On Assignment: Nikon D3S at New York Fashion Week
by Theano Nikitas -  6/14/2010

Following in the footsteps of the Nikon D3, the D3S maintains many of the attributes that made it a must-have camera among Nikon pro and semi-pro shooters. But Nikon has outfitted its latest D-series model with a new sensor, an astounding light sensitivity expandable to 102,400, and 720p HD video recording, to name just a few new features.

Nikon D3S

My decision to shoot New York Fashion Week with the D3S was easy. I had shot previous NYFW shows with the Nikon D3 and the D700 with great results so it made sense to step up to the newest model (with the D700 as back-up and/or backstage). Shooting with the Nikon D3S at the Big Apple Circus during a press event clinched the deal when I saw how well the camera performed, particularly in low light.

While some may complain that the D3S is "only" a 12 megapixel camera, I've found that file sizes are usually more than sufficient. Since most of my Fashion Week shots are for the Web, images are downsized but the high res files are large enough to apply the kind of cropping that's standard for online runway shots. In print, most Fashion Week photos are often ¼ page or less, so the D3S also works for magazines and newspapers. There were plenty of photographers shooting at Fashion Week with the 12 megapixel D3 and a fashion photographer from Brazil (unsuccessfully) tried to buy ten D3S' for his crew before he left New York for London Fashion Week, so there's further proof that a really good 12 megapixel sensor provides ample resolution for this type of work.

As it turned out, the demand for the camera has been so high-and the supply so minimal-that I was one of the few photographers at Fashion Week to shoot with the D3S. The camera turned out to be a great conversation starter with other photographers, which made vying for a coveted spot in the always-packed photographers' "pit" a little more friendly, although no less physically difficult. If you have personal space issues, being a fashion week photographer is not for you.

A few other factors went into shooting with the Nikon D3S at Fashion Week, including excellent image quality, dual CompactFlash card slots and a burst rate of up to 9 frames per second in full-frame mode. The dual Compactflash card slots offer a lot of flexibility and I generally used the second slot for overflow so I wouldn't run out of space. However, I could have easily designated the second slot for RAW files.

Shows generally run about 15-20 minutes depending on the number of looks in the collection, but occasionally a designer will show a huge collection. A few years ago, the final show of the week had more than 50 dresses-about twice the number expected. At the time, 4GB capacity was the highest capacity card on the market and, if I remember correctly, the camera I was shooting with did not have dual slots, so I had to change cards in the middle of the show. Not an easy thing to do when you're jammed together with other photographers and don't have much (if any) light to see what you're doing.

This past season, although faced with many of the same space and time challenges as years past, shooting was much easier thanks to the Nikon D3S.

For more details on the Nikon D3S, see our full review and our extreme ISO shots at the Big Apple Circus.

Photographing New York Fashion Week is always exciting, physically exhausting and, often, technically challenging. Even within the Tents (the main venue of NYFW), there are three separate runway spaces, the largest of which is "the Tent." The two smaller spaces are the Promenade and the Salon. Off-site shows are held in a variety of spaces-art galleries, photo studios, ballrooms and other locations. The bottom line is that although you'll know the length of the runways in the main Tents venue, lighting and many other variables enter into the equation especially when you're shooting off-site.

For the fall 2010 fashion season (shown at the February 2010 Fashion Week), my gear bag consisted of:

In the Tents
Lighting is generally better in the Tents than off-site-it's usually brighter and more even. A good lighting designer takes into account how the clothes and models will look to the audience and to the camera. Getting the main three to four shots (full-length, ¾, close up or full shot posing, and sometimes close-ups of accessories) are critical, so good lighting, models walking the center of the runway and posing at the foot of the catwalk is the ideal set-up.

But sometimes designers and producers shake things up with interesting (but difficult to shoot) lighting and have their models walk in an unusual configuration. Perhaps the toughest show I've ever photographed was Custo Barcelona. It was a great show to watch but really difficult to shoot. I got a place to the side to shoot the top shot and was standing next to one of Patrick McMullan's photographers, so I figured I was good to go. One of the crew told us that lighting was going to be mixed-5600K overall, with colored and daylight-balanced spots.

As always, I shot RAW + high quality JPEG. Knowing that I could easily set the right white balance in RAW, I set the Nikon D3S' white balance to Auto and kept my fingers crossed. Despite the crazy lighting, the D3S' Auto white balance worked perfectly and I was able to send my editor the JPEGs straight from the camera without any adjustments.

