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Festivals, carnivals, parades & ceremonial events

Fiesta! Excitement, color & fun. Capture it in pictures.


Brilliant colors, unique design and strong graphic appeal make for good pictures of the Glasgow Garden Festival
Brilliant colors, unique design and strong graphic appeal make for good pictures of the Glasgow Garden Festival

People everywhere take time off to celebrate and relax at special times of the year. It could be harvest time, a national historical holiday, the Queen's birthday, an anniversary of religious significance and a great many other occasions. It is probably a safe bet to say that there is a major celebratory event taking place somewhere in the world on any given day.

Thousands of visitors are drawn annually to New Orleans for its music-filled Mardi Gras, to the famous Winter Carnival in Quebec City, and to similar grand events in countries throughout the world. Your travels may bring you in contact with just such a festival or celebration. Indeed, attending the event may be the reason for your travel in the first place.

Not all community celebrations and festivals, of course, are grandiose affairs. A local rodeo, a small town parade, and the arrival of the traveling midway to a rural community are examples of smaller affairs that still generate excitement, color and fun. Capturing the feel of these events with your camera is rewarding and results in action-filled pictures full of color and communal good times.


OBSERVE THE THEME OF THE CELEBRATION

As a general guideline when photographing a festive event, try to keep the event's theme in mind as you go along. If it's a harvest celebration, ensure you capture some images that demonstrate a successful and bountiful harvest. If it's a national historic holiday, then be sure your pictures show the country's flag, its national symbols or perhaps even statues of its heroic figures or its buildings of historical significance. If you don't do so, you may discover that all of your pictures might easily apply to any similar public gathering anywhere else.

By keeping the theme in mind, though, you will be inclined to notice all kinds of ways in which the locals portray the theme, and will take many more meaningful pictures.

A dragon theme is popular in many cultures.
A dragon theme is popular in many cultures.

Your best vantage point to photograph events expected to take place in the village square may be a room in the hotel that overlooks the area.
Your best vantage point to photograph events expected to take place in the village square may be a room in the hotel that overlooks the area.

BIG EVENTS NEED A GOOD VANTAGE POINT

A small town parade can be photographed from several locations. You can wander up and down the parade route and capture pictures against different backdrops. But, a really big festival draws huge crowds, and they tend to quickly fill up the best viewing spots.

If the purpose of your trip is to attend the event itself, then preplanning well in advance may get you a hotel room overlooking the principal activity area. A third-floor hotel balcony above a grand-prix race or a New York Santa Claus parade will net some glorious pictures.

When you don't have a reserved prime shooting location, early arrival at a good spot is advised. Setting up your tripod, even if you don't think you'll need it for photography, may give you a little extra elbow room as the available space around you begins to fill in. An umbrella and a folding chair may achieve similar results. If it might get really crowded, a small stool or mini-stepladder might give you the height advantage you need for pictures without a lot of peoples' heads in the foreground.

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF IT WILL BE A GOOD VANTAGE POINT??

By scouting the scene of the event in advance - even days beforehand, if possible. You should have an events program or timetable, a route map if it is a parade or race, and the willingness to talk with locals who can help your planning. Think of how miserable you will feel to get set up in what you think is an ideal location only to find that just in front of you is where the ambulances are going to park. Ask lots of questions of tourism offices, shopkeepers, hotel doormen and others who have experienced the event in years gone by. Most folks are genuinely helpful and will give you good advice.


WHAT SHOULD YOU LOOK FOR IN THE BACKGROUND?

Several things contribute to great pictures of mega-events.

  • Look for a backdrop that will help to tell the story of the event and that won't be boring when it is seen in picture after picture. A grandstand is good; crowds are lively and colorful. Circus tents, bright flags and graphic banners are great.
  • Can't get a backdrop that relates directly to the event? A neutral backdrop such as a wooded area or an ocean setting is also good. Be sure to avoid billboards or huge, dominant signs. They will overpower all but your best pictures.
  • If you can't get a suitable backdrop but still feel your position is worth staying at, then see if you can get a little higher or move sideways a bit to change the camera angle and perhaps eliminate the unsavoury backdrop elements.
  • If horizontal and vertical repositioning don't help, then use your lens to blur the background by selective depth of field. Choose an aperture that will permit relatively shallow focus so that the background is unclear, and of course adjust your shutter speed for proper exposure. (Just be sure you have a selection of films of various speeds, or can quickly change your digital camera's sensitivity, preparing you to be creative if lighting conditions change, and that your lens is of the right telephoto length for the depth of field you wish to employ.)
  • One good location for a parade when you want participants to be photographed while performing at their best, perhaps even looking your way and saluting, is to position yourself with your camera by the parade reviewing stand.
  • In most parades, organizers don't mind if you step out into the roadway to take a picture, then return to the sidelines. Just don't interfere with the marchers. You will get some good up-close-and-personal pictures that way, especially using a wide-angle lens.

