Watching a catwalk show can be great fun - the glitz and glamour can be intoxicating, but attending one as a photographer can be a whole different experience. You're expected to deliver several tack sharp photo's of every outfit without fail - some photographers approach the event with the 'Zoom Focus Spray and Pray' approach.. but it becomes clear there's more to it for guaranteed results.
A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to attend the London Fashion Weekend at the Saatchi Gallery. Canon UK were arranging for a select few amateur photographers to sit/lie/stand in the press pit at the end of the catwalk and shoot away.
Despite being someone with a history of never being selected for of such opportunities, I decided to put my cynicism to the side for a change and filled out the form. I was asked for information on what sort of photography I do, what gear I had, and my motivations. Then I promptly forgot all about it, on the assumption that I would hear no more.
The selection date came and went with no email/phone, re-enforcing my belief that these things never go my way.
The morning before the show itself, I discovered a bunch of emails in my spam folder.. including one from Canon UK telling me that I had been selected and that I need to confirm attendance ! Thankfully a few frantic discussions with Canon confirmed that my space was still reserved.
They helpfully provided some guidance on recommended lenses... I took my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L, and 24-70 F2.8L lenses. The telephoto for most of the catwalk shot's, but the wider angle for shot's of the gallery and audience. A longer zoom may well have been a good option too, as the catwalk was very long, though trying to keep the camera steady could have been a challenge - especially as no tripods were permitted. I packed my monopod anyway to give myself the option. I imagined there would be little time for switching lenses at a fast paced event, so i took 2 bodies, My 6D with the telephoto, and my wife's APS-C 550D for wider angles. Having the ability to switch between camera's on the fly proved invaluable on the day.
So morning of the shoot, early start, arriving at the Sloan Club for initial prep talk with the Canon UK team. There appeared to be around 30-40 photographers there. Majority of them amateur camera club members. Everyone was issued with a security pass - if you lose your pass then you're not allowed near.
Some initial guidance was provided - use f4, ISO1600, 3200K WB, min 1/300 Shutter speed. No Flash allowed, hence the high ISO - rather suffer some grain than suffer blur !
We were soon escorted out of the Sloane Club and marched over to a back door entrance of the Saatchi Gallery, and led past the queuing public direct to the catwalk. Security was very tight, with chief security officer giving all the photographers a stern pre-talk and warning of immediate eviction should we stray from the rules, move position once started, interfere with the video, etc.
The catwalk area was fairly dark on first arrival, the press pit was less of a pit, and more a series of raised steps at the long end of the runway.. probably enough space for 50 people comfortably, though we were told that on a normal day this space would be occupied by more like 100 photographers with gear! The prime central spot was taken up by the large videocamera providing the live feed for the event.
Initial thoughts were that it was far too dark to get any decent shot's at all... and it was indeed a struggle to get anything sharp during the compere's intro without pushing ISO levels way up (128,000). However, once the show got going fully; it was a different matter...
The LED Panel lights running down the length of the hall kicked in, and the rear spots did there work to highlight the catwalk. Unusually, the audience was also bathed in light, which meant they were somewhat of a distraction in the photo's.
Overall there were 3 catwalk shows, each one lasting around 20-30mins, with breaks between to shuffle out of the building a get some air. The first show was a 'Trend' show, bringing together outfits from various designers to demonstrate the must have looks for the coming year. The stunning looking models appeared from the far end and sashayed directly towards the awaiting photographers... it was the first time i've been amongst such a maelstrom of rapid fire high-speed camera shutters. However, the noise soon dissipated as you concentrate on getting your own shots.
From an aesthetic pov, the challenge was to catch the model's mid-gait with one foot forward. This works best to convey a real sense of movement, to highlight the design of the clothing, and to accentuate the models own features. No one wants's to see shot's of flat footed models with feet side by side, and their outfits hanging limply.
The models themselves were initially sporting sullen expressions as if they might be desperate to get out for a cigarette break, and left us to speculate about the darker side of life on the catwalk. Though I learned subsequently that the designers prefer the models to resemble expressionless human mannequins bereft of any personality so as not to detract from the outfits.
