Matt Lever: What You’ll Need to Give up to Shoot Fashion Week

Matt Lever: What You’ll Need to Give up to Shoot Fashion Week

I caught up with Matt Lever, one of the top photographer’s you’d expect to see backstage at Fashion Week. He explained how he’s shooting for Elle Magazine, and the hoops you’ll need to jump through to break onto the scene.

In 1999 Lever reconnected with an old college professor, who he’d assisted on runway shoots almost ten years prior. Photographers were finding themselves backstage more than ever, and so Lever covered that while his counterpart continued to shoot the runway. It was that year that he started to shoot for Elle UK, as their backstage photographer.

If you find yourself at a high-end fashion show, you can expect to see the same collection of photographers attending. You’ll generally know who shoots for who, and it becomes a family of sorts. Lever is fully engrained in that family. From Dolce & Gabbana to Chanel – New York, London, Milan and Paris on a loop.

Taken at Fendi, designed by Karl Lagerfeld.

Backstage Versus Runway

To shoot these shows, you’ll need to sacrifice perfection. When supermodel culture collided with celebrity gossip in the nineties, crews started venturing behind the scenes. Nobody had smartphones that could capture the action immediately.

The difference between a backstage and front of house photographer isn’t just the location. Backstage is not only grittier but the lack of lighting control means it’s a distant cousin to editorial work. Lever likens it to reportage you’d expect in a newspaper. He captures the hair and makeup applications, the candid moments, and when the models are dressed, grabs fashion and beauty shots. This isn’t an easy task, and Lever is a great example of the hustle and creative thinking needed to pull it off. These shots need to be beautiful, without any of the luxuries we’d expect (like time and control of light).

Even though it’s less gleaming than the runway, backstage is still sought after. In fact, when Lever “started shooting for Elle they were running the images as ten page fashion stories.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore, however backstage photography hasn’t died off just yet.

In case you’re wondering what Fashion Week as a whole is all about – it’s a collection of Fashion shows over the period of a month in New York, London, Milan, and Paris, featuring some of the world’s largest brands. This happens twice a year, to showcase the following season’s collections. There are of course other major cities with their own Fashion Weeks, with bridal, and swimsuit weeks mingled between.

The Reliable Gear

You may need to give up the new toy in exchange for something more predictable. Being the Leica hipster might look cool, but not yield perfect results every time. Lever likes to shoot on a Nikon D3 and D4, with Nikon’s 105mm Macro, 24-70mm, 24-120mm, and 50mm f/1.4.

He needs to make sure that his kit is always pulling its weight. That means testing what he likes and then sticking to the old reliables. “I use the Nikon SB900 flashes as you can override the overheat cut off. The SB910’s you can’t, which I found out to my horror during a Marc Jacobs show when my new SB910 just shut down half way through the show.” For those interested, he powers all of this with the Quantum Turbo3 power pack. These are diffused with Nikon’s own diffuser and his own custom diffuser built for beauty shots, with CTO gels at the ready for tungsten lighting backstage.

In short, he’ll always have a backup at the ready. “My friend always uses the military saying ‘one is none’ which means if you only have one of something you are screwed if it breaks. I
have been in many situations where I have had to run to my bag to get a replacement piece of gear.” This is obviously the photographer’s nightmare, but it gets worse. “Back when I shot film I used to carry 2 Canon Eos1’s and 2 Fuji GA645w’s. At one Dolce & Gabbana show, 3 of the 4 camera’s went down. Luckily the last camera survived. This season alone I blew up 3 speedlights.” Lever carries two extra speedlights in his checked luggage as a result.

As far as favorite gear goes, he likes the purity of the 50mm and how it feels on his D4. Still, only works when the lighting is right and he can properly position the models. While we all love shooting with primes, a fast zoom is invaluable backstage.

So the physical and equipment-al toll Fashion Week takes is part of the game. Unfortunately, that game has become a different beast over the years.

A Changing Industry

You might find yourself giving up money for a while.

