Photographing Festivals


I seek out festivals whenever I travel because they portray the culture and folklore of a place better than anything else.  People are generally dressed better, often with traditional clothing, and they are generally happy so they are more apt to be smiling.  But festivals are often hard to photograph because there is so much going on and the backgrounds are often cluttered.  Here are a few tips to help you come away with better photos:


1. Plan ahead


Festival time is a busy time for hotels, restaurants and all forms of transportation.  Don’t expect to attend most big festivals on a whim.  The biggest festivals often require booking a year or more in advance.  Make sure you know in advance how you will get there, where you will stay, what type of access you will have to the festival and what type of photography equipment is permitted.


2. