10 Pro Tips for Runway Photograhy
Shooting runway is a skill that some take for granted but few photographers execute as well as they could. It’s our job to capture perfect photos while crammed together like sardines in a dark corner of a very hostile environment where most things are out of our control.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to shoot some of the best runways (and some of the worst!) around the world, my favorites being New York Fashion Week and Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week, of course. I’ve also shot awesome shows at London Fashion Week, Hong Kong Fashion Week, Los Angeles Fashion Week, and smaller, lower level shows in those same cities and others such as Brooklyn, San Francisco, San Jose, and Las Vegas.
As I climbed the ladder from local designer shows hosted at shady dive bars up through the elite venues of New York and of Paris, I’ve picked up a few things which I’d like to share with you in hopes that it helps improve your runway photography. I’ve culled my list into 10 tips which I present here in no particular order.
1: Bring a Fast Medium Telephoto Zoom Lens
My favorite lens for the runway is the Canon 70-200 F/2.8 IS and a similar Nikon model is the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S Nikkor Zoom Lens. Shooting runway requires a sufficiently fast shutter speed to freeze the moving models in at the right moment in their stride (tip #6) and also to minimize any blur from hand-holding the camera in a crowded pit of photographers. A fast lens is going to let you open up to f/4 or f/2.8 and those wide apertures on a medium telephoto are going to give you a nice sharp model with a smooth smeary background. The focal length should still be wide enough to fit the entire model in the frame for most of the runway – most importantly in one of the ‘sweet spots’ which I’ll help you identify in tip #5.
2: Shoot in Manual Mode
Of course you’re shooting manual, right? Even at the best shows in the world lighting is not completely uniform from one end of the runway to the other. And sometimes this is intentional. In any case, you’re at the mercy of the lighting designer (or sometimes lack of having a lighting designer). This poses a challenge for your camera’s auto modes and if you rely on them, you may find the settings vary significantly from shot to shot. This can lead to very inconsistent results between photos creating lots of extra work in post production to achieve a uniform look. Therefore one of the main reasons I recommend shooting Manual is for consistency.
To dial in my manual settings for fashion shows I start with setting shutter speed based on the focal length rule of thumb for hand-held photography. Using a 70-200mm lens, would put it somewhere around 1/200. Image stabilization may allow me to shoot a bit slower, but I resist relying on it unless I really need to (translation: if the lighting really sucks). Next, I’ll want my aperture to be around f/2.8 – f/4 to give me that separation between model and background that I mentioned above. I will usually start with ISO 400 and push it up if I’m not getting enough light.
The best lit runway I have ever shot allowed 1/200 at f/4 ISO 200 (yay Paris!) but most are not quite that generous with light. Still, if the lighting is decent you should be able to shoot at about 1/125 f/2.8 ISO 800. If you need more light you’ll have no choice but to push the ISO. In Brooklyn one season I had to shoot at ISO 2000(!) and a San Francisco show I was at after that was even worse.
3: Arrive Early
Unless you are one of the photographers hired by the designers or you have backing from an organization like Getty, you’re going to have to arrive early to stake out a decent position. Competition for the best spots at the end of the runway is fierce. Time is your friend if you get there early but be aware that you may be bumped from the perfect spot by one of those big kahuna photographers. Once you’ve got your spot though, do your best to protect it. Standing guard is the best way, but if you must wander off, try to leave some kind of a clear marker such as your camera case, a piece of tape with your name on it or better yet have an assistant or friend guard it for you. Fortunately, I find most photographers to be generally respectful of others’ markers and space requirements, but as show time approaches, it often gets very crowded. Claustrophobia is NOT the runway photographer’s friend!
How early is early? Depending on the quality and profile of the show, I would recommend turning up 30 minutes to an hour before the scheduled start. The local designer at the dive bar would likely require less time but Victoria’s Secret might require significantly more. You’ll notice there are always some photographers trying to squeeze in late who are usually greeted by groaning and grumbling from those who have been there for awhile. These late comers are often forced to shoot from extreme angles sometimes getting more audience than runway in the shot. More aggressive ones try to shove their way in but the photographers who have been there for awhile generally won’t have it.
So where is the best spot?
I like to be at the center of the runway as close to the runway surface as possible. For a non-raised runway, this means on the floor.
And speaking of squeezing in at the last moment… my first time at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week I was preparing to shoot the Spring and Summer Collection of Zuhair Murad. This being a premier show, the competition for a spot was insanely fierce. Complicating my situation, I had to wait outside until only a few minutes before the show began for the contact from the magazine I was working with to show up with my credentials. Not surprisingly, when I finally got to the photo pit at the end of the runway it was packed solid. I tried to maneuver into a spot near the center but was in the way of a few photographers who were obviously there long before me. As I tried to contort myself into position someone behind me started shouting in French, then when I didn’t respond he switched to English. “You there… move a little to left, you’re in my frame.” I looked up and a man behind a large video camera on a tripod was shouting at me. I followed his instructions moving over little by little until finally he then said: “Stay right there. Don’t move.” I don’t know who he was, but no one seemed to complain about where I ended up and that was fine with me. I was dead center seated on the floor in front of all the other photographers!
4: Leave Your Flash in Your Camera Bag
First, let me say I LOVE FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY. How much? I currently have 10 studio strobes and seven speed lights, some of which are stored at my parents’ house in Jersey so I don’t have to pack much when I travel. I usually keep at least one strobe (with battery pack) in the Jeep, and outside the studio I love to combine flash with natural light. However a fashion show is No Place for Flash. I know in the movies the photographers are flashing away at end of the runway, but let me say it again: the runway is No Place for Flash. I could do an entire post about the reasons why but I’ll start with the most important:
Runway photography is not a solo activity, meaning you’re not going to be the only one taking photos. If everyone dials in their exposure manually based on the ambient (runway) lighting, then they can all safely shoot the same subject at the same time without interfering with one another. Peace and harmony at the end of the runway! But if one person starts popping off a flash, anyone else who happens to be taking a photo at the time it fires (trust me, this will be almost EVERYONE) will end up having their image ruined, blown out and overexposed by that flash. Don’t be the one ruining everyone else’s photos with your flash. It’s not going to make you any friends and the last thing you want is to be stuck in a cramped space surrounded by people you’ve just pissed off. Even if you consider the guy next to you to be ‘competition’ you’re all better off if you can peacefully coexist. Plus, it’s a violation of tip #10.
If acting with professionalism and courtesy toward your fellow photographers isn’t enough of if it so happens that you are the ONLY photographer you still may want to think twice before popping that strobe on your hot shoe. Here are seven more reasons:
- You already know that on-camera flash is ugly light, so why would it not be ugly light at a fashion show?
- The color temperature of flash is close to daylight while runway lighting is usually much warmer. Shooting in mixed light means you’re not going to be able to get accurate color throughout the frame no matter what you do to try and correct it in post – and why would you want to waste your time in post trying to fix things when you can shoot so you don’t have to?
- It’s hard to expose both the model and the background correctly with flash especially as the model moves in and out of uneven runway lighting. Often times this results in a bright model and murky background unless you drag the shutter, in which case you may end up with a blurry model and the mixed lighting problem I mentioned above. Not good.
- Your flash may cause the model’s shadow to be ominously cast on the wall at the other end of the runway (known as ‘shadow monster’).
- Your flash adds a bit extra weight to your kit.
- You’ll most likely be shooting vertically (portrait mode) which means unless you bring a flash bracket (making your kit even heavier) your flash will be firing from the side of the camera.
- Your flash recycles too slowly to take advantage of tip #7.
