SIMON DEINER: Meet The Leading Fashion Runway Photographer In Africa

If you’ve ever looked at photos from a Fashion Week in Africa, chances are it was taken by Simon Deiner or his company SDR Photo. Deiner is a fashion and commercial photographer from Cape Town, who – according to Group of Creatives (GRP/cr8/) – “has the strange claim to fame of having attended more fashion shows than anyone else in Africa”. Highly plausible, since SDR Photo tends to be the official house photographer for Events in Africa, as well as, covering some selected international Fashion Weeks. Subsequently, you can be assured that Deiner and his team are more than accustomed to the inner workings of any Fashion Event. We reached out to Deiner to learn more about the man with the best seat at any runway show. Not to mention, tap into his vast knowledge on ramp photography, for you budding photographers out there:

(From Left) Simon Deiner, Washington Benbella, Mustafa Hassanali and Paledi Segapo at Sea Cliff Hotel Dar es Salaam at Swahili Fashion Week [Photographer: SDR Photo]
When did you begin your professional career as a photographer and what inspired you?

I started photography in 1999 when we were publishing a magazine on cycling.  I was racing at the time, and through various sponsorships had to shoot the clothing or product for placement or report backs, and indirectly didn’t know I was shooting fashion.  From there brands asked me to shoot for them, and the rest is history as they say.

Formal training or self-taught?

I never formally studied photography, I actually studied business and brand strategy. Although it’s not photography, it has been invaluable in allowing me to deliver the product that clients required when shooting things like campaigns, but also cost correctly on large projects and run a business that could survive in the long term.

How do you prepare for Fashion Week?

Fashion Week photography always starts by looking at the schedule, and depending on the Fashion Week, where mostly SDR is hired as the “house photographer” (the main photographer for the entire week). There are some Fashion Weeks, such as London Fashion Week, where we only shoot specific shows as the house photographer.  Generally, we do shoot the entire week and work closely with the production companies and technical teams to ensure proper lighting and choreography that yields the perfect pictures.   Sometimes, designers come to us and ask for specific detail shots ahead of the shows.

What are your go-to tools of the trade and why?

Camera, lens, laptop, specific software, and my trusty Pelican case.   It’s a setup that varies depending on the Fashion Week and where the location is.  I work between two different camera bodies depending on the length of the ramp and lighting conditions, but generally it’s always a 70-200 lens to shoot with.   A fast laptop and software you can work with quickly is mandatory when you’re expected to deliver a full show that could be up to 60 looks within 10min, edited as the show finishes.

 

How do you streamline your gear for the backstage work and for the main event?

For backstage I use a totally separate photographer usually!  But when doing both, I use a different camera with a versatile low-aperture zoom lens such as a 24-70.  I leave the ramp camera for just shooting the show itself.  I do not like to change things last minute as it means you could have error in your work flow, and you only get one chance to capture that ramp look!

Backstage at Durban Fashion Fair 2013.[Photographer: SDR Photo]

What camera settings do you work in and why?

I always shoot fully manual on the camera except for auto-focus, and then depending on what I am shooting I even vary the different AF modes to suit the situation.  From exposure to white balance it’s all manual and I get it right in camera as I shoot large fine JPEG’s due to time constraints. I sadly do not have time to mess about with RAW, so like my film start: get it right!

How do you find the right spot in the photographer’s pit?

As house photographer I am automatically allocated the prime spot in the dead centre as I’m either hired by the Fashion Week or the designer.   From there, I determine what height I want to be at. Which is usually just a few degrees “down facing” on the models, as I do not want to look up their noses so to speak!

Backstage 2017 AFI’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Joburg SS [Photographer: SDR Photo]

Do you get any information about the show from the designer before it all starts?

Always, it’s a collaborative process as I spoke about above.   This journey has also led to us forming our production company, which produces almost all the big Fashion Weeks in Africa for a single reason:  end to end control to get better pics.  But designers and myself generally chat before the show to get an idea of details and looks.  The tough part is remembering it sometimes!

What are the main shots you must get of each outfit and why?

The “main shot” will always be the head on, perfect walking shot with one straight leg and the other slightly bent showing the top of the shoe.  From there, any bags, jewellery (specified) or styling or garment details are captured in close up.  Sometimes there are trends we need to be aware of, such as the makeup or socks for example, and need to capture additional shots of that too.

 

We read online that runway photography can never show the soles of shoes… why is that?

Generally shoes are actually loaned to designers for shows, so the bottoms of the shoes are taped by the background team so that they do not scuff and can be resold (I know, I know…), so to avoid this some designers do get shoes from sponsors or partners (or their own) and then it’s not an issue, but also it’s a low interest area generally!

What is one of the biggest misconceptions about being a runway photographer?

That it’s quite easy.  Learning how difficult models roll their hip for example, or that one that blinks non-stop, and how the hair “bounces” etc, all take a while to watch and VERY quickly make the call on capture.  Also, continually watching each model walk so that you can capture any details perhaps you were not told about, and also knowing what the media / bloggers want so you can provide the options.

Thebe Magugu at 2018 SA Fashion Week AW [Photographer: SDR Photo]

What made you decided to specialize in runway photography?

