I’d bet you’ll love it as much as I do—and all the other photographers who come back season after season, too.
Have you ever photographed runway shows during Fashion Week? What was it like for you? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the Comments section, below!
Great article. As a NY, LA and Miami FW photographer, I'd like to ad that not all rooms are hung right nor is the lighting temperature, spread or brightness the same from the back to the front of the runway. There is little if "no time" to adjust WB, Exposure, Shutter, Weighting 3 times for all 20-30 models coming out for a set, never mind manually switching on the fly. That could be 60 to 90 changes per designer, it's too much for anyone. Once you're setup on the riser, it's best to find your 'sweet spot' on the runway where you have fewer shadows, and more even exposure as a lot of times the faces can get blown out by more aggressive spots.
If you're shooting for a designer or high gloss magazine where the standards are higher, shoot in RAW+JPEG; you'll have more latitude in post.
Because of the different lighting from the back to the front of runway, I will program my camera for C1, C2 and C3 for back of runway; Sweet spot and front if needed. It all depends on the readings you're getting at the show. Most of time a few guys will jump up and take a reading with color/exposure meters before the show or put grey/color charts up and we'll all take few shots to balance in post.
Even though I shoot in-house for the designer or big magazines, I never get a 3x3 spot, that would be a luxury. A good riser manager will make sure you've got just enough for your 70-200 to a clear path with the riser packed like sardines in a can. If you're there from the early setup to the evening and you're shooting BTS, Runway and Step and Repeat, your tripod and area should be taped off. "There will always be someone who wants to get in your space from a 360 degree perspective. Be polite, most of us are professionals and if a photog in for one designer and then has to book, most people will be helpful.
If you shoot Canon the zoom on your 70-200 is the base of your lens and it's easy to keep things tight. If you're shooting a Z9 with a 70-200 your zoom is all the way at the front of your lens and it's hard to maintain a filled frame all the way down the runway without really straining yourself or blocking another lens with your hand extended. For this reason alone the 1DX3 even with lower resolution than the Z9 is better for the runway if your riser is packed. With more room I prefer the Z9 with 47 vs 21MP of the 1DXMK3. I shoot both.
Remember to shoot mid-body. For me you'll need to stay at 1/500 the models are moving, legs, hands, hair, garments. See where your noise level is work around it. Avoid blur, OOF shots at all costs, they are not keepers. Learn where your ISO starts to interfere so you don't spend endless time in post.
I started as a sports photographer and it's a good way to hone your skills for runway. Any questions? Your friends at B&H will be very helpful for fashion runway and studio to get you setup! Everyone at B&H knows their stuff. Most I work with have been in my shoes. Good luck and have fun! Most of us do this because we love it, even if it put bread on the table.
Tony F. @ KissMyKite.com Fashion & Sports
Paul F! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and then key in your feedback, experience, and comments. We appreciate it a great deal. You have just about written an article of your own here. We appreciate all your helpful tips, too.
That pretty much summed it up to a T! I think the 3 x 3 foot area is generous as my experience has been shoulder to shoulder, sometimes with the end of long lenses (or even flash modifiers) in front of you in the shots with the models at the photographers. I just shot a show at a church on Roosevelt Island last week that only had string lights as their lighting, makes for creative editing when I get back to my desk!
I shoot with a Sony a1 as my primary with a 70-200 GM lens and my backup/front row camera is a Sony a7III with a 16-35 GM lens and Godox V1 flash.
Thanks for your comments, Dave W. How does that a1 with 70-200 GM lens handle low light for you (we assume the Godox flash is a big help!)?
Thanks for making time to share your insights. IMHO shooting runway is an excellent way to train and learn work under non-control situations. It makes you innovate, think and act instinctively. Also, the production teams, MUAs, wardrobe designers and models have invested lots of time and money in the production...much more than a photographer typically enjoys on an assignment.
Its really wonderful, fashion phhotography blends many genres: Portrait, news, art in a way. But man, you really end of exhausted, as you said!