How To Shoot A Runway

runway shooting

So, you've got your camera, you've got your gear, you've got your passes to all the shows you want to see at Fashion Week SS'12. You're standing in the pit, waiting for the lights to go down, and all of the sudden you realize that you've never shot a runway show before, you've got no idea what the proper camera settings are for this sort of thing, and you start to panic. This panic is, of course, not in any way ameliorated by the fact that everyone around you has grotesquely enormous lenses plus lens extenders plus massive lens hoods and some really sturdy looking tripods and gear crates and they all seem to be speaking French or have some cool, vaguely European accent and, sweet Jesus, the smell in the pit can be totally overwhelming because most of these French/quasi-European cameramen have been working eighteen hours a day for the last week and probably haven't even had the time to take a shower.

You're just a blogger, you start thinking, you just bought your DSLR and new zoom lens and you're just not ready for this at all. The lights go down and one of those smarmy, smelly, way-more-experienced-at-this-sorta-thing-than-you Frenchmen yells, “Please uncross your legs,” the high beam Lyko lights blaze to life above your head and the first model steps out of that door…
Fear not! I briefly went through this same moment of panic on the first day of New York Fashion Week. Luckily, you've got a brain, you've got a camera, and you've got a very simple problem to solve. About the only thing you need to be sure you do is freeze motion. That's it. You just don't want the models or their clothing to be blurry from movement. There are a couple of ways to do this. What most photographers do is set their shooting mode to Shutter Priority and set their chosen shutter speed to about 1/500th of a second, although the faster the better.

What I did all week was use Aperture Priority.  Shooting at f/4, on the 105mm end of my zoom lens (a 24mm-105mm was the longest lens I had and was more than enough for most of the shows, depending on what spot I got in the pit), allowed me to get a relatively shallow depth of field to make the model pop a bit more out of the background.  Shooting at ISO 3200 allowed me to keep my shutter speeds in the 1/800th of a second to 1/1600th of a second range so I don’t have a single blurry shot from the entire week.  Setting my AF point to the center point ensured that I always kept the model in the center of the frame and the focus directly on her.

Both Av and Tv modes do require a bit of tweaking while you’re shooting as well.  For the most part I kept my exposure compensation at +2/3 of a stop; when you’re shooting RAW (which you should be, leave a comment below if you’d like to receive a very long and involved answer as to why you should not ever, ever, ever shoot JPEGs for any photos you really want to look top-notch) you want your files to be just slightly overexposed (again, leave a question in the comments as to why this is but expect an answer that involves sensels, IC digital conversion, and probably a very long rant regarding just why oh why digital camera manufacturers still base their exposure systems around a 19th century exposure system that was intended for film and silver halide crystals; steel thyself for a geek-out).  This +2/3 EV compensation was just fine for the most part, but when a model was wearing something black or dark in color I generally returned to +/-0 or even -1/3 EV compensation to keep their skin from blowing out and appearing overexposed.

And that’s just about it, pretty simple really.  After the first two shows I had developed a number of presets in Lightroom that I could apply to an entire batch of photos which made the photo editing and turn around significantly faster.  Leave comments below if you’ve got any questions about my equipment, settings, or Lightroom presets.


[Photos by Nando Alvarez]

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19 Responses

  1. Joy

    I guess apart from knowing your camera settings, bring an aromatic something to shield oneself from the ‘need-a-shower’ smell. Ha!ha! This is brilliant. Thanks for another great post 🙂

    Joy xx

  2. Camille

    Thank you for the much needed tech advice. My shots were so blurry on my first fashion show~

  3. Alterations Needed

    Excellent post! I would love to see a post on basic photo editing with camera RAW. Such as setting white balance (the bane of my existence, how would you set it at a fashion show? White balance card? By eye in post processing?), adjusting exposure (I’m curious to learn more about your tip about over-exposing in RAW), and how to reduce noise. I can take great photos with my entry-level DSLR in decent lighting conditions, but fixing photos taken in less than stellar conditions are driving me crazy!

    • Nando

      Definitely something I can do! I use Lightroom, but the Develop workflow is almost exactly the same as Camera RAW’s.