I loved the challenge of bringing the lighting, set / staging and choreography together to deliver better shows…. As much as I enjoyed shooting campaigns the challenge seemed to disappear as I shot for clients like Nike or Mercedes-Benz. But Fashion Weeks were growing and taking place across the continent, and the fact that I then learned lighting direction, show production and eventually founded a company to deliver the standard I felt the designers deserved, just reinforced that feeling of being the person to deliver the images that everyone remembered the iconic shows and outfits from.

Gerson Ussene at 2017 Mozambique Fashion Week [Photographer: SDR Photo]

How have you managed to expand, so much so, that you cover most of the big fashion events on the continent?

I really think the secret is just to work harder than anyone else.  I’m a little pickier these days (old age I guess!?!) but am passionate about capturing the designers and growing our SDR Ramp Library, which now has more than 1.5m unique visitors a month from 60+ countries and seeing African fashion grow.   The other secret is that it’s not exclusively photography we’re being hired for, a lot of these fashion week clients also have our production company produce and manage the Fashion Week, generally raising the standards, and then adding it to SDR Ramp Library photographically brings a legitimacy to the project that delivers the content to more than 800 publications and websites instantly.   But there are still MANY more I want to attend and where possible do my best to do that.

 

How do you get your images uploaded online as quickly as possible? And what is the turnaround time?

Years of refining the workflow and learning to edit in the specific applications that have proven to deliver what we need.   Firstly, shooting as little as possible means you need to review as little as possible, and after years and millions of images, I can cull through a show to get the exact selections (final images) quite quickly, and then we tag them, ensure the cropping and colour are correct and then finally export them and upload.   It’s all about systems.   Generally, if the internet is good, at major Fashion Weeks the show is online about 15 to 25 minutes post-show.

Top tips for someone looking to get started?

I’d say it’s about getting experience… shoot as much as possible, learn what the exposure does in different lighting conditions, learn your camera, learn how perspectives are compressed with different lenses etc.   Then learn to edit in the least possible steps due to shooting it as close to the final image as possible.   And finally, network. At all our Fashion Week projects I welcome the new guys and afterwards we review images and push them as you never know when opportunity knocks.

House of Saint Luke at 2017 Durban Fashion Fair [Photographer: SDR Photo]

What’s the biggest platform you’ve seen your work used or showcased?

I consider all the images, from the smallest Fashion Week in Namibia to London Fashion Week, valuable and I’m proud of them all equally.  I was particularly proud of a double page spread with a single image in the New York Times I shot at SA Menswear Week, and always smile when I see images on billboards, but probably my most famous images were composites we shot for Nike that were used all over Europe for six months.

You’re listed as the founder of SA Menswear Week. Why did you decide this was crucial…?

SA Menswear Week came about when we spent time at London Fashion Week and the eventual move of menswear from the main schedule to a final day and then finally into London Collections Men (now known as London Fashion Week Men).  We came back and two things motivated us to launch SAMW after two years of planning. firstly, that Menswear design was strong in Africa, and really exportable and competitive against imported product versus ladieswear. Secondly, that we really wanted to do a Fashion Week “our way”, and show that designers needed to be central to the platform, and not all the fluff of VIP lounges and egos.

Kahvarah 2017 Swahili Fashion Week [Photographer: SDR Photo]

Biggest challenge you’ve faced so far

My biggest challenge has been self-funding SA Menswear Week. I don’t only shoot it, but my (very very) small team does everything.   In photography terms, the biggest challenge was turning down international campaign and catalogue work after I’d decided to focus on Fashion Weeks in both photography and production.

Highlight?

Way too many to mention.   From photographing Nelson Mandela through to travelling with artists like R Kelly, or shooting supermodels, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to shoot and travel on some amazing projects.  From a fashion perspective, definitely launching SA Menswear Week and discovering amazing designers from the continent and watching them now being considered the best in Africa.  Also having our efforts on all projects whether it’s Group of Creatives, our production company, or SDR or SAMW, globally considered the best in Africa. I feel honoured our hard work is noticed.

Morafa at 2017 Lagos Fashion & Design Week [Photographer: SDR Photo]

Any personal photography projects you’re working on?

I’m very slowly putting together a book on 20 years of African Fashion photography from my side.  Travelling and taking in a dozen countries, taking African fashion to the rest of the world, but most importantly filling it with great captured moments between the shared stories of those who were involved.  From flooded backstages in Lagos to negotiating with thugs in Zimbabwe, it’s been a great journey, and showing the gloss with the challenges.

Also, my personal project of capturing urban decay in London over a 20-year period is almost done. It’s a book I’ve had with a publisher for almost four years, but never felt I had those perfect final 15 photographs.  It’s not fashion or Africa, but one on a city I truly do love.

Rich Mnisi at 2018 SA Fashion Week AW [Photographer: SDR Photo]

Finally, any changes we’re going to see from you this year?

2018 is about less travel, less ‘just saying yes’ to projects and more time on those passion projects that really keep me fuelled.   Menswear Week comes to Joburg after eight seasons of being in Cape Town, which is so exciting considering the interest from the city. We’re also launching an African fashion project in London towards the end of 2018 for early 2019 and finally a personal project in November, a bicycle festival.

 

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CORRECTION

A previous version of this post credited four images from AFI as works of Simon Deiner / SDR Photo. We have since taken down those images and apologise for the error.

 

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