Behind the Scenes - Media Madness

Here I will talk about the process of what you might expect when shooting a big fashion show like Tokyo Girls Collection here in Japan. I will not be explaining how to apply for the media passes, but the work flow from once you get into the media center till you get back home.

Twice every year in February/March (Spring & Summer) and September/October (Autumn & Winter) comes Japan’s biggest fashion show, Tokyo Girls Collection (TGC) held at various venues in around Japan (primarily around Tokyo) and I am usually there for this event and all the photos from the runways and live shows that day can be seen on my website Tokyo Girls Collection Shows.

To get into most big fashion shows around the world, you used to have to be a buyer, wealthy, or well connected. TGC changed that and is targeted at(and attended by) the average young Japanese woman who wants to look her best and keep up with the latest trends on the street. Anyway, I’m here to share a bit about the background to getting access to TGC and explain about behind the scenes at the event, so I thought I’d talk about some essential runway photography tips for shooting shows like this.

Tokyo Girls Collection really is massive compared to most runway shows. This day-long, twice-a-year fashion event is more than just a mega-fashion show. TGC mashes up shopping, music, and celebrity into a one-of-a-kind only-in-Japan extravaganza. Unlike most fashion shows, the emphasis is on clothes that people will actually wear and on show are the brands are that are easily accessible to everybody. However, the twist here is that about 30,000 screaming Japanese fashion fans (the vast majority of them female) were packed into a sports stadium/arena, it was kind of scary and most of the models are actually Japanese celebrities. As well as fashion, there was live music, some commercial plugs and a lot of fun for everyone there. At most fashion shows 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. I was right at the back of the pack, so I was probably about 25-30m from the stage. In a regular runway show you can shoot anyone, but 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 show lasts 45-90 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:

The press is very tightly controlled, you have to apply for accreditation about a month in advance (an English application is available, but most correspondence is in Japanese), you have to say who you will be working for, provide links to any online sites your client has to prove you do actually work for them, then if you get accepted they send you a 4 page email/fax (who the hell still uses fax these days?) telling you to be there on the day 5 hours before the show with a pile of documents to prove you are who you say you are and attend some press briefings about whose photos you can use and who you can’t. When I got to the press room it was pretty packed and as time went on the numbers just got bigger and bigger… literally hundreds of cameramen, their assistants, TV crews and all that jazz.

1. The “spot”. First off, you have to get your spot on the massive press stage. I was given a number 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 spot for me was at the back, the bottom two are too low. So, I managed to get into the back tier, but squeezed in between two other photographers. Not ideal at all, but sometimes you have to get on with the hand you are dealt. As usual, the middle section of the stage (same width as the center of the runway and the best spot to shoot from) was cordoned off for TGC “Official Media.” Some people tried to get in, but were told they would be ejected if they entered again. No-go there for anyone which made the press stage very cramped, 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 and need one good photo, once they have it they go) and I managed to move to a much better position nearer the cordoned off area.

2. Memory. After you have your “spot” sorted you then have to sort out who you can and can’t shoot. Past shows/events 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 I worked smart, I 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 designer’s stage, we could shoot models appearing third, fifth and twelfth, so I would remember “Third stage, 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 get sued, it tends to limit the chance of being allowed to attend next time around.

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 usually the tallest there anyway and I get to shoot over pretty much 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 16×25cm, after 20 minutes (less even) it’s a strain on your calf muscles, you are in a huddle where people are moving, you have to keep your balance while holding a few pounds/kilos of camera stuff 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 falling.

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 pretty high ISO, but at the end of the runway where the lighting was pretty good for the last 5m you could easily shoot at 400-640ISO 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. Set-up. OK, you need a lot of non-camera related know how to work smart, but if you don’t have the gear you can’t pull off the shots. I was looking for 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 a D200(with battery grip), when shooting portrait style for hours you really do need this to make life easier, and with the 80-200mm f2.8 lens. With the distance to the stage the 80-200mm lens on the D200 was essential as the crop factor of the non-full frame sensor turned it into a 105-300mm 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 my budget, I can’t really justify those prices as it would take too long to pay them off. I am thinking of getting something second hand… I will keep my eyes peeled.

6. Work flow. Much like past events work flow, it was a case of coming home, saving the files to my PC, then uploading to my website where I can easily check the photos and choosing the best images from each category (which is why I needed the wide shots at the start of each show to make life easy when scrolling through thousands of pics), one photo of each model. The I edited the shots where needed and then exported them into folders with appropriate names in the order I photographed them and naming each file so that it was easy for me to find them later. In the end, I had 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 for one person.

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