Dream of shooting fashion shows? Here’s how to start your runway journey.: Digital Photography Review

Photographing Fashion Week isn’t for the faint-hearted but anyone who is up for the challenge will have an amazing time and leave with some incredible photos.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

Every spring and fall, designers present their new collections to buyers and fashion editors/writers. Although New York, London, Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks are the gold standard, the number of fashion events has expanded far beyond the core four. Many cities in the U.S. and around the world host their own version of Fashion Week, so there is likely an opportunity for you to shoot locally whether you live in Philadelphia, Copenhagen, Tokyo and beyond.

The majority of fashion shows present women’s ready-to-wear (and, on occasion, some men’s clothing, too). However, other shows revolve around a variety of genres specializing in swimwear, bridal, menswear, designer collectives representing a specific country or region, kids and even pets. Understanding these options and thinking about the direction you want to follow will help you move forward when applying for press credentials.

Beyond the traditional fashion show, there are opportunities to photograph more specialized events such as Bridal Fashion Week. Rather than a standard venue, one year designer Ines Di Santo presented her bridal collection at a beautiful location with large windows looking out over Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. I was able to position myself to the side, away from the group of photographers gathered at center stage and was rewarded with this lovely profile shot.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

I’ve been been shooting New York Fashion Week since 2005. Here’s what I’ve learned in the past 18 years.

Gaining Access

The first Fashion Week challenge is getting access to the shows. While there are some fashion events that sell tickets to the general public, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have a good enough spot to take decent pictures so your best bet is to pursue official credentials. Generally, each designer’s PR agency holds the keys to press passes. Alternatively, some organizations act as an umbrella for multiple designers and have a single press contact.

This was one of my first Fashion Week photos from 2005. Olympus was the title sponsor and invited photo industry editors and writers/photographers to attend and shoot a show from their reserved seats in the audience, which is the angle from which this was shot. I later volunteered to shoot from the “pit” (which then held about 300 photographers) and was hooked.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

One of the most basic requirements for press access is affiliation with an outlet that will publish your images such as newspapers, magazines, wire services and blogs. Higher circulation and more targeted publications usually get preference. An assignment letter from an editor adds credibility to your request and is often key (although no guarantee) for a positive response. If you’re working with an accredited writer, they may be able to facilitate a photo pass for you.

Press information can usually be found on each Fashion Week’s site. Once you find the appropriate contact, keep your email brief and to the point. Include your affiliation, the type of access you’re requesting (photo riser, backstage, or both) and, if available, send a link to relevant clips/portfolios. If your application is accepted, you may not hear back until a week or even a few days before the show. Not ideal for planning ahead but that’s how it works.

Hair and make-up are integral parts of any fashion show and shooting backstage provides a glimpse into preparations – a must if your client is providing these services or products to a show.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

If you don’t already have a working relationship with a publication, get creative and approach outlets for an assignment. Remember, hair and make-up are an integral part of fashion. Consumer and trade magazines (such as those subscribed to by salons) often report on the latest beauty trends and may need photos from backstage hair and make-up preparations as well as the final beauty looks on the runway.

Another road to fashion show access is via companies that sponsor or partner with designers. In addition to those that supply hair and make-up services and products, vendors that provide shoes, jewelry and other accessories for a specific designer may also need photos of their products on the runway.

“The bottom line is that you need to pull out all the stops and network like crazy to gain access.”

The bottom line is that you need to pull out all the stops and network like crazy to gain access. Let everyone know that you’re interested in shooting Fashion Week. You may be surprised at how easily a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend with connections may be willing to help you out. The power of networking cannot be underestimated, especially in the fashion industry.

Don’t lose heart if your initial queries are met with silence. Seek out local opportunities that may be a little easier to access. High schools and universities may have small runway shows that need photographers. Boutiques and some department stores offer trunk shows to present designers’ collections. Build up experience and your portfolio, develop contacts and, if you’re persistent, you’ll likely be on the photo riser sooner than you think.

The Gear

As New York’s Fashion Week shows have spread out over the city, venues (and photo risers) have become smaller than when NYFW was held at Bryant Park. If you shoot backstage, you generally have early access to the riser and a chance at getting a decent spot. Right before the show starts, this space will grow by about 2/3 with every square inch occupied by a photographer or videographer.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

Even before you apply for credentials, check your gear to make sure you have what you need for a successful Fashion Week shoot and that everything is in good working order. We’ve put together some general suggestions that should cover most, if not all, scenarios. I’ve found the best approach to shooting Fashion Week is to keep it simple (and lightweight). Even if you’re not running up and down NYC subway stairs rushing from one show to the next, the photo riser is always crowded with very little room to stow camera bags or cases. Room to move backstage and at presentations is also limited. and there is generally nowhere secure to leave your camera bag.

More important than the type of camera in your bag is knowing how to use it. Seems obvious, right? But if your exposure or white balance or shutter speed is off, there’s no time to look at buttons and dials or delve into menus to adjust settings. You have only a split second to make changes or you’ll likely miss some shots.

Suggested basic gear list:

  • 1-2 camera bodies
  • 24-70mm lens, f/2.8 or f/4 (best for backstage, presentations and very short runways)
  • 70-200mm lens f/2.8 or f/4 (possibly longer, depending on venue/position on the riser)
  • Extra batteries (fully charged)
  • Extra media cards (formatted)
  • Lens pen or microfiber cloth
  • Monopod
  • Small flashlight for finding things in your bag
  • External flash (backstage/presentations but optional; never for runway)
  • A turtle (small folding stool for sitting or standing on the riser; optional)
  • Business cards
  • Snacks and water

Feel free to use flash backstage or doing a presentation where models remain in static poses, as shown above, but never use flash on the runway.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

My Fashion Week set-up changes according to the show venue. I try to travel with the least amount of gear as possible. My kit most often includes a Nikon D850 with the Nikon D500 as backup. Lenses include the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, 70-200mm f/2.8 GII ED VR or the 300mm f/4E PF ED VR. When shooting backstage, I’ll bring a Profoto A1. For the runway I’ll sometimes use a Gitzo monopod with an Acratech ballhead and I always carry extra batteries and a variety of media cards from SanDisk, ProGrade Digital and Lexar. Images are downloaded to SanDisk SSD drives, edited in Adobe Photoshop and prepped for upload to a wire service with Photo Mechanic software.

