With LFW just a few days away, I thought I'd gently pull apart the preconceptions of those who think being a photographer covering the shows is in any way glamorous... it's not. Other than the celebrities wearing the end product, there's actually nothing very glamorous about the world of fashion at all; it just looks that way to the outsider.
For photographers it's early mornings and late nights; a mix of high-octane, adrenalin-filled highs one minute followed by depressingly boring lows the next, with taxi and tube rides in between.
If a show starts at 9.00am, you need to be at the venue a good hour beforehand in order to attempt to get a half-decent place in the pit (and with 30 to 50 others having the same idea, your chances still aren't that good... essentially it'll be down to who you know). For the main shows there is a strict hierarchy; the best places are reserved for the house photographer (the one shooting for the designer) if there is one, the major agencies (Getty, Reuters, PA, Rex Features etc) and the major fashion publications (Vogue, Elle, etc ). After that, it's generally a fight amongst the rest to get the best places that are left, and the earlier you get there, the better your chance. Of course, over the last 10 or so years, there has also seen an increase in the number of people shooting video from the pit. At LFW, the British Fashion Council (who organise the event) have their own team of videographers who capture the shows for the big screens that are placed around some of the venues, as well as from news media such as the BBC, Sky and others. The pit is a congested area.
With so little room, the last thing you want to do is bring a whole load of kit with you. Unless you have a tough plastic case, such as a Peli, on which you intend to stand (and at some shows, even that's not allowed), you don't bring your bag(s) into the pit area. Your camera with a long zoom is all you need, and the further back you think you're likely to be in the pit, the longer your lens. Most use a 70-200mm f2.8 with or without a teleconverter, but depending on the make of your camera and your budget I've seen others use a 100-400mm f4.5-f5.6, a 120-300mm f2.8, a 200-400mm f4 or 300mm f2.8 and 400mm f2.8 primes. If you're using one of the bigger, heavier lenses you'll want to use a monopod, but don't even think of bringing a tripod; there just won't be room for it (and even if there were, you probably wouldn't be allowed to use it for H&S reasons anyway)
At the major shows (in past years I'm talking Burberry, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Red or Dead, etc.) it's usually all over before you've realised it's begun! Ages stood squeezed up against other photographers in the pit, trying to get shots of any celebs on the front row, then the lights change, an announcement is made, the music comes on and the models head toward you at what seems like 100 miles per hour. A few short minutes later and it's all over. Hope you got the shots you needed!
Once the show is over, you glance at your watch... do I do a quick edit now and file photos to my agency, or get a taxi/tube to the next show and do the edits there? If you do the latter, your picture editor will be annoyed because they need the photos NOW to sell to the world's media. If you do the former, your picture editor will be annoyed because your shooting position at the second show was poor because you didn't get there early enough. Whatever you do, it's the wrong decision.
This is the pattern of your day, every day, for five days. Rushing to a venue early enough to get a half-decent spot in an over-packed pit. Not daring to move away lest you lose your spot. Back aching from standing around so much, carrying a heavy camera with an even heavier lens. Trying to nail 3 or 4 good shots of each design (full length, ¾ length, close up at the turn or a detail shot, and the back of the garment as the model walks away... some designers put as much, if not more, detail in the back as the front!). Then the taxi/edit conundrum followed by more of the same. With shows starting at 9.00am and running through the day in various venues, sometimes with only 15 minutes between the end of one and the start of another 2 miles away (and in congested London, that might as well be 50 miles away!) with the last events starting at 9.00pm 'until late', you can see just how tiring a day it can be; but if you think we photographers have a hard time, spare a thought for the poor models who are often treated worse than cattle, paid a pittance, and work even longer hours.
A Few Tips
Streamline the gear you're taking. Two bodies, one with a medium (24-70mm) zoom and one with a long zoom (70-200mm or longer), plenty of spare memory cards and (depending on how often you check your back screen, or forget to switch your camera 'off' when not shooting) a spare battery or two. Main shows are usually well lit, so anywhere between 1/250th to 1/500th of a second at around f4 is fine. Set your ISO to 'auto' as you'll often find the lighting from one end of the catwalk to the other can change by a few stops, and you don't have time (or room) in the pit to constantly change settings. Set your white balance around the 3000K mark, but I've been to shows where mixed lighting has been used so it's not a cop-out to set your WB to 'auto'. My current Nikon D810 is great at doing that job for me in almost all situations. I personally have my autofocus set on 'continuous AF' (best option if using back button AF) and 'group' (this groups 4 of the 51 points I see in the viewfinder which I can then scroll around). I use centre-weighted metering as a white dress against a dark background (or vice versa) will fool a wider or multi-area metering mode. Maybe it's because I grew up using film (you had at most 36, maybe 37 exposures on a roll, none of which you could afford to 'waste'), but I shoot a short burst of around 3 or 4 frames. However, I can tell from the shutter noises around me that some prefer the machine-gun style of shooting. If your camera has two memory slots, shoot RAW in one and JPEG to the other. However, the determining factor will be the end user of your images. If you're shooting for the media, you need fast turn-around times, so the highest resolution JPEGs are a no-brainer. If your client is a designer, they probably want the best quality possible, in which case the greater ability to fine tune RAW images in post-processing makes that the obvious choice. Do not use flash. EVER. Don't even think of attaching a flash to your camera when in the pit; it'll get in the way of those shooting behind you and you shouldn't be using a flash in the first place. If you must bring a flash for other shots, just keep it in your bag when in the pit. If you have a space marked out for you in the pit, don't think it's acceptable, if you go off to shoot BTS, to turn up seconds before the show is about to start and expect people to let you through! As well as you missing shots, your making others miss shots through no fault of their own. If the show is due to start at 7.00pm, get there a good 5 minutes beforehand. Above all, act in a professional and courteous manner.