5: Find the Sweet Spot
As I alluded to above, there are going to be a few spots along the runway where the lighting is better than others. I like to call those spots the ‘sweet spots.’ Some runways have only one, some have a few. The sweet spot I look for is not always simply the brightest spot as the model being directly under a bright light often causes a dark shadow from the crown of the head over the face.
The sweet spot I look for has an evenly lit model from head to toe at a distance that allows for a full length shot, good DOF separation and space for garment flow. Your job is to identify this spot as early in the show as possible, dial you settings in for it, and hit every model as they pass through. If you’re successful, you’ll have a nice consistent set of photos right out of camera that you can quickly batch tweak to perfection in post and be done.
If you fail to find the sweet spot, you’ll have a hell of a time compensating for any number of issues including uneven lighting, dark shadows on the face, overexposed face or body, cropped models (not full length) or garments (not enough room for flow), etc…
Sadly, I have been to a few shows where there was no sweet spot. In such a case I aim for as even lighting as I can get on the head and upper half of the body.
6: Time your shots with the model’s stride
Many new fashion show photographers wait until the model is at the end of the runway striking a pose before they take a photo. I avoid this spot for several reasons including that it’s the also the most likely place for amateurs in the audience to take photos, some of which will be using a flash (see tip #4 above), and it’s likely to be very close to the place where the photographers are all grouped together, forcing a shorter focal length which may result in a distorted image.
If you look at the professional runway photos from fashion shows in New York and Europe you will notice that most photographers catch the model at some point midway on the runway (likely in a sweet spot) while the model is walking.
Walking is a great thing because you get to see how the garments move and flow, but a walking model isn’t enough. What you may not have noticed is that the best photographers catch the model with their front foot firmly on the runway.
It is awkward to take a picture of someone with their front leg extended forward, foot in the air. This means that in addition to identifying the sweet spot on the runway you need to time your shots with the rhythm of the model’s walk, more precisely, while their front foot is on the ground. Doing this effectively will take a little practice, but tips #7 and #8 will help a bit.
7: Shoot Short Bursts
Put your camera shutter mode into high speed and take two or three exposures timed with the models’ walk (tip #6) at a time as the model passes through the sweet spot (tip #5). Short bursting gives you a few chances to catch a good garment flow, catch the front foot on the floor at the best time, and avoid blinking eyes.
The tradeoff is having a lot more photos to sort through at the end of the show but typically I find that although taken less than a second apart, there is always one photo in the burst that stands out much better against the others, making the sorting go rather quickly.
8: Back Button Focus
If your camera allows it, enable a button on the back of the camera to use for focus instead of the shutter half-press method. This allows you to continuously focus independently of your exposures and reduces the delay between focus and capture. If you’ve never used back button focus before I recommend you try it well in advance of the runway show as it takes a little practice to get used to but most photographers I know who use it swear by it and use it all the time.
9: Use a Vertical Grip
You’re going to need to hold your camera in vertical mode for a long time. A grip such as this one for the Canon 5D Mark III gives you the ability to have the shutter button and other important controls in easy reach while holding the camera in portrait orientation. As an added bonus many vertical grips (called battery grips) also allow you to power your camera from two batteries instead of only one.
10: Don’t be a Jerk
At the most popular fashion shows the pit of photographers is packed so tightly things can get a little uncomfortable. More accurately, things can get VERY uncomfortable. Additionally many photographers are very protective of their spots and don’t like others to show up at the last minute and step in front of them (like I did in Paris). This is why in Paris when I maneuvered into the lucky spot I did my best to keep as low as possible.
I’ll take this opportunity to say don’t use a flash again. If you do, you will ruin other photographers’ photos and in my book that makes you a jerk.
Be nice, and make friends, or at the very least avoid making enemies. Fashion photography, especially runway photography, is a small world. At a fashion week, you’re likely to see the same photographers at several other shows. Be nice and they may just help protect your spot before the show. Be a jerk and they probably won’t.
I hope you find this information useful. Please feel free to add tips or give me feedback in the comments below, and see you at fashion week!