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Shooting a Fashion Show at the House of Blues

IIDA Fashion Show Photo

The winning outfit. Looks strange? Read the explanation below. Click to enlarge

I love shooting fashion shows. They combine several of my favorite aspects of event photography into one package: interesting lighting, beautiful people, music, and night-life.

So when my photo-partner Julie told me we had been invited to jointly shoot a big fashion show at the House of Blues in San Diego, I naturally jumped at the chance.

Hair and Makeup at IIDA Fashion Show

One of my favorite parts of fashion shows is shooting the models getting their hair and makeup done before the show. Click to enlarge

If the clothes in these photos strike you as bizarre (or even more bizarre than the usual high fashion stuff), that’s because this is not your typical fashion show.

It’s an annual charity event called the IIDA San Diego Haute Couture Fashion Show, and the clothes are created by architects and interior designers from commercial interior fabrics and building materials.

IIDA Fashion Show Photo 2

A KISS-inspired design. Click to enlarge

The 15 competing design teams are judged on how well they turn these building materials into high fashion. Given that assignment, I’m less surprised by how weird some of the outfits are, and more surprised by how many of them look like something you might see on a Paris or Milan runway.

Fashion Show Photo 3

This could almost be real haute couture.

This was the first time I’ve had a chance to shoot a night-life event with the new Canon 5D3, and let me tell you, the low-light ability of that sensor is in-freaking-credible.  I shot all night at ISO 1600 and my photos had much less grain than Julie’s did at ISO 400 on her Canon 40D.

Even a few shots I took at ISO 3200 were fine.  That’s a 3-stop advantage over the older sensors, three doublings of light that can be translated directly into faster shutter speed (the difference, say, between a blurry 1/10 second exposure and a crisp 1/80 second).

Fashion Show 100 percent crop

100% crop of the third photo above to show detail. Shot from approximately 60 feet away in ambient light with Canon 5D3. 65mm, f/4, 1/100 sec, ISO 1600. Not much noise!

Canon, Nikon, and the other major camera makers are coming out with some incredible low-noise, high ISO sensors, and our ability to shoot events in dark environments just took a huge leap forward.  If you’re an event shooter, my advice is to beg, borrow, or steal (well, OK, don’t steal) if necessary to get your hands one of the new generation of low-noise full-frame cameras.

This event came at a great time, because I’m hard at work on my upcoming Event Photography Course, and I realized this show would make great material for it. So Julie and I captured the entire process on video, from the initial planning, to gear selection, to shooting the show, to the post-mortem photo review in Lightroom, where we discuss what went right and what went wrong.

You’ll be able to see it all when I finally get that Event course completed. (Yes, yes, I know some of you have been waiting a loooong time for that course, but I can only say in my defense that I prefer to do these things right, rather than fast.)

IIDA Fashion Show Attendees

As with all event photography, part of the fun is documenting the people in attendance.

If you’d like to see a full set of photos from the event, you can see my photos in my flash gallery here (or alternate non-flash gallery here for iPad users). You can see Julie’s photos here (or her alternate non-flash gallery here).  By the way, I exported those galleries using the built-in templates in Lightroom, as I describe in my Lightroom course.

One of the great things about shooting an event with Julie, from both a client-pleasing standpoint and an educational standpoint, is that we work in entirely different ways. She likes flash brackets, while I like on-camera diffusers. She shoots all-manual-all-the-time, while I generally prefer Aperture priority. She shoots RAW, while I shoot JPG (for events like this). She uses flash in many cases where I opt for ambient light. The list goes on and on. It’s like we’re from alternate photography universes.

Two Photographers, Two Styles

Two photographers, two styles of shooting

And of course there are no “right” answers to these questions. Photography is a complex art. In some cases her technique works better, in some cases mine does. In some cases hers fails horribly, and in some cases mine does. But when we both shoot together, we’ve really got it covered.

This is also why I chose her to work with me in the Event Photography Course. You’ll see two perspectives from two long-time event photographers who work in radically different ways. That gives more options for you to choose from. Twice as many mistakes for you to learn from! And more opportunities to see many different ways to get the shots you want. Stay tuned, it’s coming…

We really enjoyed this shoot, and we’re grateful to the IIDA for letting us capture it. The House of Blues is a great venue with a beautiful stage, and some really weird and colorful backstage areas and dressing rooms where you can almost feel the seedy rock-n-roll history of the place. It was a photographer’s dream to shoot in there (well, except for the multi-colored murals on the ceilings, which are hell for bounced flash).

At the end of the day, what really matters is that the client was thrilled with our photos. So we’re happy.

