How to Photograph a Fashion Show (Part I)

Sarahi House of Fashion at LFW Fashion Mavericks

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Runway Photography. At the time I asked a question via Twitter to see if anyone wanted me to write an accompanying article on how to shoot a fashion show. And here it is.

As I mentioned in my previous post, fashion show photography is arguably one of the most technically demanding work I undertake. Each show normally lasts between 5 and 10 minutes. Each model does one circuit per outfit she or he is wearing and the opportunity to make a good image is quite slim. Preparation and planning is absolutely crucial. As a professional photographer there are no excuses for missing an outfit so the pressure can become quite immense.

Fashion Show Photography by Gavin Thorn Photography

Preparation

It really goes without saying that preparation is crucial. There is no substitute for being well prepared and it’ll show in your final images. You’ll be more confident and relaxed and settle into the rhythm of the show. Fail to prepare and you’ll get nervous, flustered and not enjoyt it nearly as much.

Equipment

The simple rule is just take what you need. As I mentioned earlier, there isn’t much room and for some of the bigger or more popular shows you could be in amongst 50 or more other photographers. If you take too much kit with you, you’ll need to find somewhere to put it where it won’t get damaged, lost or stolen.

XO Fashion Show photographed by Gavin Thorn Photography

Some things you won’t want to compromise on, such as batteries and memory cards. Run out of battery or memory card space and you’re no longer a photographer. Make sure they’re fully charged and formatted and bring spares with you too. When I covered London Fashion Week in February I shot nearly 1750 frames in just 5 shows. On the 5DmkII that works out at getting on for 64GB of image data.

Similarly, lenses should be cleaned beforehand and make sure you’re familiar with your camera’s controls too. I’ve been amazed sometimes at the questions I’ve been asked by other photographers about how they should set their camera up. I’ve also come across a few pros calling out wrong settings to throw the novices off too. If you’re well prepared and know your equipment you’ll be better enabled to spot fact from fiction in the heat of the moment.

What to Take…

I normally shoot runway shows with my 70-200, f/2.8L lens. It’s a fast enough lens to make use of the extra, high precision AF points on the 5DmkII. This is a heavy configuration though. The lens alone weighs in at 1.5kg and with an extra 0.5kg for the body there is quite a weight to keep steady. To help out I usually take a Manfrotto 685B monopod with me. It’s telescopic with a pistol grip release to collapse it down and is sturdy enough to carry the weight of the camera, lens and head. I also use a Manfrotto 322RC2 video ball head. This also has a pistol grip for very quick adjustment. I’ve also adjusted it for left handed use so I can make adjustments without moving my right hand from the body, especially the focus and shutter release buttons. (BTW, this combo is also ideal for shooting weddings 😉 and for convenience I’ve included a couple of links below so you can check out the specs.)

I’d advise against a tripod. They’re too impractical fo rthis kind of work. You’ll need to make rapid adjustments and they’re far too big to use in a crowded space.

I’ve already mentioned media cards and batteries, but it’s so important that I’m going to say it again here. Bring a lot of memory cards with you and every battery you have, formatted and charged repesctively.

Other things to consider…

  • a second body and lens – just in case. If you break something and you only have one, you’re no longer a photographer.
  • box/step ladder – a lot of the pros take them to get a clear field of view over the rank and file in front of them.
  • deodorant – it can get quite smelly in the “pit”
  • water/snack – you’ll be there for quite a long time so it’ll help to keep the energy levels up

Flash

Flash is an emotive subject. I prefer no to use it during the show because I want to get accurate colour rendition. Most shows will be using tungsten light so mixing it with outdoor balanced flash will compromise the colour integrity of your images. Designers don’t like that.

The work around is to use a CTO gel on your flash to convert it to tungsten. Either way though you’ll find that other peoples’ flash will ruin some of your images. It’s something everyone has to live with.

One of the biggest reasons I don’t like using flash is with flourescent material. The colour of the garment changes under flash lighting according to the angle the light hits it. As the material follows the contours of the model’s body you can have some quite localised colour variations. This is especially prevalent in swimwear.

