This Is Fashion Week
By Brian Ach
1 Sep 2010
Ahhh, Fashion Week in New York City.
The traffic jams, the gawking, the skinny models eating carrots.
The crazy clothes, the hanger-ons, the people-in-the-know,
and the people-OH-NO.
Douchebags abound, twits galore, and all you are trying to do is get a cab.
If you live in New York, then you know that twice a year in the fall and spring, the fashion world descends upon the city like a swarm of locusts.
If you don't, then it might be a little harder to comprehend, although with Twitter, FB, and on-demand video and the wire services, you can pretty much see everything in real-time, as if you were in the front row.
However, what if you are a photographer? Fashion Week is packed with great subjects, interesting themes, and unique stories, and it lasts for seven days. So, for the readers of JPG, here we go. Into the tents, down the runway, and backstage, we are going on a tour of Fashion Week from a photographers perspective. I am going to give you the techniques, tips, and tricks that I use every time I shoot Fashion Week. I will go in detail about my gear, my settings, and the plain old schmoozosity that gets the job done.
So, put on your vintage '70's corduroy thinking cap and come right this way, under the rope and through the door. Make sure you have your credential out for security!
During Fashion Week, I come upon an unbelievably diverse set of circumstances which all require drastically different ways of shooting. One second I am doing a portrait of a designer or celebrity under terrible fluorescent lighting, the next I am in a dark tent about to shoot a fast-paced runway show of a top designer. In the morning I am shooting a food vendor's products, in the afternoon, a cosmetics demo. How do I do it?
The key is to act like a fashion Boy Scout--Be Prepared and Think Ahead. You have to anticipate the environments you are going to be in and the types of shooting you'll be doing. The following is the gear that I take with me on a typical day at Fashion Week:
Cameras: Canon 1D Mark IV; 5D Mark II
Lenses: 50mm F1.4, 28mm F1.8, 17-40mm F4L, 70-200 F2.8L IS
Canon 580 EXII
6 8gb Extreme III cards
1 extra battery for 5D
belt lens pouch
That is pretty much my standard kit for FW. Now, there are other things that
I would like to have with me, but I have to carry everything all day (no storage, and if you put your stuff down for 10 seconds, it's gone and halfway to NJ) and I am doing this for a week, so my back starts to complain.
Other things I will bring and switch out depending on the day include 100mm F2.8 macro, 16mm F2.8 Zenitar fisheye, Sigma 120-300mm F2.8, and a monopod. Often I will have my Canon F1 or Yashicamat with me to shoot some film, because when you get it right, nothing looks better than film. But anyway, that is pretty much what I carry. Now I will explain why.
The three main shooting situations you are going to come into contact with while shooting FW are: Shooting Backstage, shooting Front Row, and shooting Runway.
Shooting backstage is exactly as it sounds--you are backstage with the models and designers and makeup and hair people, in an impossibly crowded space, along with twenty other photographers, and an additional forty other people who have no business being there.
Your job is to document what is going on; to make sense of the chaos in a way that is informative and beautiful. At least that is what I try to do in my work. To do this, you need to have a camera that is good in low light. My 5D Mark II is brilliant for this, and since shooting backstage doesn't require much speed, this is what I use as my primary camera.
I usually have my 50mm or 28mm on it, shooting at about 1000-2000iso, 1/200 at F2.2-2.8. I shoot with a shallow depth of field to minimize background clutter. Remember to set your WB to tungsten or take a custom WB. Yes, you could also shoot RAW and fix it later, but remember--it is always better to learn how to shoot correctly right out of the box, than to spend hours later on Photoshop. Also, remember you need to process these and have them sent to your editor within two hours! Make sure it looks right in camera, and you won't have to later explain why they are so late and.
I also shoot with my Mark IV backstage as a second camera, usually with a 70-200mm on it, iso 2500, 1/200 at F3.2. The longer lens is great for candids from ten feet away, and is a godsend when it is super crowded. It allows you to get close without intruding--I know, I know, "you are working too," but really, this is their show and they can ask you to leave at any moment if you are too much in the way.