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  1. James says:

    Hi Phil,

    As a retired freelance photographer, I too enjoyed fashion shows. Days of film Phil 🙂 Working until the early hours processing and printing.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Dave says:

    Hi Phil, nice shots. What lens were you using? Your comments about the latest low noise cameras is interesting. I recently bought a Canon 6D which is really good.

  3. Roman Laureano says:

    Hey Phil, Thanks for the cool shots of this very interesting fashion show. I worked in bldg maintenance for 10 years and I think it’s great to see what imagination can do with the things we take for granted. I also liked the different way you and Julie shoot. I use both a flash bracket and a Flashpoint beauty dish for closeups, with an opaque coffee can lid as a small softbox for full length/head and shoulders( I remove the beauty dish reflector and screw in the opaque lid in it’s place).

    Thanks again for all the great info that you share with us.


  4. John kyngdon says:

    I have been using the 5 D mkll for some years particularly for wildlife photography and have benefitted from cranking up the ISO in order to get the fast shutter speeds needed particularly in low light.
    Is the Mk lll a step up again?
    Check out some of my Antarctic penguin shots in the “at sea” and penguin galleries

  5. Phil Steele says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    @Dave, I was using the Canon 24-105 f/4 L IS.
    @Roman, thanks for the tip on the beauty dish.
    @John, yes, the 5D3 took another big step up in High-ISO sensitivity.

  6. Les Lloyd says:

    Thanks enjoyed and enlightend But tell the truth Julie not only only does things a bit differently she looks good as well. Thanks regards Les

  7. Vic Lewchenko says:

    I’m one of those who has been waiting soooooooo long for that event photography course :). Glad to hear it’s coming soon.

    I recently bought a 6D and have been truly amazed with it’s low light capabilities.

    Thanks for all you do to promote photography education!

  8. Kathy Davis says:

    Hey Phil,
    Have three of your courses and have enjoyed them! Quick question: I’m considering getting a Canon 50mm 1.4. Would this lens work fine for this kind of event photography and concert photos?


  9. Vera Kerr says:

    stunning photos Phil and Julie, very well done, it looked like a real fun event. Thanks for sharing

  10. Phil Steele says:

    @Kathy, the 50mm 1.4 would be great for shooting event in low light, but of course you’d have to be close to the action, near the stage, no good if you’re stuck at the back of the room as in some venues.

  11. Allan Savage says:

    Hey Phil, nice article. Like you, I’m in love with my 5D3 for it’s low-noise capability. I’ve done a couple of indoor shoots where I just left it on ISO3200 or even 5000, and the noise is still acceptable at the output size required.

    One of your comments puzzles me, though. Why shoot JPEG only, especially given that you have a camera that’s perfectly capable of shooting both RAW/JPEG simultaneously? Can you help me understand why you’d choose that? (Burst mode?)

    Cheers, BigAl

  12. Cy Gilbert says:

    Hi Phil,

    What a great blog subject! May I ask you which diffuser you used for this event?

    Thanks as always for inspiring me~

  13. Jim Wiggins says:

    Hi Phil,
    I have start with your work is incredible, I really like the advise and tips have all the ebooks done by you and the ones you have recommended, has taught me a grat deal. I’m actually looking at upgrading my camera and was looking at the canon 5D3 in your next news letter can you eplain some more of the key features of the camera that impressed you.
    Thanks again

  14. Mohamad says:

    Hey Phil, Huge thanks for all the great info that you share with us. I enjoyed your and Julie’s photos. I had a photography experience from fashion show last month, I choose a location beside the stage to shoot ,that wasn’t very well. when I saw especially your photos, I understood it.


  15. Kevin Brown says:

    I do a lot of sports events,some in low light. I currently use a Canon 7D with a70-200 IS ii lens. I am considering buying either a 6D or a 5D Miii. Could you give me your advice? Thanks

  16. Rahat says:

    I saw ur work very creative and nice, I am free lance photographer based in UK, how u get soft light if u can’t bounce from the roof? on Fashion show.

  17. sam ceviker says:

    Yes i agree with u i just upgrade my camera to Nikon D800 i shoot recently carate Sydney i was shooting ISO 6500 because couldnt use flash they were excellent hardly any grain at all.Rgds

  18. Jason Adell says:

    Phil great shots, really enjoyed them. I have been to the House of Blues several times and always wanted to shoot there

  19. Shambhavi says:

    Phill, feel so great so happy to your work!!

  20. Andy says:

    Phil, shooting a number of events over the next few days with the 5D iii and good to read blog. Why jpeg only? Cheers

  21. Phil says:

    Phil, I have a 5DMk11 and use a 300mm f4 lens for wildlife. Am considering buying a 7D for the crop factor (keeping the 5DMk11 as well) to give me an effective 420mm lens. Is the Mk111 a better option because of its low light capability? Really enjoy your articles.

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