Most of the background in this picture is fine, but the part with people in it is distracting from the performers. A shift in the photographer's position to the left could have easily corrected it.
Most of the background in this picture is fine, but the part with people in it is distracting from the performers. A shift in the photographer's position to the left could have easily corrected it.

ARE THERE "DON'T MISS" PICTURES?

Good question. What shouldn't you miss when photographing a festival? Our answer may seem a bit obvious, but it is true: Don't miss the shots that best portray the event. The real question then becomes, "What are those shots, and how do I get them?"

To begin, obtain a program or event schedule that provides a timetable and a location for activities. Then, make a personal shooting schedule so that you catch the key events, especially those that have lots of action, color and that draw the crowds.

Having a fast, sharp zoom lens or a couple of easily-interchangeable prime lenses (such as a 24mm wide-angle and a 105mm medium telephoto, for example) will allow you to get decent pictures in almost all situations. If the light is bright and will stay that way, ISO 100 film or a digital camera's sensitivity setting of ISO 100, will do the job. If things darken up, then use a faster ISO 400 film or an equivalently faster digital sensitivity setting to ensure shutter speeds that are fast enough to prevent camera shake.

Your best close-up shots are people shots, in almost every case.

  • Watch the children. If they are having fun, laughing, playing games or going on rides, then capture their faces and their joy.
  • But, also turn around to photograph their parents who will undoubtedly have smiles and sparkling eyes as they share their children's pleasure.
  • Pick people who are colorfully-dressed. Look for costumes that typify the nation or the event.
  • Watch for moments of tension, when someone has to sit anxiously strapped-in for a ride to start or wait unflinchingly to see their completed face-painting in a mirror. Capture that feeling.
  • Then make sure to hang around to capture the look when the tension is broken.
  • Look for dancers, performers and entertainers. Photograph them, and then photograph the expressions of the onlookers. Try to anticipate the high point in a performance, and shoot your picture then. It may be when the flame-thrower blasts out a ball of flame or when the juggler has six objects in the air.
  • Take pictures of vehicles, streets and buildings that have been decorated for the festival.
  • Capture pictures of dignitaries and celebrities you may happen to see.
  • Take pictures of market stands, fair booths, vendors selling unique and colorful products, and especially vendors that put on a little show when they sell or demonstrate their wares.
  • Call out to someone to look your way if you feel direct eye contact will make a better picture. Most folks at a festival will not only look at you, but they will wave, smile and may even put on a little performance for your camera.
  • In almost every big event, there are highlighted activities, special objects or moments that define the occasion. Learn what these are for the country you are in, and be sure to capture them. It may be the passing by of a special statue in a religious procession, or the fireworks that end the day's events. If you miss them, you may have missed the essence of the festival, and you don't want to have to wait another year to capture them.


Think in terms of good composition when you are photographing a festive event, just as you would with any subject you are shooting. Use different camera angles to emphasize your subject or to better tell your picture's story. Use fill flash when shooting with the main light behind your subjects. Always watch for good and bad backgrounds, and take that extra moment to get the best backdrop for the shot. Move aside to eliminate an object in the foreground that won't help your picture. Use flowers, trees, doorways, flags and so on to frame your pictures. And be sure to keep your polarizing filter on the lens when you are outdoors and the weather is fine. It will give that added oomph to blue skies in your pictures.

WHAT SHOULD I BE WARY OF?

In a strange country, be wary of everything.

  • Watch out for pickpockets and purse & camera snatchers.
  • Don't get so caught up in the event and your photography that you become careless and let your guard down.
  • Be careful stepping into the street. Traffic in many foreign lands moves more quickly than at home, and pedestrian rights can be non-existent.
  • Be particularly careful in countries where they drive on the "wrong" side of the road. You may think you are facing the oncoming traffic as you're actually stepping into the path of a bus just behind you.
  • Watch out for overly-helpful "guides" whom you meet on the street. They may be nothing more than swindlers who disappear after getting your money without delivering what they promised.
  • Keep your camera bag close at hand.
  • Don't ask a stranger to watch your gear while you go to the bathroom. It might not be there when you get back.

While your attention is on the activities around you, don't let your guard down. There may be someone in the crowd whose attention is on your wallet, purse or expensive-looking camera.
While your attention is on the activities around you, don't let your guard down. There may be someone in the crowd whose attention is on your wallet, purse or expensive-looking camera.
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