Photography and Art

Monday, March 19, 2007

Famous Fashion Photographer for a Week

In my day job, I am the general manager of a local search site called toronto.com. One of our initiatives in 2007 is to establish our shopping channel as a viable part of our business, which has traditionally been strong in events, restaurants and movies. The fashion and beauty category is vital to attracting our target audience (young women with disposable income and an enjoyment of shopping as entertainment). For that reason, we decided to really focus on our coverage of the L'Oréal Fashion Week, an annual event that features lots of fashion shows and parties.

As the resident photo nut on staff, I managed to convince our shopping editor to get me a media pass so that I could join the pros in the photo bullpen at the end of the runway and play famous fashion photographer. 1,600 photos later, here's my report on what it was like to join the pros for a couple of very hectic evenings.

My initiation started on the Wednesday night. I was sharing photographic duties with our receptionist, a young woman saving to go to Europe for a year who is also an avid photographer. She had her initiation on Tuesday night and warned me about "George".

There were about 50 other photographers in the bullpen, an area at the end of the model runway consisting of two levels of risers and an area of floor. There was a distinct pecking order and a seemingly self-appointed King of the bullpen, a gentleman called George, a freelancer who had several photographers working for him at the shoot. George allocated the plum positions to the veteran media photographers and to his hirelings. However, the Fashion Television video camera got the top spot, presumably because of its importance as a worldwide promotion vehicle for the sport of fashion shows.

As a newby, I had a choice of two positions. I could either sprawl on the hard, concrete floor or I could stand on the edge of the floor, just inside the tape that separated the photo geeks from the beautiful people. I chose the latter because at my age, I just can't sit on a concrete floor for any length of time. This turned out to be a fortuitous choice.

Prior to my assignment, I'd read an interview with the top fashion runway photographer in New York, Dan Lecca and he claimed that the top spot was at the end of the runway, slightly off-centre, with a long-range lens.

It just so happened that there always seemed to be a spot for me right beside the Fashion Television videographer, who also seemed to favour a slightly off-centre position. This also proved to be highly fortuitous because the models always seemed to seek out the FT camera and mug for it. I managed to get a lot of shots of models posing so that they appeared to be looking right at me, but were really looking just to my left.

The trickiest part of the shoot proved to be the lighting. I don't own an F2.8 lens, so I brought along my 70-300 mm Canon DO lens because it has a very useful zoom lens and excellent IS. I figured that I could use it wide open at f4.5 and trust the IS to steady the lens at shutter speeds of 1/100 or less.

The pros were pretty evenly split between Canon and Nikon and were using the usual D200's and 1Ds's. Nearly everyone had an f2.8 70-200 mm zoom. As you can imagine, I had a bit of camera envy. A monopod was essential, especially for owners of these heavyweight cameras and lenses. With my 20D and compact zoom lens, I was able to get away with handholding, but I wouldn't recommend it.

My Canon lens proved to be a bit of a problem on the first night. IS is terrific when the models are standing still (e.g. at the end of the runway), but slow shutter speeds are not much use when the models are walking towards you. f2.8 coupled with a higher shutter speed (e.g. 1/250) would have been ideal. In addition, anyone who has used this lens will testify that the zoom ring is really, really stiff. I got tired of wrestling with it after the first night. My slightly off-centre location also made it impossible to see very far down the runway, so it was really pointless to have a long zoom. Most of my photos were taken in the 70-100 range, so I decided to bring my 24-105 lens on the Thursday night.

I noticed that quite a few of the pros had their Macbook Pros with them and were spending the half hour between shows editing their photos so that they could file their selects quickly. I admired their time management skills and wished that I'd had the foresight to pack my laptop. At 1 in the morning, I was still processing my photos from the day's shoot.

The lighting was a big challenge on several fronts. George, the pit boss, had been very firm in telling everyone that using a flash was OUT. I could understand that - no one wants their shot to be spoiled by someone else's flash ruining their exposure. However, shooting in ambient light was not for the faint of heart. The light varied from show to show, depending on the artistic whim of the designer. Some shows had all-out bright lighting, while others tried to set in intimate or edgy mood and relied on a couple of wandering spots. At first, I tried shutter priority, setting the shutter speed to 1/100 using a high ISO (800). The things you learn about your equipment when you're on a new kind of shoot! Who knew that the camera treated shutter priority as a guideline and started to reduce it when it couldn't open the aperture any further? My shutter speeds were dropping to 1/30th or even 1/15th and I could see that my photos were pretty blurry at times.

I tried aperture priority at an even higher ISO to get a better depth of field and reduce the chance of a mis-focus, but the shutter speeds varied all over the map, depending on reflections from the clothing.

Finally, I settled on putting the camera in manual mode, dialling in an f-stop of 5.6 or 6.3 to get some lens sharpness and depth of field and combining that with a shutter speed of around 1/80th of a second to stop as much of the action as possible. Depending on the amount of light in the show, I shot at either ISO 800 or 1600. This seemed to work tolerably well and I got a good percentage of in-focus shots and a decent exposure level.

The next choice was an easy one. Was I going to shoot in raw mode or JPEG? I had a 4 GB card with me and figured that approx. 500 raw shots wouldn't cut it, so I chose JPEG. I also need to do some rapid shots in succession to capture action shots of the models, so JPEG also suited that application.

As I was settling in for the first show, a woman next to me, obviously a pro, asked me what I thought the white balance setting was. Yikes! I was so used to shooting raw that I'd never had to worry about setting white balance. I could always adjust it after the fact. I had to admit that I had no idea what the white balance was and suggested that she ask the Fashion TV guy who seemed pretty nice considering his exalted position as top of the pro heap. I didn't admit to her that I wasn't sure how to even set the white balance in my camera. I let the camera set the WB automatically and hoped for the best. As it turned out, I could adjust the WB on my computer using Adobe Lightroom despite selecting JPEGs - the control seems to work just the same. It was a good thing too - my auto white balance setting proved to be too warm and the clothing had a yellowish cast.

My two evenings of pretending to be a famous fashion photographer went by in a blur. I couldn't tell you the first thing about what I was shooting, but I gradually got better at my craft. By the end of the second night, my exposure was pretty darned good, the blurry shots were fairly rare and I managed to get in a routine of capturing two action shots and one close-up of every model. The Canon 24-105 L lens proved to be much easier to operate than the stiff 70-300 DO lens and allowed me to quickly zoom in and out to get the shots I wanted. The zoom range was perfect for my angle of view. The D20 proved to be reliable and terrific from an ergonomic point of view. I was able to keep the exposure within hailing distance of ideal by fine tuning the shutter speed and aperture using the thumbwheel and finger wheel.

In my next post, I'll talk about my experience with using Adobe Lightroom to process well over a thousand photos in a very short amount of time.

Here are a couple of the photos from the shoot. Notice how they are posing for the FT camera.






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