Photographing Fashion Week

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

Text and photos by Douglas Brown /

Now in its sixth year,L’Oreal Fashion Week(formerly Toronto Fashion Week) speed wobbled its way through it’s first precarious editions before finding it’s stride and maturing into a polished international level fashion event.

Organized by the Fashion Design Council of Canada, and held at the elegant Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex, Fashion Week is the country’s premier showcase for Canadian design talent. Every year L’Oreal Fashion Week features a week of shows in The Fall (Spring Collections), and another week in The Spring (Fall Collections), and for the past three editions our site has been there to cover the action.

For those of you who have yet to cover a major fashion event you may be surprised at the emotions, the drama, and the sometimes-ugly business of shooting beautiful images.

Our site uses a panoramic format for all on-site photography. I’ve written here before about various techniques for shooting and assembling multi image panoramic photos of events, or subjects with movement, but most of what I’ll discuss here applies equally to single image photography as well. The above photo is a merged panorama based on three different shots blended in PhotoShop.

Basically the wider format we use means our coverage has a different emphasis. While other photographers are there primarily to shoot isolated images of the girls and the clothes they wear, I’m there to shoot the event in it’s entirety. That extra width and enlarged point of view allows you to put the viewer right up front, in a much sought after front row seat, so it’s really more about event coverage than style trends to us.

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It’s actually quite easy to shoot fashion shows in multi-image panoramas because for all its movement and action, fashion shows are essentially very static, rigid events. The action comes at you along the runway in a predictable pattern. By applying method to the proceedings anyone can add this technique to their show coverage.

There are two techniques that are useful for capturing panoramic images at the shows. The first is simply a crop, where you can take in the crowd and the models in a single frame, within the aspect ratio of a panoramic image. I think of these as my back-up plan in case the stitched images don’t work out.

These images are shot when the models are at the farthest distance from the photographer. It only takes a few model run-throughs to get the exact point right. After consulting the rear LCD, and making sure there is enough room in the image for cropping, look for a person or colourful outfit in the crowd that marks the spot visually. When a model gets to this point that’s where to shoot the first sequence of images.

The next opportunity happens when the models have come forward toward the camera to the point where they separate from the background distinctly at the middle distance along the runway, as in the above photograph.

The second technique is different, and the final result has a unique look as well. First you shoot the model image. Then, quickly flick the lens AF off so it’s locked at that distance and swing over to the right to catch the crowd watching on that side. Sometimes I wait until a model is coming back so people are looking at the exact spot where all of the subsequent model images will be shot. I keep the AF off and shoot the crowd on the left side as well.

Now with crowd shots on the left and right, you can concentrate on just shooting the centre image of the models (but I’ll continue to shoot the occasional crowd shot during the show on either side just to give more options later in post). At the end of the evening it will be possible to drop any of the designs from the show into this Left/Right crowd template and have a wide view of the action.

In the shot above the crowds on the either side are actually looking at different outfits in different segments of the show. I use this technique for both the middle distance and photos closest to the media area where the models do their little strut and pose. Same technique as above, shooting frames to either side, but from a different angle and closer focus, which blurs the background to a greater degree. Shooting this way keeps you on your toes during the show, as you have to keep each method in mind while shooting at three different distances for each outfit. You’re also switching in and out of auto focus every so often, trying to remember the focal length on the zoom for the different spots, constantly checking the histogram and making small exposure adjustments on the fly to both ambient and flash exposure values.

It goes something like this. I’ll shoot one girl coming down the runway …switch out of auto focus and do the crowd watching the last girl walking back the other way…into auto focus and catch up with the original girl at the midway point… shoot a burst… check the LCD and histogram… shoot the next girl behind her at the very beginning point … before catching up with the original model at the closest distance, shoot a burst … check LCD …zoom back down the runway to catch the following girl at mid-point … repeat for the length of the show.

It’s a pretty hectic ten minutes. I’m sure other photographers think I’m completely mad as my bursts of exposures are sporadic and often right out of sync with the other photographer’s mass barrages. I’m also visibly panning way right and left into the crowd throughout the show.

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I don’t use flash as a key light, but keep it dialed back as fill flash to give transparent shadows and pick up detail in black fabric. Usually I’ll start at one stop down and monitor the 20D’s LCD, which is kept on the option that shows the histogram as well as the image. With exposure compensation dialed in for existing light you can easily end up at minus two stops in flash compensation to get the right balance. The photo below is an example of this.

The lighting for the opening show was quite harsh. Two daylight balanced follow spots, a spot on the logo, that’s it. Again this image is three blended exposures done with the 20D/ Sigma 18-50mm 2.8 EX combo. On the right side photo I stole light from someone’s on-camera flash in the background which happened to go off at the same time I released the shutter.