Suggested camera settings

I prefer to shoot on manual so I can adjust shutter speed or aperture as needed since lighting may be uneven with hotspots and deep shadows along the length of the runway. A perfect exposure when the model is halfway down the runway may be a couple of stops slower than the bright spot in front of the riser where the model stops to pose so you may need to make split-second adjustments. Alternatively, some shows, as seen below, have a fixed spotlight that perfectly illuminates the model.

For most runway shows I’ve found that a good starting point is F4 with a shutter speed between 1/250 – 1/400th second with an ISO that delivers the best exposure at those settings. It’s unlikely that you’ll have to venture into noisy ISO territory with those aperture/shutter speed settings but it’s something to keep in mind. Get to know your camera’s ability to handle high ISO ahead of time.

Shooting JPEG and Raw (or, just Raw) is ideal as is utilizing dual card slots with the second slot set as backup. I once had a card failure in the middle of a show and having that second card was a lifesaver.

Occasionally, a show will create its own dramatic lighting that works perfectly once the model hits their spot.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

White balance is often a challenge especially when lighting is a mix of artificial and window light or the runway is spattered with moving colored spots or other gelled lights. If you’re on the riser early enough to watch the rehearsal, take some shots to gauge the white balance. Very occasionally, the show producer will visit the riser with color temperature information or the house videographer will share their readings. But when you don’t have a Kelvin reference, go with auto white balance and Raw.

“I once had a card failure in the middle of a show and having that second card was a lifesaver.”

Continuous AF works well and while low continuous shooting can be helpful, take care to not go overboard – remember, you have to download, review and edit all those files, often on a very tight deadline. Additionally, center-weighted metering often delivers good results at shows.

These are just suggestions to get you started. Every show is different so what works for one show might not work for the next. Be prepared to prep your camera each time.

Shooting tips

The “standard” runway photo is a vertical shot of the model including full-length, 3/4 and a close-up head/shoulders shots directly in front of the riser. While there’s heavy competition for the center position, those best spots are usually reserved for the house photographer and videographer. If you have a backstage pass, you can usually get on the riser before it’s overcrowded and get a decent spot.

Other factors, such as the models walking up and down the sides of the runway or a unique runway layout, also affect the angle at which you’re shooting so you may need to get creative when composing your shots.

If you get on the riser early enough, you may be able to snag one of the coveted center positions and get the perfect straight-on view of the models.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

As you’re shooting, keep an eye on the model’s feet. Ideally, both (or at the least the forward foot) should be flat – or close to flat – on the floor. The best way to achieve this is to pace your shutter clicks to the beat of the music since that’s how the models (generally) time their steps.

At the same time, both arms should be visible whenever possible and the model’s eyes should be open and looking straight ahead. If and when models need to turn – let’s say, to go back up the runway – they will look down at the floor, so avoid shooting at that time.

Typically, images are shot vertically and as centered to the runway as possible. Be sure to time your shutter clicks with the beat of the music so the model’s front foot is flat on the floor. Make sure the model’s eyes are open and both arms are visible.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

Don’t forget to include the backs of particularly interesting designs. It’s your job to show off the best of the look and that includes the full 360°.

Pay attention to the backs of the looks. The ideal shot is when the model pauses at the foot of the runway and looks over their shoulder.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

Frankly, I’ve found that shooting a little off-center provides a unique point-of-view and a more interesting photo. Including the audience in the shot (which is sometimes inevitable), gives a better sense of the fashion show experience as well. And don’t be afraid to shoot wide to give your images a more expansive overview of the scene.

Don’t be afraid to shoot wide and tweak your exposure to darken the audience.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

When the scene allows, I like to tweak exposure in order to darken the audience to achieve a more dramatic look. This works best when the runway is well-lit or the model hits their spot with brighter lighting.

At the end of the show, all the models will walk the runway. The finale is also a good opportunity to shoot any looks you might have missed earlier.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

For the finale, the models walk the runway together, generally in a straight line so you can play with composition or grab a photo of a look you might have missed the first time. Once the models have exited the runway, the designer will usually come out for a bow so don’t put your camera away until the very end.

Keep your camera pointed at the runway after the models’ final walk to capture the designer when they take a bow.

Photo: Theano Nikitas

Once the show ends, make sure you have all your belongings before you join the crowds exiting the venue. If you have more than one show scheduled for the day, allow plenty of time to get from one location to the next keeping in mind that once you get to the venue, you’ll need to check in, pick up credentials for that show and make your way to the riser – which almost always takes longer than anticipated. Maybe slot in a little break to grab a bite to eat, too.

“Sometimes, at the end of a season I’ll say, “that’s it, I’m done, it’s too exhausting.” But…about six months later, I’m back on the riser as excited to shoot as I was the first time I pointed my lens at a runway.”

Shooting Fashion Week can be physically taxing, especially when you’ve scheduled back-to-back shows over the course of a few days combined with the nightly task of editing and submitting images. Sometimes, at the end of a season I’ll say, “That’s it, I’m done, it’s too exhausting.” But the Fashion Week force is too strong and about six months later, I’m back on the riser as excited to shoot as I was the first time I pointed my lens at a runway.

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