5 Things I Learned as a Fashion Week Photographer

I had studied photography in school and practiced in-depth in my travels, but runway photography was a different game altogether.
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Mariana Leung
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I had studied photography in school and practiced in-depth in my travels, but runway photography was a different game altogether.

This month, I am working my eighth season embedded in the photographers' pit as part of the International Press Corps. I started my career in fashion over two decades ago on the other side of the runway (literally) when I dressed models at Isaac Mizrahi’s show as a Parsons School of Design student. In the years since, I have worked almost every job there is on the designer’s side leading up to Fashion Week. This included fit technician to embroidery designer to public relations on behalf of the brand.

Working behind the scenes and then attending as a representative of my company, I had presumed I knew everything there was to know about Fashion Week when I started my blog, Ms. Fabulous. I grew tired of using the same photos that every other media outlet used and was less fond of the embarrassing blurry ones taken from the sidelines. I decided to leave the comfort and gift bags of my seat at Fashion Week to enter the trenches of the photographer’s pit.

I was instantly humbled. I had studied photography in school and practiced in-depth in my travels, but runway photography was a different game altogether. The past 20 years prepared me for the egos and mean girls of fashion, but this more rugged branch of the industry was a new world indeed.

Here's what I learned from the other end of the runway.

1. Those big guys know more about fashion than you do. 

Your first impression might be that the riser full of burly men in work clothes does not care about fashion. How wrong you are! I have seen some of the faces in the photographers' pit from as far back as my school days, and they are still there. They have seen every look, every show of designers come and gone. They have been front-row for all the history and gossip. Many have long friendships with all of the key players in the industry. Just because they might not be wearing couture doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the artistry of it.

The best moments as someone with a design background is hearing photographers around me verbalize their appreciation of a great collection. As men, they are rarely the direct customers. They are there to do a job first, not sit there as a fan. When I hear an exclamation of “Wow, beautiful gown,” it is the highest compliment to the designer I can think of.

One of my shots from Betsey Johnson spring 2015.

One of my shots from Betsey Johnson spring 2015.

2. The animals in the photographers' pit aren't actually animals.

If you have a lot of lenses, you are probably transporting them in a pelican. Need more height? Make sure you have a turtle on hand to sit or stand on. Checking for sound when shooting video? Make sure your dead cat is in place. 

The first giveaway for amateurs on the riser is not knowing the language. A pelican is a professional hard case. A turtle is a collapsible stool. A dead cat is that fluffy thing on the end of the long-armed microphone.

That's me in the headband.

That's me in the headband.

3. If you can make a call from your camera, you are not a photographer. 

rude blogger blocking runway.jpg

The photographers' pit suffers no fools, and everyone works hard. Some shooters from the major agencies don’t think you belong there if you don’t have the same resumé. Some are democratic enough to think every photographer deserves a shot, but only if you are a serious shooter.

I worked my ass off the first few seasons to hone my skills and get accredited. I now shoot assignments for other magazines to pay my bills. Clueless bloggers sneaking illegally into the pit so they can selfie from the front row prevent me and other professionals from doing our job. Take a hint from street style and keep that behavior on the street!

4. You can be professional without being a dick.

The catty politics that populate other facets of the industry don’t fly here. Work hard and be considerate. Years of working with fashion companies in a competitive culture made this sound almost too simple.

The Fashion Week photographers work in very close quarters. The unspoken (yet occasionally yelled) rule is that if a fist can fit between you and the next guy, you are wasting space. Good etiquette dictates that you make sure you don’t move and block other photographers once the show starts. If you are not using some of your equipment during a show, and someone else needs it, you lend it to them. If you captured a shot you are proud of, your riser-mates will praise your work sincerely.

Unfortunately, this civilized attitude isn’t always adopted by the people in the seats. “Uncross your legs!” is yelled out before every show as front-row celebrities can’t grasp that feet hanging over the catwalk can block the camera lens three inches behind it (I have seen Russell Simmons get yelled at for this). I remember a photographer charging through guests to tell a seat-stealing drag queen to turn off her neon-light hairpiece. 

ipad in the pit.JPG

The most obnoxious fans are the ones who stick their iPad directly into the runway. The quality of an iPad camera is too simplistic to capture usable footage; so again, they are just keeping professionals from doing their job. If you are nice, you could probably negotiate with a pro photographer to provide you with good images to use instead.

5. 99 percent of runway shows are experienced in photos.

As a fashion-design student, my friends and I fantasized about the dramatic presentations we would stage when we had our own label. My favorite runway shows as a guest were the theatrical ones with moody lighting. As a photographer, high-concept shows make me want to stab myself with a monopod.

Strobes, multiple model entrances, and moving spotlights are hell for photographers trying to capture a good image. The audience of hundreds, even at the biggest shows, might be entertained for 15 minutes. However, the millions of customers, fans, international influencers, and, well, fashion history will only have the photos taken from the show as the record of that collection. Messing with the photographer’s ability to take those photos? Not smart.

One of my shots from Desigual spring 2015.

One of my shots from Desigual spring 2015.

After 20 years, the passionate people behind, in front, and on the runway have become my family. I look forward to charging into my 21st year in the tents on top of my turtle with the best of them.