For backstage, experiment heavily. Change around your settings until they look right. If something isn't working, keep shooting! This is what gets amateurs into trouble--if it doesn't look right, you freeze up and stop. You have to alter something and keep working it!
Change your perspective, change your subject, change your lens.
Keep those three things in mind, and you will be a step ahead. Try to have a varied lot of pictures, you don't want to have 200 similar shots of models getting their makeup put on. Shoot it like a story, like you are showing your cousin in Ohio what Fashion Week is really like. This is the way to make sure you are covering everything. Overshoot, check your focus and your settings constantly.
The other thing you will probably encounter backstage is the ubiquitous step-and-repeat. This is the backdrop, or background, with the name of the sponsors plastered across it, which the celebrities and designers stand in front of when we shoot them. Shooting this requires a totally different setup than the first one.
Here, I use my 1D Mark IV with a 17-40mm or 24-105mm lens, 580EXII on my Newton bracket powered by my quantum turbo. Settings are roughly 400iso, 1/200 at F7.1 to ensure sharpness and cut out any ambient yellow light. You have to be quick at switching between setups as things happen fast. Sometimes I will leave this rig together and shoot ambient light with only the 5D Mark II.
Shooting celebrities is pretty much old hat to me these days, but I have learned a lot while doing it over the years. Here is some quick advice:
1. Always ask permission (unless it is a killer shot unfolding right in
front of you)
2. If they say no, don't shoot it
3. Approach the manager/handler first unless you personally know
4. Don't be a pushy douchebag
5. Always be nice--it will get you further in the long run
So, that is about it for backstage. oh, the obvious things--don't shoot the models when they are changing. It is tacky, amateurish, and will get you thrown out. Don't embarrass yourself.
Moving on, we find ourselves inside the main tent. It is about a half hour before the lights go down, and hundreds of people are filling in. When you shoot Front Row, you are looking for the celebs, editors, designers, and anyone who is anyone "in the scene" at the show. These people will always be seated in the front row, usually in a generally specific area. Sometimes their names will be on their seats, usually not.
You will be on the runway with about 5-15 other photographers doing exactly the same thing as you--trying to get that killer shot of whoever is hot in the front row. My equipment I use for this: 1D Mark IV with a 17-40 lens, 580EXII on my Newton bracket powered by my quantum turbo. Settings are roughly 640iso, 1/160 at F8. Higher iso because it is usually pretty dark when shooting front row, and you want some ambient light in the background, not pure black dropoff. 1/160 to catch more said light, and F8 to assure maximum depth of field. You also want to be shooting at a fast frame rate, like 8 or 10 frames a second, in case you need to pop off a lot of shots at once in order to get eye contact from the subject while 10 other people are shooting.
Positioning of yourself is key for front row. You have to keep your eyes peeled in order to spot celebs when they come in. If you spot them first, you might be able to get in and get your shot before the mad rush of other shooters. You have to learn to be patient and hold your ground--it can get pretty hairy sometimes, especially when Taylor Swift or Lindsay show up. The competition is fierce! Often, the biggest celebs will be escorted in right before the lights go down, making it especially hard to get shots of them. You have to be diligent and single-minded in order to get the shot in that case.
I often set my focus points to area focus, because in the dark, it is sometimes hard lock on with just one point. This is where the F8 saves you. We try to get the women to stand up in order to get the full-length fashion shot. This is Fashion Week, after all. Fashion sells! The guys can usually remain seated. Group shots are good, and once you have all you can get, you are cleared off the runway so the show can begin!
Runway. Catwalk. Walking the line. All terms for what Fashion Week is really about--the fashion! Luckily, you have staked out a spot in the "pit" at the end of the runway and have a place to stand (or sit) in order to shoot the show.
Space is EXTREMELY tight here, and photographers will often camp out in the hallway for hours to be one of the first to get in and claim their space. Many of the larger agencies and magazines have spaces taped off on the ground on the riser indicating that they claim this space for their own. This is decided the day before Fashion Week opens, when the major players tape it down.