      White balance is actually remarkably easy to set at a fashion show, but like most everything else you have to sort of season to taste. An easy way to do it is to just find a photo of a model wearing something white and, if cRAW has the WB eyedropper tool like lightroom does, just click a white part of the outfit and voila! Usually it ends up going a little bit too cool and too much towards the blues so I tend to back it down a bit and make it a touch warmer to bring some life back into the skin tones.

      With regards to exposure, to keep things very simple, with a digital sensor the general idea is to “expose to the right.” What this means is that when you’re looking at a histogram of the original RAW image most of the information should be on the right side (the brighter side) of the histogram. The brightest two stops of a digital sensor’s dynamic range contain almost two-thirds of the images total data (a DSLRs digital sensor can record about 4,098 distinct tonal values in RAW, assuming it has a dynamic range of about 10 stops; the brightest stop contains 2,048 of these, the next stop down contains 1,024). The reason you overexpose slightly is to pack as much light (i.e. information) into those top two stops as possible. When you bring the image into Camera RAW you adjust the exposure and bring it down a bit (I usually shoot at +2/3 EV compensation and bring the exposure down to about -.5 or -.6 in lightroom) to compensate. Once you learn to do this and adjust your exposures in camera properly you’ll start seeing a whole lot more color and tonal information in your images. Also, along with this, you should be shooting Adobe RGB, not sRGB; Adobe RGB contains exponentially more color values.

      This also all relates to noise reduction. Because your lowest two stops, the darkest two, contain so little information there is, to put it simply, more room there for noise to make its way in. Because there is so much more information in the higher stops the noise floor (which is always present) represents a significantly smaller percentage of the information. If you’d like a run down of the noise reduction and sharpening tools in Camera RAW and lightroom, or some basic presets I’ve made for each ISO, let me know and I can provide them.

      I know this all sounds very dorky and technical and I try to not pay too much attention to this sort of stuff, but you spend a lot on a camera these days and you really want to get the absolute most out of it. Once you learn this stuff you can just sort of absorb it and forget about it and get on with your day, but it’s good to know.

      So to summarize:
      -Shoot RAW
      -Shoot about +2/3 of a stop over (adjust accordingly) and compensate in your RAW processor.
      -Shoot Adobe RGB, not sRGB

      • Alterations Needed

        Amazing response! Thank you so much for taking such time answering my questions! Funnily enough, I’ve been a bit afraid of “blown-out” highlights and losing information in that direction, so I tend to under-expose in camera. I’ll take your suggestion on my next shoot and see how it goes. And I also tried to find an answer to shooting in sRGB vs. Adobe RGB just the other day and found nothing. I’m so excited to finally get an answer on that as well.

        Thank you again!

  4. Cameron

    Okay. I’ll bite. Tell me why I should not shoot in JPEG mode on my next camera? 😉

    Seriously, I don’t have much of a choice; I still have my Epson L-410, which is 7 years old now. And my BlackBerry.

    • Nando

      True, if you don’t have a choice then shoot whatever you can.

      JPEG is a compressed image format, which means that the camera has reduced the image’s data to only the necessary (i.e. non-redundant) information. The camera then applies a number of manufacturer’s presets to the image, adding contrast and saturation, reducing noise, and applying a sharpening protocol which usually results in gross over-sharpening. What this reduced information in effect means is that the image you shoot is the image you’re stuck with: exposure must be spot on, white balance cannot be adjusted after you shoot, any noise resulting from a high ISO is hardcoded into the image data and cannot be further reduced, and the over-sharpened image cannot be unsharpened at all to compensate. Actually, even when you shoot RAW the image that the camera displays on its screen is a hastily produced JPEG, hence the colors and contrast usually look pretty poppy and neat on the back of your camera.

      RAW is a lossless, uncompressed image format. Anything that appears in front of the camera is recorded onto the sensor. RAW files are significantly less contrasty and less saturated than a JPEG image, but that’s just fine. When you bring the RAW image into a RAW processor, such as Photoshop’s Camera Raw, or Lightroom, or Apple Aperture, you have full freedom to adjust these to taste because the image has significantly more information that can be played with and brought out. This results in greater nuances of color, tonal gradations, etc. You have full freedom to reduce noise from high ISO to an optimal amount (if you check out the images from the shows I covered at NYFW, which were all shot at ISO 3200, you won’t see one bit of noise in them). What’s probably most important is that you can truly adjust white balance, which for any fashion photography is absolutely crucial so that the clothes themselves are their proper colors in your images.

