Tokyo Girls Collection S/S collection 2011: essential runway photography tips

At the beginning of March was Japan’s biggest fashion show, Tokyo Girls Collection (TGC) S/S 2011 collection and once again I was along there for and all the photos from the runway that day can be seen at their website here and there is also a link here to some top-notch street photography from other members of the team that day of the fans who attended the show. What was good about this show for me was that Sue was also joining to take photos, two people are better than one and she really did help take the pressure off.

Anyway, I’ve blogged a bit about the background to getting access to TGC before and explained about about behind the scenes at the event, so this time I thought I’d talk about some essential runway photography tips for shooting shows like this.

TGC really is massive compared to regular runway shows during fashion week. I’d estimate at fashion week in Tokyo, a small show will sit perhaps 100 people and a large one 800 or so. TGC had just under 25’000 people and it was held in the Olympic stadium in Harajuku. At fashion week you are sometimes in a group of 10-30 photographers and at most you are about 5m from the stage. At TGC we reckoned there were more than 300 photographers, TV crew staff and writers on a 3 stage press tier. Sue and I were right at the back of the pack, so we were probably about 25-30m from the stage. In a regular runway show you can shoot anyone, at TGC because many of the models are celebrities with contracts with different agencies, you can’t use everyone’s photo so you have to work out who you can and can’t shoot as well. A regular fashion week show lasts 10 minutes tops as it is just one show, TGC lasts about 8 hours and has more than 20 shows/artist performances. Quite different right,

So, very big scale. What do you need to pull off a job like this? Well, not all of it has much to do with photography to be honest:

1. The “spot”. First off, you have to get your spot on the massive press stage. We were given numbers on arrival and then you were taken to the stage and in order were allowed to choose from the empty spaces. In the 3 tier stage, the best spots for me are at the back, the bottom two are too low compared to the light/TV control area in front of us. So, we managed to get into the back tier, but at the furthest end from the runway to start with. Not ideal at all, but sometimes you have to get on with the hand you are dealt. Oddly, this year the middle section of the stage (same width as the center of the runway and the best spot to shoot from) was cordoned off. Some people tried to get in, but were told they would be ejected if they entered again. No go there for anyone which made a lot of people angry, but you just have to deal with it. It pays to keep your eyes open in these situations anyway as sometimes another spot opens up. After about an hour some photographers started to leave (if they are on an assignment for a mag and need one good photo, once they have it they go) and we managed to move to a much better position nearer the cordoned off area.

Here’s what it looked like from where we were standing just before it all kicked off, gives an idea of the grand scale of it all:

2. Memory. After you have your “spot” sorted you then have to sort out who you can and can’t shoot. Last year I did it after the show, was a massive mistake as it took me more than a day just to sort people into categories from the thousands of photos I took. This time we worked smart, we had the name list for each show, marked off each person we couldn’t shoot and memorized their order of appearance so we didn’t shoot them. For example, the third show was the designers stage, we could shoot models appearing third, fifth and twelfth, so I would remember Third, 3, 5, 15, count the models as the came out and be sure not to get the wrong ones. Easy to remember numbers rather than peoples names and saved a day of work after wards. Some people might suggest you don’t have to bother with it, no-one will find out, especially the foreign press, but they do check up afterwards, some people get banned for life and sometimes there is legal action taken against those who publish. You don’t want to get yourself banned from these things and you don’t want your client getting sued, it tends to limit the chance of being re-hired.

