Capturing The Catwalk: The Ultimate Guide To Photographing Runway

Zoom, focus, spray and pray. That seems to be the M.O. of many photographers who shoot runway. I admit, I was one of those photographers. The one who scours through thousands of images at the end of the night, wishing they had shot more strategically. And, after two hours of culling, flagging three images per look, they’d be lucky if only one was tack sharp. After many shows, I’d criticize my every move and would long for a time machine to do it all over again.

In the city of Louisville, KY there is one time of the year where the fashion and racing community explodes with concerts, shows and dozens of celebrity cocktail parties. In one month there are over 40 events that all lead to one day; The Kentucky Derby. Among those events there are nearly a dozen different runway shows, I guess you could say it’s our own little “Fashion Week.” Unlike some of my traits and techniques, I didn’t get the chops by research; I got the chops from experience.  It took many, many shows to find the right method to capturing a runway show.

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From photo journalism viewpoint, one may capture the environment and the engagement of the attendees watching the show. My clients, such as bloggers, publications, agencies and boutiques want to see the model and clothing and how it all moves down the runway. With that said, I tend to ignore the crowd and focus solely on the show.

Stake Your Ground

Position yourself approximately ten to twenty feet from the stage or floor where the runway is directly vertical to line of sight. With any red carpet or large runway show there will always be competition and other photographers discreetly shifting for the best point of view, just find a good spot and hold your ground.

Use A Long Lens

A key element to shooting runway is to having the proper equipment. Shooting with a long telephoto lens, such as a 70-200mm f/2.8 is perfect for fast focus and background compression. Also, it’s nice to have a long range of focal length to work with as the model walks towards you.

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Lose The Flash

Not only can the flash from a speedlight or strobe be very distracting to those who paid a pretty penny to attend, it can also produce a very unflattering light from a distance. Unfortunately, speedlights do not have the recycle time to rattle off shutter bursts and you'll see a lot of misfires. Don’t’ fret, most all runway shows have a production team that spent hours keying in proper constant lighting. Once the show starts, there should be plenty of ambient stage lighting to work with. If not and you are absolutely forced to use a speedlight, then push your ISO and balance with flash.

White Balance

Investigate and speak with the production team beforehand on the lighting and the flow of the runway. Whether they are using tungsten or daylight balanced lighting, switch your settings accordingly. There is nothing worse than wasting two hours color correcting, when that time could have been saved by the click of a wheel.

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Use ISO For A High Shutter

With today’s modern DSLR bodies, you have the ability to dramatically raise the ambient light by cranking ISO. While stage lighting can be bright, sometimes it’s just not enough to allow for a fast shutter, which you will need. You always want to keep your shutter above 1/200th of a second. A shutter slower will result in motion blur and you definitely don’t want that for runway. The goal is to have tack sharp images; grain is more acceptable than motion blur.

Get Low

No one likes an annoying photographer blocking their view; get low to the ground and keep a low profile. It will increase the height of the model and give a “hero” look to your images.

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Shoot Vertically And Set Focus

Clients want to see the clothing, that includes the shoes as well. Unless you’re shooting with a wide angle lens, it’s nearly impossible to capture a full body in landscape or horizontal orientation. Flip your camera vertically and you’ll find it’s much easier to capture a full body walk in this format. Also, move your focus point to the very top side of the array, so when the model comes marching down the runway you can quickly focus, fire, zoom out, focus, and fire again without having to re-compose.

Follow The Beat And Shoot Strategically

The goal is to capture the model as they're in mid-movement, with his or her legs crossed or one foot off the floor. Every model has their own walking "style," but most naturally walk to the pace of the music. Fire your shots in small bursts as the model lifts their foot off the floor, all while following the downbeat of the music. I tend to focus first, fire a small two-shot burst, then zoom out and repeat. This will guarantee a sharp image.

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Watch The Lighting

Although the production team surely put hours into the lighting and setup, there is nearly always a hot spot or section of the runway where the light falls perfectly or differently on the models face. Pay attention to where the lighting is in correlation to the model and find that sweet spot. Adjust your aperture to expose for that section of light as that should be your target area where you start and finish your shutter bursts.

Don’t Wait For The Pause

Time and time again I see photographers wait until the model reaches the very end of the catwalk to fire off a million continuous shots. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with it, but it also doesn't show off the clothing in natural movement, but rather a static pose. In my opinion, capturing the pose should be a backup option if you didn't nail a good shot down the runway.

These techniques can also be applied on location when shooting walking fashion images. Except in that case, follow the model backward instead of staying stationary.

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I love shooting runway and motion portraits, there is a thrill and adrenaline rush like none other. If the light is just right, the motion of the model is perfect and the image is tack sharp, forget the personal criticisms and just give yourself a pat on the back.

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6 Comments

Lee Christiansen's picture

Great advice, and well written. Many thanks.

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you!

I loved the last piece of advice about not waiting for the pause! Great article. Liked the last few shots too. www.cambsweddingphotography.com

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks Juan!

I shoot runways all the time. 3 to 5 a month

LOSE THE FLASH :: at the end you concede "If not and you are absolutely forced to use a speedlight..." and I would argue even if you think it's a good idea, don't do it.

The minute one guy starts popping off his flash, everyone else has exposure and white balance problems that they can't solve. If you're the flasher and one of the other photographers happens to be polite, they might tell you to turn it off. However, from my experience I can say: the other photographers are not polite very often.

Lose the flash. Period.