Having said that, the second show was hosted by design house Siblings, and it was clear their models had been given free reign to express their true personalities... so this time the same set of models came out arms swinging, big smiles, blowing kisses at the camera's or winking, and noticeably exaggerating their hip swings.
I found the best approach was to shoot mainly in portrait aspect with Continuous AF, and set the focus point to single spot near the top of the frame. Then ensure that spot was lined with the model's face.
With 3 separate catwalks sessions, it was also worthwhile experimenting with different shooting locations. The ideal spot was adjacent to the video cameraman, as you would benefit from the models looking directly towards you. However, other positions offered excellent alternative perspectives.
High up and to the rear allowed for great full length shots, though as the models drew closer you could only get head shots because the photographers ahead of you would block your view of the models lower half.
I also shot one session while sitting on the floor directly in front of the video camera. This was a great spot, though you need to be careful not to move around to much else you annoy those behind you. It enabled me to get some great long shots of the catwalk.. one of my favourites.. It however meant you would tend to get upward looking chin shot's as the models approached close to you.
There appears to be a well understood pecking order in the world of catwalk photography.. at the top are the video guys, followed by the Galleries and/or Fashion Houses's own photographers. The rest have to jockey for position in the spaces remaining. A little respect, and a calm demeanour is invaluable as you try to find a good spot. Stories abound of pro's getting into fights over prime positions.
As the model's approach the end of the catwalk, they rarely stopped to pose, seeming to prefer turning immediately to the side and walking back. Though when they did pause, I was able to catch some great oblique and portrait shot's as they looked over the shoulders. I also noticed that all the models seem to blink on the turn away from the camera's - so the trick was to catch them just before-hand.
Between the shoots, there were opportunities to discuss various aspects of fashion photography with the Canon folks, other photographers as well as Tina Eisen (https://www.instagram.com/ttwophotography/) who was there to present a talk about her career in Fashion Photography, and discuss the challenges of making a living out of Photography. Certainly inspiring to hear from someone who has only been using a camera for same time as myself, but is now making a full time living from it. It takes a certain personality to make a leap from a stable paying day-job to a risky unstable job doing something you really enjoy.
Throughout the day there were opportunities to loan some of the latest Canon Equipment including a 1Dx Mark2. I was fortunate to get to play with a brand new 5D MarkIV. I've played with camera's in shops and showrooms before, but there's nothing like testing a camera in a real world shoot. It became clear that my SD Cards were not fast enough for the 30Mp 5D MkIV and it's higher frame rate (compare with my 6D). So this was a good learning note. It's a great camera, the ability to rapidly change your focal point through the touchscreen was great, and the fast focus a clear step up from my 6D (no I cannot compare against the 5D Mark III).
It would have been great to go backstage and have the opportunity to network with organisers etc, but that was not an option
Once the shoot is over, remember that is a fashion event, so expect there to be lot's of beautiful people around... walk around outside the venue and look for more informal shooting opportunities.
Overall A great day. I would jump at any similar opportunity again if were to come up, and recommend everyone to go for it. I certainly now feel confident about my ability to shoot a catwalk show for paying client.
Great fun and very entertaining - plus few wardrobe malfunctions included too...... !!
My recommended settings
Aperture priority or manual exposure mode
Wide open aperture for shallow depth-of-field (f/2.8) however f/4 is a good option to ensure sharp faces especially when subjects are moving.
Minimum shutter speed of 1/250th second (increase the ISO if necessary - 1600 worked well)
Center-weighted metering (wide area metering can be fooled by dark/bright areas around the model)
Continuous AF to track models
White balance can be a little tricky, especially when the lighting is mixed and is changing, so I generally shoot in RAW + JPEG, with a preset (tungsten) white balance or a Kelvin temperature of around 3000-3200. If you’re there early enough for the run-through, you can evaluate your settings and make adjustments before the show starts.
Many Thanks to Canon UK and their staff for hosting and sponsoring the event. Special call out to Sarah (organiser) (http://www.canon.co.uk/about_us/events/canons-shoot-the-show-experience-at-london-fashion-weekend/)
Thanks to Tina Eisen for the inspiring talk - http://www.t-two-photo.com
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