3. Balance and nerve. For all fashion shows I have my trusty step ladder. It gives me an extra 55cm of height which means I am shooting from about 230cm, I’m always the tallest there anyway and I get to shoot over everyone. Makes life a lot easier. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. The area to stand on at the top of the ladder is 16x25cm, after 20 minutes (less even) it7s a strain on your calf muscles, you are in a huddle where people are moving, you have to keep your balance whilst holding a few kg of kit and balancing it on the top of the step with your mono-pod. When you have a solid wall behind you, it’s not so bad, this time we had a straight drop of about 3m with only a low pole to prevent anyone dropping. I stood on the top of the ladder, but when I rotated with Sue I made her stand on the next two steps down for safety. We saw two snappers lose their balance and just manage to correct themselves to keep themselves safe, but one of the guys dropped his kit and even over the noise of the show I heard it smack down and everyone winced (it was a canon 400mm f2.8L canon lens and a EOS 1Dmk4, nasty). Here’s my trusty ladder, the view from behind the press stage that shows Sue up high and her view over the tops of the heads of the photographers in front of her:

4. Picking your spot on the runway. This is one of the most important elements in getting a good shot, regardless of where you are on the press stage. With the runway being 25m away at the nearest spot, it was more than 50m away at the furthest spot. The models come out, walk the 25m and the light changes all the way along. At the furthest away spot, you would need to shoot at 3200iso, but at the end of the runway where the lighting was pretty good for the last 5m you could easily shoot at 400-640 iso which makes for a much crisper shot. With the big lens on and at that distance it’s hard to get a shot with no shake at low shutter speed, so the shutter was at 1/250 and I mostly shot about f4. though for some shots I needed f. 2.8 which wasn’t ideal, but with the distance from camera to subject it wasn’t much of a big deal. had it been 5m to the runway, there would have been worries (clothes in focus, faces slightly out of focus, so I prefer f4 and up in those situations).

5. Kit. OK, you need a lot of non-kit related know how to work smart, but if you don’t have the gear you can’t pull off the shots. We needed two kinds of shots, full body shots of each model and wide shots at the start of each show when the show name comes up on the screen (if you have these as reference it helps when sorting out shots into categories after). I was mostly on close ups, I was using the 7D (with battery pack I got for this show, when shooting portrait style for hours you really do need this to make life easier) with the 70-200mm f2.8L lens and Sue was on the 5D mkII with the 24-70mm f2.8L mounted on the tripod to get the wide shots, but every now and again we would swap over. With the distance to the stage the 70-200mm lens on the 7D was essential as the crop factor of the non-full frame sensor turned it into a 112-320mm lens. To be honest, I would have been much happier with a 400mm f2.8L/ 600mm f4L lens, but with each of those lenses retailing at well over a million yen ($10’000) I can’t really justify those prices as it would take too long to pay them off. I am thinking of getting a 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L for that reason, second hand they are about 150’000 yen ($1500) so a couple of jobs pay for them. I shall keep my eyes peeled.

6. Work flow. Much like the whisky live event work flow blog I did, it was a case of coming home, sorting everything into categories by show, then choosing the best images from each category (which is why we needed the wide shots at teh start of each show to make life easy when scrolling through thousands of pics), one photo of each model. The we edited the shots where needed and then exported them into folders with appropriate names in the order we photographed them and naming each file so that it was easy for the team at to sort them out. Then we just had to upload. A total of about 4000 images sorted into 20 categories, selected about 300 images for editing and within 18 hours of the last shot being taken we were done. Pretty fast work, two heads and 4 hands make light work.

Anyway, last but not least, best show you some of the pics I guess. Some by me, some by Sue who made an excellent job of her debut into the world of fashion photography:

Cindy@Fashionsbeauty - Wow, so far away, yet excellent photos! Love your photog tips posts, very useful xoxo

Paule - Great shots. I miss shooting runway!


Göran - Great to see you are back in Tokyo safe. It is also fascinating how the show must go on. This huge event so close to all the horrors going on.

It´s really great to read your posts describing how you set up a job like this and it´s great to read about your collaborations with Sue!

I´m just super enthusiastic coming to think of it. hehe.

Seriously. You guys are an inspiration!

Happy Easter!

John Maslowski - Guess this was one of your tough assignments Will. Photographing beautiful women in a fashion show is surely hard work but well worth it. As always your photographs are top notch.

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