Picking Your Spot

The prime position for any fashion show is dead centre at the end of the runway. It’s the place to be for the very best shots and is normally reserved for the house photographer.

I always try to get there early to get a good position and mark my pitch, normally with my camera bag. Don’t be put off by people coming in after you sitting on the floor in front of you or those behind on ladders and boxes. They’re all there to do a job and it could get very busy depending on the designer.

You’re unlikely to get the prime position so choose your pitch carefully and watch the background. Your position relative to the centre of the runway will determine the optimum time to take your shots and the lens you need to be using. I normally try to shoot down the runway so can make full use of the 70-200 lens. As you move further away from the axis of the runway you’ll be able to use shorter lenses within reason – too short and you’ll start to distort the models unless you’re shooting from their waist height.

Setting Up

Luna Sky's Show at London Fashion Week by Gavin Thorn Photography
Another reason for getting their early is you may catch the rehearsal. This is a great opportunity to find out how the models will be walking and to get a few test shots under the show lights to check your exposure. If you know which way the models will be walking along the runway you’ll be one step ahead of those that come in later, giving you an advantage.

Runways are never evenly lit to the rehearsal also helps me to choose where along the runway I’ll be taking my exposures from. I also shoot on manual so it allows me to determine where I need to make adjustments and how big those adjustments need to be.

There is no divine exposure setting. Every show is different. Your exposure is a 3 was balancing act between ISO, aperture and shutter speed. The latter being perhps the most crucial. Think about the reciprocal focal length rule and make sure your shutter speed is at least 1/(focal length) or faster. This will dictate choice of aperture and ISO but in many cases won’t be enough so you’ll need to make a compromise. I’ll normally reduce my shutter speed a little because I have the advantage of the monopod.

Don’t let your aperture drop too low either or you’ll suffer from focus problems owing to shallow depth of field.

The biggest gotcha in all this is reflective material. It shows up brighter than white and can very easily ruin your exposure. The camera’s meter doesn’t stand a chance so it’s all about keeping yourself aware of what’s happening with your exposure and compensating accordingly.

Colour Calibration

Designers spend a lot of time, energy and money chosing fabrics for their texture and colour for their garments. If you want to please the designer, make sure you’ve captured the colours of her outfits correctly. I see a lot of runway shots where the photographer hasn’t set the white balance correctly so his images all come out orange. This is a big no no imho.

The crazy thing is that it takes only a couple of seconds to get this right in camera. Yes, it can be adjusted in post but if you’re waiting for the show to begin you have more than enough time to set it up correctly from the outset.

There are basically 3 ways to set your white balance up…

  • Use the tungsten preset
  • Dial the Kelvin value in manually
  • Use a grey card to create a custom white balance setting.

Each has their own merits but I normally either set the Kelvin value or use a grey card. I also take it one step further if opportunity permits and create a colour calibration frame under the show lighting, thereby allowing me to create a colour clibration profile specific to the show lighting. This is by far the best approach and allows for much more deeper and richer colours that are far closer to the actual garment. For this I use the Xrite Colour Checker Passport. It adds an extra step in post but it’s one I’ve elected to take rather than having to do because I couldn’t be bothered to set up the white balance.

Conclusion

The success in shooting a runway show is all about the preparation and making sure you have the right equipment for the job. They are very varied and can often be extremely dark, particularly if you’re shooting a show on the fringe where they simply don’t have the budget or knowledge to invest in lighting. The worst lit shows I’ve covered have been in London’s nightclubs where very often all the lights are switched off as the show starts (see earlier post).

People have often commented to me about wedding photography and dealing with the pressure because you only have one chance to get it right on the bride’s biggest day. Catwalk photography takes this to a whole new level. Fashion shows make you think on your feet. The better prepared photographer will get better images and have more fun in the process.

In Part II I’ll cover how to shoot the show and what to look out for. Part III will then cover post processing.

One thought on “How to Photograph a Fashion Show (Part I)

  1. […] gavin on Mar.18, 2012, under Techniques, Tips In Part I of this series I discussed some of the things to consider when preparing to shoot a catwalk show. In Part II […]

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