Other people have to fend for themselves, trying to squeeze into impossibly tight spaces and have some semblance of a clear view of the runway. People are on stools, Pelican cases, ladders, and anything they can find to get a good spot. Newbies would do best to take whatever space they can find and keep their mouth shut. That point-and-shoot that you think is so cool does not have any cred in the pit.
The pit has been known to eat photographers alive, never to be seen again for the rest of the week. The advice is this-- work together with as many people as you can, and generally defer to whoever's camera is larger.
Sure, you may be shooting for a blog that you run out of your basement, and you have the same credential, but you are blocking the view of Dan Lecca. If you don't know who he is, then get out of the way. Seriously. This is big business, and just because you think it is fun to tweet that you are shooting a fashion show from the pit, there is a good chance you will never be back here again. Just take it slow, be nice, work with others, and wait until you have been doing this about 10 straight seasons before you say, "No, you move."
Working the catwalk, I usually use my 1D Mark IV with a 70-200mm, or my 5D Mark II with my Sigma 120-300 F2.8, both on a monopod. Some shows might be 5 minutes, and other shows 15 minutes. Your arm will get tired holding the camera up, because there is no break!
Both cameras have their advantages and disadvantages. The Mark IV is faster and the crop works well with the 70-200. The 5D is slower but looks better, is sharper,, and enables a wide range of looks with that lens. The settings for Runway are deceptive--after all, it is dark, right? Well, yes, three feet off to the side of the runway, it is dark. But ON the runway, it is bright as hell.
Settings are different for every show, so these are just a rough guideline, but try 400iso, 1/400 @F4 to start. Tungsten WB usually works pretty well in NY, depending on if you are Canon or Nikon, a custom WB might work better for you. You can always ask the house video guy what Kelvin he is shooting at and follow his lead.
Most photographers will use servo (continuous) focus for runway. They are constantly holding the button down and riding the focus as the model walks towards them. I think it depends on how servo works on your camera. When I had my Canon 1D mark III (worst camera ever) it couldn't focus worth a darn on servo. I would lose 20-30 frames in a row because of that camera. So, nowadays, it all depends on the show. I switch to single shot if I feel it is not grabbing on, such as if the models are backlit or if their clothes don't have a lot of contrast. This seems to help focus.
When composing, you want to make sure to have full lengths of each look that comes down the runway. Shoot JPEG Fine, because the editors will want to see every detail with room to crop. You want to trip the shutter right when the front foot is on the ground and the rear is also, with the legs slightly crossed over in front. This is the perfect runway shot. If you are really good, you can shoot a full-length, three-quarter, shoe and jewelry detail, and a beauty face shot all in the time it takes them to walk towards you!
The advice for Runway shooting is:
1. Format your card before starting--you don't want to run out of space in the middle of the show!
2. Have an extra card in your pocket in case you forget to do #1.
3. Overshoot the hell out of it.
4. Check your settings while you shoot. The light may change during the show, and you don't want 300 frames of blown-out ghost looking things in the middle of a runway.
5. Make sure to time your shutter pressing with the model-it takes some practice, but you need both feet on the ground for a good shot.
6. Never relax--be ready for surprises. Models fall, clothes tear, protesters show up--always be ready, or be ready with an explanation for your editor of why you didn't get the shot.
So. That about sums it up for Fashion Week. You can apply many of these techniques, tricks, and tips to other shooting situations, not just Fashion Week. The key is knowing your gear well enough so that it is just
sense-memory for you--you don't have to stop and think and miss that once-in-a-lifetime-shot.
Practice makes perfect, and perfect is very fashionable!
Brian Ach has been the official Getty Images/IMG Photographer for New York Fashion Week for the last four seasons. His pictures from Fashion Week have been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, WWD, Vogue, People, US Weekly, New York Magazine, and others. When he is not shooting Fashion Week, he is sleeping late. Or shooting cars.