Lessons Learned: Shooting a Fashion Show

I had the joy and privilege of shooting a week long fashion show called Crystal Couture earlier this year. Given that I’ve never shot fashion it was a big learning experience for me. Fortunately my client wanted a lot of “event photos” too, so I didn’t feel completely outside my element. I shot photos for four hours every night then I sorted, edited, and uploaded all the photos by 10 AM the next day.

Every night I made notes of the things I learned that day and hoped to do differently the next. I’ve copied those notes below and added some of the photos to illustrate what I’m talking about. Most of the text here was written for personal use rather than public consumption. I feel like it loses a bit of flavor every time I try to rewrite it, so this post is still a little gooey in the middle. If you have questions don’t hesitate to hit up the comments section below and I’ll clarify as best I can.

The lighting for runway fashion is very different (in a good way) than shooting events. I was able to get some surprisingly good photos with minimal effort because the lights were already set to make the girls look good. This should be true of any respectable fashion show. No additional lights/flashes were used for these two shots, but I did make sure my White Balance was set to Tungsten/Incandescent to match the color temperature of the runways lights.
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At this point I got to thinking how it could be improved. It’s already good; I just feel like it could use a little extra punch to make it great. For that, I immediately thought of adding a background light (sometimes called a kicker). Here is the setup:

There are a few things I want you to notice about the diagram.

  1. I does not show the runway lights which served as my main light source; they were located directly above the runway and over my camera pointing at the stage.
  2. Both flashes were snooted so that light would not spill onto the background.
  3. The flash on the left is the same color temperature as the runway lights.
  4. The flash on the right was gelled to be warmer to add just a hint of color to the models.
  5. The flashes were carefully placed behind the pillars so that their light would hit the end of the runway, but I would be in the shadow cast by the pillars. This means that I wouldn’t see any lens flares from the flashes themselves.
  6. I experimented with dozens of variations on this setup mostly because I was shooting in the same place for 24 hours total; I had to get creative. The setup illustrated above is the one I relied on the most. If I had only one light I would keep the white one and not worry about the warmer one.

Use a kicker to add a little extra pop to the subject. Several of them –particularly the black girls– get lost in the background. A little rim light would do wonders. Note that only the white light was used here.
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The light in the above photo was placed beside the model more than it was behind her. This is usually a better look for men than women –see Ean Williams below. So I moved it behind the pillar as illustrated above and got exactly the rim lighting I wanted here. Again, only the white light was used so far.
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Then I tested my warm light only. It’s very subtle, but that’s exactly the point. I don’t want to discolor the clothing, just add a touch of warmth. Notice the orange-ish light on her back and the inside of her right leg.

Finally, here is the full setup with both lights firing.

Capture the models walking precisely when their heel touches the ground. It’s the most dynamic and illustrative pose in a typical walk cycle. Note that they cross their legs in a sexy fashion when they walk. Most girls tend to favor one side or the other. Watch them take two steps and see which one looks better, left or right, then wait for the better pose and capture that.
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Shooting fashion is all about the clothes. The models, as attractive as they are, are a glorified display rack. That sounds harsh, but without that in mind it’s easy to get distracted. Don’t worry about closeup shots of their faces unless you plan on sharing them with the models and makeup artists. Hint: it helps to make friends with the models.

Continuous servo focus is crucial for runway stuff. Hint: this is not altogether different than a bride and groom walking down the aisle…

Cropping off the model’s face just above the mouth can be a good way to focus the viewer’s attention on the shirt. Including the mouth adds just enough of a human touch without drawing all the attention to the face, which is what happens if you include her eyes.

Experiment more with creative blocking/staging by using silhouettes as negative space.

Experiment with some blue lighted backgrounds.
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Note to self: I’m not quite sure what the problem is, but I feel like I’ve only been getting negative feedback about the photos so far. Client hated her hair, others say, “Oh! I look awful; delete it…” It’s a bit of a blow to my self-esteem, and I think it’s worth further examination… Potential factors include alcohol, models and wannabes in a perfection driven industry, people not knowing how to pose or thinking something will look good that doesn’t, maybe I’m not any good at shooting fashion, maybe I’m too focused on the lighting to the point of not paying attention to the subject, etc…
UPDATE, two months later: It now seems to me that the models loved the photos but most of the attendees were never pleased with photos of themselves. Feel free to draw your own conclusions…

Goodness! I need to play with the Tone Curve more often! I have no idea how/why I’ve barely used it in the past, but it gives you much more finite control over the contrast of the image –far more effective than the Blacks and Contrast sliders.

Experiment with these compositions: I printed the contact sheet below and carried it in my photo bag during the next night of the show. I wanted to get some variety in my shots and these were some ideas that caught my attention while editing.

I really like the look of a “mixed sandwich” lighting in this picture. Soft light (umbrella) hitting her from the right, hard light hitting from the left. Creates a very sexy, sculpted mood.

I need to experiment more with hard lighting as my key light. All of the runway pictures are lit with hard lighting and they look amazing. The lighting on this one in particular reminds me of the work Jeremy Cowart did for the plastic surgery reality show… The key light does *not* have to be soft! Mix it up and try something different. I may be surprised…

I strongly suspect good makeup is imperative when using hard light. Anything less will result in lots of glares and highlights on her face.

Experiment with silhouettes of the models themselves.

Stand on a chair for higher perspective on runway shots. Also a good way to get crowd shots.

This one with high ISO as models are walking back (out of the main lights).

Shoot stylized, dynamic photos particularly with the painted peoples.
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Play around with casting profile shadows.

When the batteries in the on-camera Pocket Wizard are nearly dead you may see odd sync issues or misfires. Changing the batteries can make a world of difference.
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I wish I thought to light the models completely with rim lighting. It might have been nearly impossible to kill the ambient light and still have enough power to get the desired rim light, but it would’ve been nice to try though…

I wish I experimented with slow shutter speeds on the runway, particularly telephoto profile walking shots.

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