      Think of a RAW file as like a negative shot on film; it contains incredible amounts of information within it, much of which you can’t see, but which you’ll be able to bring out in post. Another perk is that your exposures can be slightly off (in fact with RAW you generally want a slight overexposure) and it’s no big deal. Think of how many JPEGs you’ve seen of runway shows where a model’s face and skin is totally blow out to white from the lights and there’s nothing that can be done for that; if you shoot RAW this is an easy fix.

  5. Kimberly Marney

    Is there any way to take a decent photo on my iphone? Many shots were “white hot” blurs. Any apps you recommend?

    • Nando

      It’s really difficult to take a good runway shot on your iphone. It’s like 90% about where you place yourself. The further away from those giant runway lights you are the easier it’ll be. Unfortunately there aren’t apps to really make this any easier. All about placement and timing; although, admittedly, the iphone’s focusing system doesn’t help one bit.

  6. Nusardel

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS! I shot a runway show earlier this year and my photos were horribly overexposed and disgusting. I’ve recently begun shooting in RAW, and this just helps so much. I’ve got a show coming up in November, so it’s perfect that I’ve found this. Again, thank you so much.

  7. Laura Hueto Puig

    Thank you soo much!! Your photography posts are always a joy to read and always always super useful… Thank you thank you thank you! 🙂

  8. Laura

    So. Much. Jargon

    I’m currently still learning, I’ve been invited up to my towns local design school to photograph their shows, which are not professional obviously just local girls walking down the hallway. I’ve quickly learnt that fluro lights are not your friends when it comes to trying to get good shots. Any tips to help combat this for next time I go up. I tried toning down my exposure a touch and that helped a lot but it’s still sucking a lot of colour out of the shot and washing everything out and I’ve found simply boosting the contrast in lightroom tends to give it a ‘fake’ look. What settings should I be playing around with to help?

    PS- I shoot on a Nikon D700 if that changes anything you were going to tell me 🙂

    • Nando

      Do you have a link to any examples I could see?

      Usually the biggest problem with fluorescent lights is that they don’t emit a constant light, but flicker and strobe at very high speeds and their color temperature can jump back and forth between being really green and really orange.

      Obviously the color temp is easily fixed in lightroom, but the exposures are less so. The only thing I can suggest is using a shutter speed long enough such that you don’t catch the light flickering, but short enough that the models aren’t blurry. I’d need to see some pics to know exactly what you mean though.

  9. Sterling Steves

    Let me start by saying that I’ve shot a LOT of runway (just did my 48th show).
    First, you should be shooting in Manual mode so you have full control over all your parameters. You need an f2.8 or ideally faster lens. Rent if you don’t have one but this is a stock lens in every pro’s bag. Shutter speed is dependent on distance from subject and lens used. The longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed although IS (image stabilization) here can make a difference. I personally shoot for 1/200th on my 85mm with no IS(I have a crop sensor so it is equivalent to a 136mm on full frame) . I go slower with my shutter on my 17-55 IS but no slower than 1/125. Most models are simply not moving that fast. I use 1/1000 for shooting jumping horses at a cross country event and they are moving far faster. ISO is too high for my camera which I keep at a maximum of 1600 unless I am going for an artistic special effect shot. If there is not a lot of light at a show, by all means use speedlites but try to take them off camera if possible. I have even used my strobes (w modifiers) at shows before. If you are using lights, be ready to shoot without them as lights can fail for whatever reason. A couple of weeks ago, I shot a show where the circuit on the main lighting for the photographers tripped. My strobe was on that circuit and was off after that as there was no way for me to get to it with the crowd and with it being about 12 ft in the air. I also have a second camera on me at all times with different lenses that I can switch back and forth as circumstances vary.

  10. Vasco Oliveira


    I have a canon 5D mk II and a EF 135mm f/2L and a 580EX II on camera. That’s all! What do you think about the best settings for runaway photography? I have a work to do next weekend! 🙂 thank you so very much!!