The light raking across the crowd from behind nicely rim lights the people watching, adding some depth and a small bit of drama. But basically it was just horrible blackness everywhere for most of the frames exposed during this show.

Even in this kind of lighting I’ll stick mainly with matrix metering because spot metering only needs to be slightly off target to drastically affect exposure, and things happen too quickly to compensate on the fly for the varying gray values of the different fabric colours. If the spot meter takes an erroneous reading that partially overlaps the back wall while you’re tracking the scene at 5 frames per second no one is going to stop and let you do it again. The moment is just gone. Using matrix metering with exposure compensation applied takes the black background into account on every frame and is a safer way to render the scene consistently.

Here ambient exposure compensation was about minus one and a third stops, flash exposure comp was dialed all the way back to minus two stops. ISO was in the 800 –1600 ISO range. Note the transparent shadows below the model’s chin, and under the collar of her coat. This is the exposure value I’m aiming for with my flash output. Softening these shadows also works wonders for the model’s face and skin under what is sometimes harsh ambient show lighting.

Concerning the coincidental flash in the background. You would think with a duration of a few milliseconds it would be freakishly uncommon to have overlapping flash exposures but it’s actually pretty routine when going though the nights take to see a lot of frames that feature other flashes. When you have thirty-plus photographers shooting at anywhere from 5 – 8 frames per second, a significant percentage of ‘peak moment’ photos are going to feature someone else’s light in the frame.


Lens choice varies amongst the photographers present at the shows. Surprisingly, considering the length of the runway, not many use exceptionally long lenses. If this was a sporting event it would be wall to wall 400mm’s, but here the ubiquitous 70-200mm focal length is wildly popular, as, when mounted on a crop frame camera, it will do full length from mid-runway all the way to the closest distance from the riser.  

The slower f4 L version I use doesn’t exact much of a penalty at this venue as the organizers always have enough overhead lighting rigged up to power a Bon Jovi concert, and the added depth of field comes in handy with moving subjects. The fastest flash sync speed (1/200 th ) is the upper limit for me in terms of shutter speed anyway. The 70-200mm is really the most versatile focal length lens you can bring along.

Sometimes you’ll see an EF 200mm 1.8 lens or something similarly exotic, but zooms are definitely preferred to primes for this kind of coverage as the action happens very quickly (most shows only run about ten minutes in total length) and at such varying distances from the camera.

The Tamron 28-75mm 2.8, Sigma 24-70mm 2.8, and the Nikon/Canon equivalent’s are also popular. These lenses will all do an excellent job on the static posing from close distance in front of the media area.

As a point of comparison, the above shot was taken of the model on her ‘mark’ with the 70-200mm at its widest setting. Flip the lens around to vertical orientation and it’s clear that this is a nice focal length for a full-length photo when the models are at the closest distance to the riser. The advantage of the 70-200mm over the shorter zooms is that you can also reach well down the runway as well. But judging by the large number of short zooms on hand, many photographers seem to concentrate exclusively on the posing at the closest distance. I tend to use the Canon 70-200mm f4 L lens with a 20D camera on a monopod most of the time (alternating occasionally with a Sigma 18-50 2.8 EX for closer shots).

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As this was my third Fashion Week I’m starting to get the hang of some of the media etiquette and basic do’s and don’ts of covering this event. The thing to remember when attending is that everyone from the press is there to get great shots, but the optimal angle of view for producing good work from the riser can contain only so many people. Demand definitely outstrips supply here.

Although the riser is three levels high, it’s not very wide, and it must hold all media. This means the dreaded TV crews are included.

With their large unwieldy tripods TV crews take up a lot of space, thus the area left over for photographers is staked out like the prime real estate it will become over the course of the week.

Photographers arrive hours before the first show and tape a small square on the riser to mark their territory. You write the name of your organization with marker on the tape and that’s it. The space is yours for the duration of the evening. Sometimes photographers send assistants who mark the spot, do set-up, sit in the space for hours to guard against encroachment, and then a few minutes before show time the shooter steps in.

A freelancer from Europe told me that at the large Paris and London shows you have to arrive at least two days early (!) to mark a space, and you must leave an assistant in place the whole time leading up to the show or you’ll almost certainly lose it.

This brings us to what I think of as The Rule of the Square.

As far as I know this isn’t officially codified anywhere, although perhaps it would contribute to keeping unnecessary drama to a minimum if it was, but this is my understanding of it. The Rule of the Square controls all access to the riser and seems to be mainly self-enforced by the group. Although there are subtle variations and exceptions, basically, if someone has marked out a space then that is his or her’s territory. You may not come into that area and just squat there without permission to do so. Squatting will get you hazed by the entire group (no one likes a gatecrasher) no matter what your press affiliation.

