"I was addicted right away to taking photos, telling stories, composition—all of it. Once I started taking photos, I never stopped," says Marisa Peña, fashion photographer and B&H employee. Peña, whose love of shooting began with a high school photography class, boasts a portfolio of texture-filled macro shots rendered beautifully in black-and-white, self-portraits curiously composed and full of whimsy, lively travel shots of various locales, and more. Most notably, Peña is a regular at New York Fashion Week (NYFW), documenting its many shows, models, and well-dressed guests from out on the street, backstage, and on the runway itself.
Photographs © Marisa Peña
Getting into fashion photography happened "naturally" once she moved to New York, seven years ago. What started as helping an acquaintance photograph a designer's presentation soon blossomed into a successful partnership detailing the denizens of fashion, camera in hand, twice a year at NYFW. But for Peña, attending shows is less about the clothes and more about the designer's artistic vision as a whole, as well as the camaraderie of the entire event: "I appreciate design. I look at fashion as if it were art. And I really appreciate how a fashion show brings together a group of creatives—photographers, videographers, makeup artists, sound and lighting crews, etc." In fact, when the pandemic shuttered shows not only in New York but across the world, what Peña most looked forward to upon fashion week's return was seeing the familiar faces and the collaborative possibilities.
With about 200 fashion week events under her belt, Peña is grateful for the variety of photographic opportunities NYFW provides. From being up on the riser during a runway show, to backstage documenting the models getting ready, to out on the street capturing the pre- and post-show energy, each situation grants Peña the chance to explore, play, and learn. Shooting runway, for example, is a way for Peña to hone her craft: "It's good practice to be under pressure. We only have a small amount of time to shoot during the show and you only get one chance—there are no re-dos. I find it challenging, exciting, and rewarding." To prep for her runway shots, Peña will arrive early enough to catch the rehearsal show and manually choose her settings. Of course, surprises may happen. But with her professional and practiced eye, Peña can adjust her settings as soon as the first model's foot drops down onto the stage—the ideal silhouette for a runway shot.
Luckily, shooting backstage or on the street is a bit more forgiving. For her street shots, Peña likes to position herself outside of shows, keeping an eye out for a flashy outfit or famous face. Outside, she will forgo a flash, take a test shot, and work with those settings unless the light changes. Preferring a more candid look, Peña will shoot people from afar before they realize they're being photographed and strike a pose. Beyond capturing the outfit, Peña also likes to focus on the lower half of her subject's legs, grabbing details of the shoes and bag. "You can almost imagine what the person looks like or acts like without even seeing a face," according to her.
Comfortable producing both color and black-and-white images while editing in Lightroom, Peña lets the picture decide what color scheme it'll take. To catch the many hues of the clothes, her runway and street shots are necessarily in color. These photos aptly capture the dramatic makeup; the bold, bright shades of the clothes; and the way the light hits bejeweled dresses, patent-leather outfits, and silky fabrics in motion. As Peña says, shooting clothes can be rather "static," but with the right camera settings and color editing, fluidity can be found.
In contrast, the color of the clothes takes a back seat to the mood of the room in her backstage images. To an unartistic eye, backstage appears chaotic, unorganized, and even ugly at times. Peña, however, finds the magic of those less polished moments, elevating and transforming scenes of pre-show jitters, hair rollers and pins, and makeup brushes strewn about into striking and glossy tableaux, just by shooting in black-and-white and turning up the contrast. "Sometimes it can be really ugly backstage," she explains, "and black-and-white can instantly glamorize a situation so it looks more classic and elegant, especially if you're dealing with unattractive carpets or a messy room."
However, what is most important when editing the hundreds of photos Peña collects per show is speed. Fashion photography is a saturated market, so those who are slow to publish or sell their images may find themselves at the bottom of the barrel. But what differentiates Peña from her peers is her insistence on taking what she calls the "glamour shot." She describes it as a "really tight headshot to get details on the makeup, hair, earrings, jewelry, etc." It's something that most fashion photographers forgo, focusing instead on the classic full body picture that displays the entire outfit. But Peña finds that makeup artists and models appreciate those close-up shots and says they are her favorite things to capture—after getting the requisite full-length body shot, of course. "The models move fast, so I don't get the glamour shot on every model," she adds. "But when I get a super sharp, up-close face shot of the model coming down the runway, it's magic."
As for the artists who have inspired and influenced Peña's photography, the list includes names such as Cindy Sherman for her "ability to create an entire world/narrative with a single image;" David LaChapelle for his "bold and unapologetic point of view;" Lara Jade for her "clean and simple aesthetic;" and Bella Kotak for her "very intricate, careful work and impeccable attention to detail." Mary Ellen Matthews, an SNL photographer with witty and creative photos of the celebrity guest hosts, is also someone who Peña particularly admires for working in a male-dominated field—something that Peña relates to in her own line of work: "I am surrounded by men on the riser. There are very few female photographers. I am not sure why that is, but it feels good to be there."
But perhaps no one has made a mark on Peña's style and career as much as her mentor, Madeleine Morlet. The two met when she enrolled in Morlet's "Applying an Editorial Approach" class at Maine Media. The class, Peña says, really opened her eyes: "Runway photography is very technical and there is not much room for creativity or experimentation. You have to get the same shot with each model over and over again—there is a very predictable rhythm to it. Madeleine encouraged me to embrace imperfections in my more personal work and to dig deeper to find alternative perspectives."
To capture those alternative perspectives, her gear is a blend of versatility and function. A Canon fan through and through, Peña says, "I have always loved Canon's color science and intuitive menus." For her runway and street-style shots, Peña uses a 5D Mark IV paired with the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. Backstage, she'll pick up the 5D Mark III with either the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM or the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. Although her current kit has served her well over the years, Peña admits her camera bodies are a bit well worn. In the future, she plans to go mirrorless, choosing the R3 and the R6 Mark II as replacements. A Pelican case, a monopod, gaffer tape, and a stepstool to save her spot on the riser also accompany her on her fashion shoots.
With another fashion week on the horizon, Peña is ready for the action. She looks forward to seeing fellow photographers and attending shows for emerging designers and designers whose work she's seen in the past and enjoyed. But as much as she loves NYFW and believes it gives her all she needs, Peña hopes to shoot at Paris Fashion Week one day. "There's something about it that's just a bit next level," she says. "There are more couture shows and it's definitely more competitive to photograph." For someone who is always working on improving her craft, bringing magic to her images, and getting that glamour shot, the City of Lights certainly seems like the perfect fit.