Fashion month. Those four back-to-back weeks of runway shows and trans-Atlantic jet-setting that happen twice a year might sound glamorous, but what's it like for actual fashion photographers? Many people working in the industry are quick to tell you that fashion week is brutal, after all. Though much is made of the celebrities and fashion bloggers who attend the events, on the proverbial front lines are the fashion photographers, huddled outside the venues no matter what the weather, waiting to capture and catalog every outfit.
Among them is Megan Merkley, a fashion photographer who's been on the full tour of the four fashion cities for a couple of seasons now, and she will tell you that the job is tough. "That picture [you see posted on Instagram or printed in a magazine], someone’s probably broken down trying to get that photo," Merkley jokes with me in an interview for Bustle.
The schedule for fashion photographers is often grueling, especially during the marathon that is fashion month, and Merkley's is no exception. I caught up with her around 11 p.m. on the second day of Paris Fashion Week. Not only had she shot 10 different shows that day, but she had also only just wrapped up a team meeting and still had more work to do after our interview was over before she could go to sleep.
However, Merkley loves what she does and is already looking forward to next season, even if she'll need a full night of sleep first. "You win some, you lose some. I don’t think any job is perfect," Merkley says. At the end of the day, though, the perks of being a fashion photographer outweigh the stresses. She was happy to share nine things you might not know about what it takes to be a fashion photographer at some of the industry's biggest events.
1. It Gets Physical
Running around from show to show is part of the fashion week hustle, but photographers have to do more than run, especially when they're just starting out. "To get a good angle, you need to do a lot of squatting," Merkley explains, and "when you’re assisting, you carry three to four cameras and all the gear, like the reflectors, and all these items that are quite heavy when you have them all in a bag."
When you're constantly hauling gear and getting low in your squat, you also need to dress appropriately. "Like today, I shot 10 shows," Merkley says, "So you cannot be in high heels." Comfort is key, and Merkley's usual outfit consists of "flats that are a good brand that are comfortable for your feet, some comfortable capris, and a sweater."
Dressing for comfort doesn't mean compromising your style, though, and you don't need to be wearing haute couture to fit in with a fashion-forward crowd. Last season, Merkley was shooting "at Chanel, and I was wearing a jumper that I had bought in Spain at a thrift store for 50 cents, and I was like, 'Oh, my God. I feel so stupid. Why am I here right now?' I just felt so silly." However, she got over her self-consciousness because her outfit was true to who she is. "I also think that’s what makes me me, and I think there’s a big difference between fashion and style."
2. Bright Colors Are A No-Go
Though you should find a balance between comfort and personal style, Merkley recommends avoiding bright colors. "If someone’s shooting someone, and you’re standing in the background and you’re wearing neon green or yellow, you’re going to ruin their photo," she says. To show respect to your fellow photographers, wear darker or neutral colors, and if you don't, "You’ll catch on quick," says Merkley. "I remember last year, there was a guy who wore a bright yellow jacket, and [the other photographers were] like, 'We’ll pay you $20 each if you just stop wearing that jacket.' And he got embarrassed and he took it off."
3. Instagram Is Huge
Instagram is a modern fashion photographer's best accessory, and "a lot of photographers use their Instagram accounts for their work," Merkley adds, whose own Instagram account is "more of a mix of what I’m doing and what I’m working on, but it definitely is a great way to brand yourself and show people what you’re up to, what you’re seeing." One pro tip? Take photos on your DSLR and upload the best shot to Instagram later. "I think the biggest no-no is anyone with an iPhone coming up and trying to take a shot," says Merkley.
4. Emotions Run High
Running around isn't easy, but Merkley admits, "I think that the biggest thing is that the job is not just physically intensive, but it’s also emotionally intensive." To avoid a meltdown, she checks in with herself regularly and prioritizes self-care, squeezing it into her schedule whenever she has a moment. "The things that I like to do are small," she notes, like waking up early to do some yoga or even reading the news, which is "kind of a luxury because you just don’t have time." Reframing her stress and putting the job into perspective can also help. "I just try to remind myself that I’m in Paris on a sunny day in the early fall. It could be worse."
5. You Need Your Own Visual Voice
The two main categories of photography at fashion week are street style and backstage, but there's a huge variety of shots you can get within those. Some street style photographers "shoot more reportage. They like to show people getting in and out of cars and calling cabs and trying to get into the shows," explains Merkley. Others take more posed shots, of an individual standing still in front of a fun background.
What a photographer shoots usually depends on their client. If you're working for a publication, "You kind of have to get briefed by your editor on what they want, and then you shoot accordingly." However, all photographers have their own voice and will still take the photos in the style they like best. For Merkley, those are "figures and portraits because those are things I eventually like to paint. I take a lot of my photos and draw them and illustrate them. That’s one of the reasons I love doing what I do."
6. Being Nice To Your Neighbors Is Important
"It gets brutal in the streets," jokes Merkley, but at the end of the day, there's a camaraderie among the photographers. Merkley explains, "They’re all friendly, and the ones that tour from New York to London to Milan to Paris kind of know each other." When it's "February in New York, when you’re shooting street style and it’s a blizzard and everyone’s out shivering with their cameras," everyone bonds pretty quickly.
"It’s a little hellish while you’re living it because it’s a schedule with very little sleep and it’s really demanding and you can feel swallowed by it, but you build these friendships that are so strong and so much fun and so international." Since it's often the same photographers attending fashion week again and again, it pays to be nice to your neighbors and respect their work.
7. You'll Have To Pay Your Dues
It's all but impossible to roll up onto the scene and immediately be granted full access to the most exclusive shows, so fashion photographers have to pay their dues. "I actually started doing just street style. You kind of have to prove yourself that you’re committed and you understand different apertures and F-stops and technicalities about photography and just pure work ethic," before you can make your way backstage, explains Merkley. "You usually shoot all day street style and you go home and edit when it’s dark," often until well after midnight.
Once you've proven your worth on the streets, you might get backstage, among a much smaller pool of photographers than the scrum outside the shows. It's still important to be respectful of the older, more established photographers, though. "There’s probably seven to eight people who have done it for a long time, and those people all know each other and there’s a hierarchy. So you never want to tell the head photographer for Vogue to get out of the way or to bump him or shove him, nothing like that," adds Merkley.
8. There Are More Perks Than Freebies
Though much is often said of the freebies given out at fashion week, Merkley's favorite part is getting to shoot in unique locations. "These locations that we get to shoot in are phenomenal," ranging from the Louvre in Paris to the Lancaster House in London, which Merkley describes as "the dopest mansion."
One of her favorite places to shoot is the Grand Palais in Paris "because the entire top of the building is glass, so all the light is natural and it’s a really fun place to catch interesting angles and shadows and the girls are illuminated. It’s so fun." However, every show is impeccably executed, and it's easy to get swept up in the glamour. "You get really into it. They’re really beautiful."
9. Just Keep Shooting
"If you’re interested in photography and you want to start shooting, get out there and get as many shots as you can," advises Merkley. If you're itching to get in on the fashion week fun, it's OK to go check out the street style around the shows because "honestly, nobody owns the streets. That’s why they’re so fun, because you can get as creative as you want and try."
If you want to make this into a career, though, "Maybe the first couple of days, watch how it works before you kind of step on people’s toes," suggests Merkley, "Because there is a little bit of a system of how things work, and you don’t want to be messing that up."
Even if you're not in a city with a major fashion scene, the best thing any aspiring fashion photographer can do is to "just keep shooting," Merkley adds. "You’ll figure out your aesthetic and your voice pretty quickly."
Images: Megan Merkley; mjjmerk/Instagram