Now that we know the lingo and the gear – is this a career worth pursuing? I was wondering whether Lever’s path to success in the fashion photography world is something younger generations can recreate. Sadly the editorial industry has been crippled by online publications, and minute to minute coverage of fashion shows is far easier now than ever before.

“I would say that it does still exist, but if it does pay, it only pays a fraction of what it did. There are a lot of people willing to shoot either for free or for a very small amount.” Lever figures your best bet is to assist a photographer who’s already established, rather than compete in a race to the bottom. “I would say you have to really love what you’re doing. This really needs to be a passion. You also need a pretty thick skin as it can be quite tough at times.”

Standing outside every major show is a corral of street photographers, pairing up with wanna-be Instagram models – which is a pretty decent look into the state of the industry. When you’re fresh faced and looking for a job, these are the hungry people you’re up against.

According to Lever, finding yourself gainfully employed as a backstage photographer isn’t easy. However, it becomes harder when you finally get in. As with any change in genre, you’re expecting a leap of faith to end with you landing on your feet. Nailing down a paying client isn’t as easy as it once was.

You may think famous fashion houses are chocked full of cash but the reality is that only some have real money. Some see the clout in their name brand as enough payment. Cosmetic and hair styling brands may be more reliable, but then you may err into the corporate world.

Left: Jason Wu. Right: Gareth Pugh.

The Highs

“It does have incredible highs though. When you’re at a really high energy show where you are shooting great stuff, it’s the best.” I’ve experienced this, but surely not at the level Lever has. The weight of the fashion world is pressed against his lens, and being behind that is quite the rush.

According to every photographer I talk to who’s shot Fashion Week, it was more rock and roll twenty years ago. The industry has cleaned up its act, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some excitement left. Creative ideas are the high of choice (in addition to drinking).

So is it worth all the effort? That depends. If you have realistic expectations, genuinely love the industry and are willing to tough it out – then Fashion Week is calling. If that all sounds overwhelming then perhaps your time is better spent on other endeavors.

Lever’s book, “Behind the Runway: Backstage Access to Fashion's Biggest Shows” contains input from fashion legends Suzy Menkes and Katie Grand. It’s a testimony to not just his work, but the living and breathing industry behind the scenes at Fashion Week. If you're looking to step foot into fashion photography, Lever's look is worth studying.

Images used with permission from Matt Lever.

Stephen Kampff's picture

Working in broadcasting and digital media, Stephen Kampff brings key advice to shoots and works hard to stay on top of what's going to be important to the industry.

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Nice take. It's a nice novelty to do a couple of times; you can get your name out there for new models, the b-list of them. Cultivate a few TFPs to build up your portfolio, help you in your IG presence, and the resulting flood of TFP requests with IG models who will do nothing for you in the long run. After that... it's like empty calories.

Part of me feels that this isn't just event photography. The GQ-esque editorial shoots emulate that backstage, in the moment look, because it's so obviously synonymous with the fashion and beauty genre. Of course it is an event, but fashion photography as a whole doesn't end in the studio surely.

I totally agree that multiple photographers are getting the same shots – but their ability to differentiate their style, and get to know people backstage, is where they get a leg up. It's that barrier that Matt Lever says is making it so difficult to break into the industry. A race to the bottom because there's already photographers there, and the need to get a client/photographer/friend first. Perhaps why TFPs are a road to nowhere in most cases.

I don't know how you're really differentiating yourself at a single show other than angle (you always want to be head on), or if you're focusing on parts of wardrobe, makeup, shoes, etc... but then it's less about that full-on shot and more about product photography. When I looked at last weekend's shots of the show I did last year, nothing changes but the wardrobe. I couldn't make this particular show, but decided after looking at the shots, I'm most likely done pursuing that particular event. I can't even look at the models as anyone I'd TFP with, since they wouldn't add to my portfolio - they're all newbies to runway modeling, and have proven to be insufficient for styled lifestyle shots.

But I did learn from my experience... so it was a plus.