Fashionable SLR; Photographing Runway Models With An Olympus E-1

Fashion photography is about control. It wouldn't be unusual for 12 people, in addition to the photographer, to be involved in a studio fashion shoot just to capture a single cover shot. On the runway it's different. You only have one opportunity to catch a photograph of a model walking past you as fast as her high heels allow. (Male models, for some reason move slower; they prefer to stroll.) Wedding photographers might think of it as a continuous procession of 100 different brides walking down the aisles with their daddies and you've only got that one chance to capture a perfect shot of each one. Not for the faint of heart, eh?

Show the dress. With the full, flowing skirt design like this one, be sure to photograph the model from head to toe. She was captured just after walking onto the runway (and may have not been up to full speed yet) and I used TIFF format to maximize image quality. You can also capture some crowd ambience with looser image cropping, such as this dress in the spring collection of designer Cat Swanson made in Fashion Week's Bryant Park venue. Image file captured with Olympus E-1, 50-200mm ƒ/4 Zuiko lens at 112mm with f/10 and 1/250 sec at ISO 400.

How do you know it's the end of the show? All the models parade in a single line giving you one last shot of each of them but sometimes, as in this instance, they're walking reallly close together. Crank up the zoom lens to its longest focal length; make the compression work for you and blast away in Continuous shooting mode. The image make with the Olympus E-1, 50-200mm f/4 Zuiko lens at f/5 with 1/250 sec and ISO 400.
Photos © 2003 Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

When Olympus asked me to photograph New York City's Fashion Week using their new E-1 interchangeable lens digital SLR, how could I say no? If you've been hiding in a cave, you may not know that the E-1 system, and its a system including lenses and accessories, has been designed to be all digital. No "Hybrid" system, as Olympus is fond of calling the competition, that uses digital bodies with lenses designed for film photography. Does it make a difference? (Let's get this out of the way first.) I sure couldn't tell, but there's a lot more to the E-1 than its design philosophy.

On The Runway
Here's the scenario. The rooms are dark until showtime, at which time the lights pop on and models start walking fast, and you must be ready to make a photo right now! When I got to the Cat Swanson show, there were only a few photographers hanging around the photographer's riser (the designated place to make runway images) for this new Austin-based designer's creations. I introduced myself to Italian fashion photographer Alex Dellagatta ( and asked, "What do I do now?" He told me not to use flash and that everybody usually shoots with their 300mm f/2.8 lens wide-open at ISO 200 to minimize depth of field, maximize shutter speed, and get the best possible image quality.

Crop in camera. With the E-1's small chip size it's important to maximize image quality by minimizing image cropping. You can also capture some of the crowd's ambience with looser image cropping and a slight image tilt for couture, like this dress in the spring collection of designer Cat Swanson made at Fashion Week. TIFF image file captured with Olympus E-1, 50-200mm ƒ/4 Zuiko lens at 112mm with f/10 and 1/250 sec at ISO 400.

The minimum shutter setting for photographing these fast moving models, he suggested, was 1/250 sec. So I set the Olympus E-1 in Shutter Priority Mode at 1/250 sec, but had to kick the ISO setting up to 400 to shoot near wide open with the 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 Zuiko digital zoom. The E-1 has a relatively narrow choice of manual set ISO speeds, including 100, 200, 400, and an 800 that's expandable to 1600/3200 via menus on the 1.8" LCD screen.

Tungsten lights illuminate the runways, because Fashion Week is really for the benefit of TV, and still photographers are just barely tolerated. One of the coolest features of the E-1 is its 12 preset color temperatures, so a shooter who worked with the E-1 the day before told me a white balance setting of 3600º Kelvin should give me good skin tones.

What would I have done without this help? Well, the lighting was obviously tungsten and shutter priority is always a good choice for fast moving subjects whether they're fashion models or race cars. Shooting with the 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 lens, which at 2.4 lbs is hardly a handful, but after the end of a show--they are usually just 20 minutes or so long--my arms are tired. The smart photographers brought a monopod, but I just rotated the 50-200's tripod mount so it was atop the lens, making it easier to handhold, and just tucked in my elbows.

Don't just shoot the front of the models. Custo Barcelona equipped his models with cute kitty-kat purses and all of the models' hair--even the men--was threaded with colored thread you could only see from the back, which was obviously Custo's intention. Image made with Olympus E-1, 50-200mm ƒ/4 Zuiko lens at f/8 with 1/160 sec in Shutter Priority mode and ISO 400.

Don't just shoot full-length images at fashion shows. With some experience, you can shoot a full-length, mid-length shot and headshot of the same model in rapid sequence as she's walking past you. There is a different market for each of these shots, so hold the camera steady, work the zoom lens and shoot in Continuous mode. Image made with Olympus E-1,
50-200mm ƒ/4 Zuiko lens at f/10 with 1/250 sec in Shutter Priority mode and ISO 400.

It's Show Time
The Olympus E-1 has what might be for some an almost bewildering array of menu options, but they let you set up the camera to work the way you need it to under any given situation. In this situation, I wanted to make sure that when I pushed the shutter it captured an image, whether it was in focus or properly exposed or not. (In case you're counting, Olympus claims a shutter lag time of 65 milliseconds, which is the same as the E-20 and not quite up there with professional film SLRs, as they initially promised.) Not every photograph I made was in focus or well-exposed, but during the day I shot 4GB of images and the number of "outs" was within what I would expect from any pro camera under these conditions.