Nikon D3S Test Image

But perhaps the biggest surprise (and frustration) was that my position would make it almost impossible to get a full or even ¾ length shot of the models. Rather than walking down the center of the runway and stopping in front of the photographers, the models walked-very, very quickly-down one side of the catwalk and U-turned just as they reached the photographers' pit and walked back up the runway. Because they walked off-center and didn't stop, I had to shoot over and around the standing room audience (which kept moving, en masse, closer to the runway) and the seated audience. Fortunately, the D3S' continuous autofocus locked in at first sight of the model and adjusted focus as the models whipped into view and made their turn. I was able to get some good shots.

Nikon D3S Test Image

The Vassilios Kostetsos show was my favorite show in the Tents and the easiest to shoot. Bright lights, clean runway, interesting clothes (yes, photographers notice the clothes and can get bored) and models who knew how to walk and pose and did so at a reasonable pace. I wanted a fast shutter speed since I was shooting at full telephoto with Nikon's 70-200mm VRII lens, so I set the Nikon D3S to an ISO of 1250, with an f/stop of 3.5 and shutter speed of 1/640th. I used spot autofocus to make sure the models' eyes were in focus and left the camera on Auto White Balance. As always, I shot RAW + high resolution JPEG.

Nikon D3S Test Image

Nikon D3S Test Image

Shooting from the side can give you some advantages, like having a straight-on view of Vogue's Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington and Hamish Bowles. Since there was little light on the audience other than the spill-off from the runway lights, I easily bumped the Nikon D3S' ISO to 2500 and shot this image at 1/250th of a second at f/4.0. I wished that I had a longer lens than the NIKKOR 70-200 VRII, but there were more than enough pixels to crop the image to show Wintour taking offer her sunglasses so she could glare at me in the next shot. Right after I clicked off three shots, the models at the Vera Wang show did their final walk and Wintour quickly disappeared as the second the show ended.

Nikon D3S Test Image

Nikon D3S Test Image

Off-site and Presentations
Taking the D3S to off-site shows definitely presents more challenges. Although you might luck out with a nicely lit runway, you'll also encounter dark spaces, minimal lighting and odd-sized spaces with distracting backgrounds.

Past Project Runway winner Leanne Marshall put on a really nice show but, as is common, the lighting at the far end of the runway wasn't quite as strong as at the foot of the catwalk. I bumped the Nikon D3S' ISO to 6400 without a second thought, used center-weighted metering and set the f/stop to 5.0 and shutter speed to 1/800th of a second. Even though I use a monopod, I'll often shoot at a faster-than-needed shutter speed when I'm particularly tired or have had too much caffeine just to add a little safety factor. Although I later switched white balance to tungsten, some of the images were shot on Auto white balance but that left some of the images a little too warm to accurately record the delicate eggshell colors of some of Marshall's designs.

Nikon D3S Test Image

Nikon D3S Test Image

One of the more challenging off-site shoots took place in an underground club, with a single spot light and some less intrusive (and less useful) side lights. If and when the model stopped to pose in the spot, we had good lighting but if she didn't find the light, we were stuck with some harsh shadows on the close-up shots. Most of these were shot at ISO 6400, spot metering, tungsten white balance with an average shutter speed of 1/320th of a second at f/4.5.

Nikon D3S Test Image

Presentations are sometimes easier to shoot since the models stand in place for an hour or two, but the occasional presentation-like the one shot below-have really poor lighting (sometimes the models are backlit, too) and you're competing with the guests for space and a glimpse of the models. With this presentation there was no wiggle room-I was about a foot or two (at best) away from the models and they were often backlit by the room's windows. I quickly put Nikon's 24-70mm lens on the D3S and shot mostly at the widest focal length in order to get the entire outfit in the shot, put on the SB-900 (which I alternated using and not using, depending on the model's position in front of the windows) and hoped for the best. Most images were shot at f/4.0, 1/250th of a second at ISO 500.

Nikon D3S Test Image

While you don't always need the most expensive camera to make great pictures, having the right tool for the job helps guarantee a successful shoot. For me, the Nikon D3S is currently the best camera for shooting runway shows. High ISOs are clean, the camera is fast, accurate and flexible. Add Nikon's 70-200 VRII f/2.8 lens and you have an incredible combination. Since the D3S is full-frame, some runway shows deserved a longer lens but the camera's detail and resolution is so good-even though the sensor is 12 megapixels-that it's easy to crop to size.

If a camera can handle Fashion Week and all the challenges that come with shooting the shows, then you can be assured that the Nikon D3S can easily become any photographer's camera of choice for whatever assignment comes his or her way.