The equipment used by fashion photographers varies considerably, depending on what is being photographed and who is behind the camera. In general, the kit requirements for documenting a fashion show are more standardized than those for creating editorials. There are successful fashion photographers who can fit all of their gear in a single bag—and others who require an entire equipment truck. This article is aimed at photographers getting started with fashion productions. Photographers interested in capturing runway should read Theanos Nikitas's excellent article on shooting fashion week.
Cameras and Lenses
Nearly every type of camera and lens pairing has been used to photograph fashion at some point in its history. An even cursory discussion of this topic would take up multiple articles. If you already have a camera, you should start with what you have and upgrade if necessary. However, there are some basic considerations to keep in mind if you are starting from scratch. Advanced autofocusing features like subject tracking and Eye-AF can be lifesavers when shooting moving models. Similarly, a camera’s burst rate can be the difference between capturing the exact moment the wind shapes a garment perfectly and when it falls flat. The trend toward hybrid photo and video shoots has also made cameras that can do both, appealing to fashion photographers. While most new digital cameras offer some degree of video functionality, not all do, so make sure to check if you plan to supplement your stills with video.
On the other end of the spectrum is the revival of film photography in the fashion world. Analog cameras and the distinct aesthetic of various film stocks are cherished by many, and are worth checking out if you want your imagery to have a unique look. B&H’s Used Department is a great place to start.
Just as there is no single type of camera for fashion, there is no all-in-one lens. Sorry. Every fashion photographer has their go-to glass and every project has its own needs. With that in mind, a 24-70mm and 70-200mm pairing make for a practical starter duo. While not particularly exotic, these tried-and-true zooms are more versatile than primes and can simplify shoots where juggling multiple lenses is inconvenient. Splurge on an f/2.8 and you’ll have a lens you can use for the rest of your life.
Just as there are photographers who swear by film, there are photographers who shoot exclusively with prime lenses. Perhaps the greatest benefit of using a prime is the ability to get a faster lens at a lower price point than a zoom. Prime lenses also introduce a more physical shooting experience as you (or your model) must move to change your frame. The downside is that you need more lenses to cover wide and close shots without distortion. When building a kit of primes, there is always the temptation to choose quantity over quality. Ignore the urge. Unlike camera technology that is constantly changing, a high-quality lens rarely needs to be replaced. Plan for the long term.
A 50mm is a great first prime for fashion—or anything, really. The 50mm focal length allows the ability to capture full looks, as well as details, with minimal distortion. Photographers wanting to get closer to their models should consider adding a lens between 85mm and 135mm to their kit. A macro lens can also serve as a useful addition if you plan to get close-up detail shots.
Lighting is as important—if not more important—than your camera and lens. Stellar lighting can make an average camera shine but even the best camera will produce sub-par images if your lighting is trash. It should be the first thing on any photographer’s mind when planning a shoot. Traditionally, strobes have been the bread and butter of fashion shoots. In today’s photo-video climate, continuous lights have gained popularity for the versatility that they offer. Regardless of the direction you choose, similar to lenses, you should get the best lights your budget can allow. It is also important to think long-term when building a light kit because switching brands later can be a hassle in terms of compatibility and control.
Read More: Recommended Lighting Kits for Photography
If you are shooting street fashion, you may be able to get away with a simple flash. Choose a model that can be used off-camera to add flexibility to your setup. A niche of compact lights somewhere between on-camera flashes and studio strobes has recently been carved out by Profoto and Godox. These lights are appealing options for photographers who want a bit more power than a flash can provide but don’t want to commit fully to carrying around a grown-up strobe. Note that, like conventional strobes, these lights require a trigger to communicate between your camera and light—with the added benefit that they can integrate seamlessly with the ecosystems used by both brands’ larger lights.
Today’s battery-powered strobes are the Swiss Army knives of fashion lighting. At home, in-studio, or on location, they deliver powerful bursts of light virtually anywhere you need them. Many also incorporate LED modeling lights, which can be used for lighting video in a pinch. Don’t forget to add a backup battery or two.
Read More: Choosing Your First Studio Strobe
If you plan on complementing your fashion stills with video on a regular basis, you may want to consider investing in an LED light. Monolight-style LEDs output continuous light of a similar shape to strobes—and in some cases share the same accessory mounts—making them familiar and practical transition units. LED panels are another popular style that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. While daylight and bi-color LEDs will get the job done, more adventurous photographers may consider designs with full-color output, which can be used to create and recall vivid colors quickly.
The more involved you get in studio and commercial fashion, the more likely you are to encounter the powerful (and expensive) world of cine-grade LEDs and HMIs. While, technically, you could build your own collection, these lights are typically rented for productions.
Read More: Lights that Work for Photo and Video
Whether you are using the sun, a strobe, or an LED as your source, how you choose to shape that light is a decision not to be overlooked. Natural-light photographers should invest in a quality reflector, which can be used to bounce, direct, and fill light easily. Flags and scrims are equally useful for studio and location sets. On-light modifiers such as softboxes, umbrellas, and beauty dishes all have their place in the fashion photographer’s kit. You can also spice up a fashion shoot by using colorful gels to produce vibrant splashes of color.
Read More: Choosing a Modifier for Portraits
What else goes into a fashion photographer’s kit? Color charts are invaluable reference devices—especially when photographing items that must be represented with precise color fidelity. Light meters, although less common on set than in the past, remain useful tools when setting up complex lighting designs. Tethering cables provide a means of relaying images to clients and creative teams using a computer or tablet. Be sure to choose a cable that is compatible with your camera and viewing device.
Gaffer tape is one of the most useful expendables in any photographer’s kit. Whether protecting the bottom of a model’s shoe or securing a cable, the usefulness of gaffer tape knows no end. Grab a roll of black, a roll of white, and—if you’re feeling creative, a few colors.
An important consideration if you are shooting in a studio is what your background will be. Seamless paper is a popular choice for the variety of colors and sizes available, as well as cost efficiency. Fabric and canvas backdrops offer alternatives to seamless when texture or more complex color schemes are desired.
Read More: Choosing a Backdrop for Portraits
Fashion photography, is an experimental process, so the suggestions in this article are far from rigid. The best way to build your fashion gear is by getting out and shooting, discovering what you need, and filling the gaps.
Interested in learning more? Check out our interviews with fashion photographers Ryan Michael Kelly and Scott Schuman or tune into the B&H Photography Podcast for insight from other industry professionals. And feel free to share your fashion-photography tips and tricks in the Comments section, below.