That doesn't mean that occasionally in some of the rooms (some are white, some are black, and one designer started her show with a parade of models in all-white couture) contrast levels can go in all kinds of directions and occasionally the autofocus system would just go ka-blooey and make a fuzzy image. Picking a nearby contrasty subject brought it back into the world of the living, but often that meant I lost the ability to make a few frames of a particular model. It should be noted, however, that people shooting film lost many times that many when changing rolls during a show.

Some of the Fashion Week venues are painted black, challenging the E-1's autofocus system to make sharp images, but the camera easily locked onto this backlit model delivering remarkably sharp files from the 50-200mm Zuiko digital zoom lens. This image made with Olympus E-1, 50-200mm f/4 Zuiko lens set at 117mm at f/4.5 with 1/250 sec and ISO 400.

Even photographing on a runway, it's possible to get good head shots. The apparent vignetting was caused by a wire service shooter whose head got in the way, but I liked the effect. Sometimes it's better to be just lucky. This image made with Olympus E-1 camera, 50-200mm, f/4 Zuiko lens set at 200mm at f/5.0 with 1/250 sec and ISO 400.

Here's what happened next; the people are seated, the lights go on, and the music starts pounding as the models start strutting down the runway. I set the Olympus E-1 in Continuous firing and Continuous focus modes and followed the models, firing short bursts of two to three frames, much like a slower version of panning race cars. After I made the first one or two exposures, I quickly "chimped" the LCD screen, saw that the color balance looked good and the exposure was in the ball park and got back to clicking the shutter releases.

Occasionally, I would use the 50-200mm lens' silky zoom control to reframe images of a single model in an attempt to get shots ranging from full-length to headshots during a single pass down the runway. With Olympus' Four-Thirds System format, this lens provides the digital equivalent of 100-400mm, which is one of my favorite focal length ranges for photographing racing cars too.

Here I am at the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis using a close to production Olympus E-1 with 300 f/2.8 Zuiko digital lens. Since I can't use a monopod or tripod to photograph 200mph F-1 cars, I later flipped the tripod mount over so I could hold this heavy beast a little easier.

Power Options
I used the camera without the accessory battery pack and standard battery for the first two designer's shows. When I had the opportunity to photograph two more shows after lunch, I switched from TIFF to SHQ (Olympus' highest Quality JPEG) to squeeze more images from the speedy but now getting crowded 4GB Lexar ( card. I borrowed a power battery holder that not only provides a larger, high-capacity battery but also has a built-in vertical grip and second shutter release, making it easier to hold the camera steady. For serious shooters, the power battery holder is a must-have option. Olympus claims 300-400 shots for the standard battery, but at the camera's default setting I've gotten more than 700 image files from a single charge. Even without the grip, the E-1 never let me down, power-wise.

Checking The Images Out
Downloading images, especially from the 4GB Lexar card, was expedited by the camera's FireWire connectivity and downloading files to my Apple iBook took much less time than using a USB card reader. USB1.1 and 2.0 connectivity are also built-in. The images I downloaded were extremely clean, helped by the built-in supersonic wave filter that protects the imager from dust created by the interaction of the shutter with the elements. The E-1 uses ultrasonic vibrations to cause the dust to fall off, and I had to spot only one image from 4GB of Fashion Week photographs, and it was a single tiny spot. (Under the more challenging, and wet conditions at the US Grand Prix, none of the 10GB of images I made needed spotting with Photoshop.)

Only For The Pros?
Make no mistake about it--Olympus builds wonderful cameras. All of their non-inter changeable lens digital SLRs I've tested exhibited admirable traits, including the ability to make great looking images along with rugged, weatherproof construction. At the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis, it rained on two days, including practice and race day, giving me and the E-1 a good soaking, but the camera never once gave up even when we were both dripping wet. The camera's 4:3 aspect ratio seems designed for photographers who want to get an 8x10 from the E-1's files, but sharp-eyed readers will notice the Fashion Week images are not 4:3, and I didn't crop them. All of the fashion images were made with a preproduction camera, but the production models uses the 4:3 ratio and the image shape, like the photograph of the Jaguar Racing F-1 car, leaves me a bit cold. And yes, I know it can be cropped, but I hate to waste pixels.

Although preproduction Olympus E-1 SLRs have all been ergonomically correct they have been sluggish in performance. Three different preproduction cameras I tested occasionally lost the ability to focus or make an image when I wanted, especially for fast moving subjects, but this does not seem to be the case with the production model I'm currently using. An Alice In Wonderland Tea Party of menus lets you set the camera to customize your slightest photographic whim, and you should turn off the put to sleep interval because the E-1, like me after a night's slumber, is a bear to wake up.

In this Moore's Law driven segment of the photography market, the Olympus E-1's street price is expected to be less than $1800, so it ultimately boils down to a personal choice and your budget. There is much I like about the E-1 and young fashion photographers unencumbered by inventories of other company's expensive lenses (perhaps from their film SLR days) should take a hard look at the E-1 and make up their own minds.