How to: Shoot a fashion show like a pro

Make the most of a beautifully hectic shooting situation.

Fashion photographers are road warriors, traveling from New York to London, Milan, Paris and other points east and west to capture the latest runway looks. Yeah, it sounds glamorous but, in reality, shooting fashion shows can be challenging and there are no second chances. Before you hit the photo press pit, here are a dozen tips to help you bet the shots you need. Couldn’t get a pit pass for fashion week? Don’t worry. Most of the tips still apply to even the smallest show.

Streamline your gear

There’s barely enough room for photographers let alone a ton of gear. Your camera, a telephoto zoom (70-200mm, with a teleconverter for full-frame cameras), and a monopod should be all you need for a runway show (backstage and presentations are another story—see next slide). You might want to bring a plastic folding step-stool (often referred to as a Turtle) or a small hard case to stand on if you’re behind other photographers or to sit on if you’re positioned at the foot of the photo riser.

Hair and make-up prep
Hair and make-up prep Theano Nikitias

Backstage and Presentation Gear

A wide angle zoom like a 24-70mm lens, a flash and maybe a light modifier (a piece of cheesecloth attached with a rubber band can work to diffuse the light) are your best bets for backstage hair and make-up prep, and for formal presentations where the models stand on platforms for an hour or so.

New York Fashion Week
New York Fashion Week Theano Nikitias

Use Manual (or aperture-priority) exposure mode

The main runway shows at New York Fashion Week are usually fairly well-lit so a shutter speed of 1/250th-1/500th of a second at f/4.0 works well to capture the models in stride and provide a relatively shallow depth-of-field. Adjust your ISO accordingly to achieve these settings. But be prepared to change any one of those settings quickly and intuitively (there’s no light in the photographer’s pit) since lighting may be uneven from one end of the runway to the other—even as much as a one or two stop difference.

Fashion model
Check your white balance. Theano Nikitias

White Balance

If you’re there early enough to catch the run-through, check your white balance (and exposure settings) before the show starts. A good rule of thumb for most shows is adjusting the Kelvin temperature to between 3000-3200K. If the lighting is mixed, you may want to switch to Auto—I once shot a show where the lighting designer mixed daylight, tungsten, and moving colored spotlights. White balance insanity is a good case for shooting RAW.

male model in a hat
Determine what’s most important to you and your client. Theano Nikitias

JPEG, RAW or Both?

Being able to adjust white balance, as well as other parameters, after the fact makes shooting RAW or RAW + JPEG almost a no-brainer (emphasis on “almost”). But fast turnaround times (images are now being published online minutes after a show end), continuous shooting speed and media card capacity argue against RAW capture. Determine what’s most important to you and your client. A lot of photographers shoot high resolution JPEGs only so they can quickly get images to clients and post them online.

models on the catwalk
10 minute runway show Theano Nikitias

Autofocus and continuous shooting

You’ll hear machine-gun like sounds coming from some photographers’ cameras as they grab hundreds of images for each 10 minute runway show. Autofocus tracking and continuous shooting is the most automated method of shooting and works well if your camera’s AF can keep up with the models as they strut down the catwalk. Single-shot AF gives you more control so you can decide exactly when to trigger the shutter. Manual focus is possible: pre-focus on a specific spot on the runway; trigger the shutter when the model walks into your frame; repeat quickly.

Model in black dress
Create a dramatic shot. Theano Nikitias

Center-weighted Metering

Center-weighted metering tends to work well, especially if the background is very dark or very light since wide or multi-area metering can be easily fooled. In some situations, you can underexpose just slightly to drop the background into black, eliminate the audience and create a dramatic shot.

fashion show model
Use your zoom to get the best compositions. Theano Nikitias

A trio of must-have shots

The three requisite shots are: full, head-to-toe; three-quarters; and a close-up of the face/upper torso. Use your zoom to get the best compositions anywhere along the runway, although—depending on your position—the general progression starts at the far end with the full shot, moving into ¾ and close-up as the model gets closer to you. Be sure to photograph the model as she or he retreats up the runway; sometimes the back of an outfit is surprisingly inte

pacing the models walk
Press the shutter when her or his front foot is flat on the floor. Theano Nikitias

No soles of shoes…ever

Pace the model’s walk—count if you have to—and press the shutter when her or his front foot is flat on the floor. Male models have bigger feet, are less graceful and tend to show more soles than women, so be extra careful when the guys are strutting their stuff. The ideal shot is: front foot flat on the floor, arms at the side (or gently swinging), eyes open and straight ahead. Models look down when they turn so grab your “top shot” (the one closest to photographers) before she or he heads back up the runway

model details
Close-up details of interest Theano Nikitias

Pay Attention to Details

Designers work hard to style their models so pay attention and zoom in tight to grab close-up shots of interesting hair and make-up, jewelry, shoes, bags and other accessories. Even the sweep of a gown’s hem or an interesting textile can make a good shot.

Celebrity photo shoot. Theano Nikitias

Keep an eye out for celebrities!

You need special credentials, at least in New York, to shoot the front row where the celebs sit but you can get some good shots from the photo riser before or during the show. The runway is lit better than the audience, of course, so pump up the ISO, open up the aperture or stop down the shutter speed to get the right exposure when you aim your lens at the sidelines.

fashion designer
Catching the designers. Theano Nikitias

It’s Not Over ‘Til It’s Over

Once the models make their final walk, the designer will come out to take his or her bow so keep your lens focused at the far end of the runway. Some designers just peek out, so you have to be quick. Others, however, walk the length of the runway and happily pose for photographers.