Let’s face it, fashion shows are intriguing, and even if you’re not a fashionista, shooting a runway show can provide a level of excitement akin to photographing that big annual football game or covering the red carpet at a gala event. Fashion shows have, in a sense, become more democratized, thanks to social media and live streaming. Events that used to be limited to the press and buyers can now be easily viewed by anyone with an Internet connection. Still, there’s something very special about attending—and photographing—a live runway show or presentation.
At the same time, fashion shows are no longer limited to the big four: New York, London, Paris and Milan. Now, most major cities in the U.S. and worldwide host their own versions of Fashion Week. You’ll also find specialized shows, such as Miami Swim Week, Bridal Fashion Week, and events focusing on menswear, children’s clothing, pet clothing, and other smaller markets.
The main runway shows—featuring the biggest designers, and most important editors and buyers—remain in New York, London, Paris, and Milan. And covering those four events, which run back-to-back twice a year, keeps runway photographers on the road for quite some time.
To give editors and buyers enough lead time, spring/summer collections are shown in the fall, while fall/winter collections are shown in the spring.
Who, What, Where
Historically, New York Fashion Week hosted most shows at a single venue (Bryant Park and, subsequently, Lincoln Center) in tents that were set up specially for Fashion Week. Individual designers would also hold shows at other locations, such as hotel ballrooms, art galleries, and other venues. Over the past few years, however, New York Fashion Week has seen the growth of what was known as “off-site” shows. Individual designers might rent a space for a one-off event, while independent organizers may host multiple shows with any number of designers over the course of several days. And, although most fashion shows are invitation-only, some events now sell tickets to anyone who is willing to pay a fee to attend.
Access for Photographers
Unless you have an assignment or work for a publication, it’s almost impossible to score a photo pass to shoot a show. Even then, getting credentials often depends on the relevancy and circulation of the publication you’re representing, as well as the size of the venue where the show is being held.
Photographers who are just starting out, and/or don’t have the support of a publication, should explore local fashion shows to gain experience and build a runway portfolio. Check out local schools, community organizations, and even clothing boutiques to see if they’re hosting any runway shows, and speak with them about photographing the events.
Runway versus Presentation
Most designers opt for a runway show. That’s self-explanatory, right? Well, not so fast. There are some subtle (and some not so subtle) differences across shows.
Traditionally, models walk straight down the runway toward the photographers, pause for a few beats, turn around and walk back up the runway. Some designers opt for a horseshoe like configuration, with attendees seated on either side of the runway, and rows of seats in between the dual catwalks. When models get to the end of the runway, they’ll turn and go up the other side. That can be problematic, since you may not have a straight shot of the model walking toward you, leaving you with only a side or back view of the outfit. Sometimes the designer or the producer will configure the models’ paths so that both sides of the photo riser get a front view of the outfit.
Variations, other than lighting—which we’ll address in Part 2 of this article—include the speed at which the models walk, and whether they pause in front of the photographers or not. You’ll usually get a clue about the show’s pacing when the music starts playing, but you won’t know if any of them will pause at the foot of the runway until the first model comes out.
As an alternative to runway shows, a designer may choose to stage a presentation. Often, models are arranged on platforms so that photographers and attendees can walk around and among them to get a close-up look. Occasionally, mannequins are used, but this is generally for jewelry or other accessories.
At the Show
While shooting Fashion Week sounds glamorous (and in a lot of ways, it is), you spend less time shooting than you’d like. If all your shows are in one main location, then you’re ahead of the game, since you won’t have to run around the city from one venue to another, hauling your gear up and down subway staircases. However, here’s how your day will go. Get to the location, wait along with other photographers, then rush into the room where the show will occur, find a spot on the riser, and then wait some more. Once the audience is admitted and seated, the lights dim and the show starts. Before you know it, you’re rushing to the next show. Without travel time, figure your wait time for each show can be as long as an hour, or more. This is a lot longer than the actual show, which usually runs between 10 to 20 minutes. And, since the first show usually starts at 9:00 a.m. and the last show is at 9:00 p.m., you’re in for a long day if you plan on shooting more than a handful—and that’s not even counting the after-parties.
The runway shows and presentations are the main events, but it’s always interesting to shoot backstage, as well, photographing the models as they’re getting their hair and makeup done. Usually, getting backstage before the show requires contacting the designer (or the designer’s PR rep) directly. Given the tight quarters behind the scenes, for most photographers it’s a hit-or-miss proposition, but if you have an assignment to shoot hair and makeup, and beauty shots, or you’re working with a writer with an appointment to interview the designer, you have a good chance of getting access.
Another plus to shooting backstage is that this gives you access to the photo riser before most other photographers, since they’re waiting outside for admittance.
But even though you may get early access to the riser, keep in mind that there is a hierarchy. For example, house photographers and videographers shooting for the designer and/or the venue get the coveted center spots. Photographers who plan to shoot at the same venue throughout the week will mark their spot with tape, writing their publication’s name on it. Bottom line—it’s important to be respectful of the other photographers, especially if you’re a first-timer. But most photographers are friendly, if you come in with a good attitude, and a calm demeanor. I’ve made some good friends over the years after spending hours shoulder-to-shoulder with other photographers on the riser.
By the time you find your spot on the riser, be sure to have your gear organized and ready to go. You’ll be squeezed in so tightly that you won’t have much room to get into your camera bag. And once the lights go down, you’ll be working in the dark. If you can’t find a good spot on the riser, you can generally sit on the floor in front of the riser; some people bring a plastic folding step stool, called a “turtle,” to sit on. But you can also sit on a Pelican case (or stand on it if you’re on the riser and need a little height to shoot over another photographer’s head). Shooting from the side also gives you a different perspective from the typical straight-on shot, so make the best of whatever position you’re in.
Scoring a Fashion Week photo pass takes legwork, research, and persistence, but it’s well worth the effort. Start local if you must, and network like crazy. Once you get your foot in the door, you need to consider what gear to bring, and how best to use it to capture great images. In Part 2 of this series, we provide plenty of guidance regarding gear, a suggested shot list, and camera settings to help get you started.
Have you ever photographed runway shows during Fashion Week? What was it like for you? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the Comments section, below!
For Part 2 of this article, please click here.
Great article, thank you. It brings back memories. I was a runway photographer in the 80s and early 90s and used Nikon FM2s with motor drives. One body wore the Nikkor 180mm f2.8 and the other the Nikkor 105mm f1.8 There was no auto focus and the technique was to mentally mark out the runway with focus marks and pre focus the lens at each mark. When the model hit the mark, you'd fire away and then quickly pre focus to the next closest mark etc... The hit rate was pretty good. We would shoot on Ektachrome 160T and run to the labs twice a day and then at the end of the day to make each bath. I remember now that to make a little extra money I'd buy the stock in 100' loads and with a bulk loader, roll my own canisters. I'd bill my clients the cost of a normal role so was earning about $5.00 a roll extra!
Talk about memories, Tim! How times have changed, eh? That five dollars in 1995 would be worth $9.80 today. Photographers definitely had to work harder before the turn of the century. Remember calculating flash exposure manually? Thanks for reading and posting your story.
Thank you, I have recently been searching for information about this topic for ages and yours is the best I have discovered so far.
smith w., we are glad the information in the article has been helpful to you. Thanks for reading the above and for taking the time to post your comment. Good luck at your next fashion show!