During this past Fashion Week I saw several heated exchanges over this issue, the highlight event of which was a feisty pregnant female photographer who threatened to ‘bitch slap’ another woman the length of the runway if she didn’t back off. However , you may ask to share a marked off space, by pleading or discussing politely. You can apply clever convoluted serpentine logic which boggles the listener’s brain in a bid to distract them, you can engage in your own private filibuster hoping to wear down the other’s resistance. Anything goes in the pursuit of the coveted space. But what you absolutely may not do is fake a sudden loss of hearing, and just plop yourself down. That’s when people get nasty.

Most photographers make a serious effort to accommodate as many others as possible, but if you are told no, then no means no. Even after you’ve marked out a square and have your territory claimed you must show sensitivity to those behind and try to work with them within reason to not block their shot. You should only mark out enough room for yourself and minimal equipment (a space about shoulder width is average). Excessive space grabbing isn’t tolerated.

For the Opening Night’s show I was standing in a taped off space another photographer had generously donated to me. As it got closer to showtime, and then ran into the inevitable delays, more and more people came into the room until it was absolutely packed. Several photographers who’d arrived late were lost amongst the public throng with literally no hope of getting a shot at the action. I invited two photographers to come up onto the riser and share my little taped off area. It made for tight quarters but all the others were making similar arrangements. When the show finally started the riser looked like the last helicopter out of Saigon with people hanging off it everywhere! In fact my left foot was out in space with only the heel on the riser itself for the entire show.

How tight do things get during the week? For Wednesday night’s shows I discovered an open space on the floor right in the centre. It was just big enough for one person to work comfortably. Could not believe my luck. By the time the show finally started (late as usual) a male freelancer I invited in was crushed up against me on my left with his legs wrapped around the waist of a female freelancer sitting in his lap. She’s balancing her elbow on his right knee, he’s shooting over her left shoulder. Squeezed up against me on my right side a female photographer from a major fashion magazine is in so tight she’s using my right thigh to brace her camera. Every time I lean back slightly to try to reduce the pressure on my back a network vidoegrapher chastises me for knocking into his tripod. And a minute before the show starts the large front element of a high-speed zoom lens slides into my peripheral view by my right ear, someone leans in telling me not to move too far to the side or it will block his shot, and things were so cramped I couldn’t even turn around to see who this person was!

In a space about the size of your average home entertainment unit there were six full-sized adults squeezed together and no one was getting overly stressed about it. A local paparazzi and a Torstar stringer might be having a shouting match, threatening to ‘take it outside’ right beside us, but on our little patch it’s all peace, love and harmony. And that’s the way it was amongst the riser crew. A mix of nasty competitive squabbling one minute, incredible generosity and compromise the next.

I think the situation at this year’s shows took the organizers off guard. My impression was that the number of photojournalists was way up over the last Fashion Week. It may seem like I’ve emphasized the confrontational in this article, but in the four shows I photographed there was a seriously nasty incident in the media area before each one. All revolved around working space issues. Contrast this with zero confrontational incidents in years past and you have some idea of how the pressure was ratcheted up this time around. At this year’s event it felt like a tipping point had been reached. Increased public attendance, heavier press scrutiny, and the higher profile of the event itself, inevitably lead to shorter tempers and increased tensions.

It seems to me that one of the main purposes for staging a show at L’Oreal Fashion Week has to be the opportunity for designers to present their creative work to the largest audience possible. This would involve gaining the widest exposure for your designs. For that to happen, you will need the press. And for the media to do their jobs properly, it would help if their requirements were addressed a bit more when laying out the staging of the show. Dozens of photographers hanging off a tiny, cramped riser may have the look of all the big shows, but it’s really indicative of a planning and logistics failure that ends up hampering photographer’s ability to produce good work. Expanding the media riser to the entire width of the room, building it up another level higher, tightening the public’s access to the media area, all are ideas the organizers should look at for next year to keep abreast of the event’s evolving requirements.

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L’Oreal Fashion Week has developed at a remarkable pace, even across the short span of the three I’ve attended. This year’s growing pains aside, from year to year Fashion Week gets better, smoother, and more professional with every edition. The many volunteers and organizers do an excellent job under challenging conditions. It’s also a very colourful, often wacky event I’ve really grown quite fond of.

Where else can you be crammed together listening to overlapping conversations, hearing an experienced international freelancer drop the tip that India is the new Mecca for quality used photographic equipment, while a beautiful young woman beside you pouts to another over leaving her Turtle stool (folding stool of choice at Fashion Week) in the car, as two guys threaten to punch each other’s lights out over 6 spare inches of open carpet in the background.   The interesting, the banal, and an adrenaline hit, all in one synchronous moment. And so it goes all evening long. Looking forward to the shows in October!

Text and photos by Douglas Brown /

Michael Reichmann

Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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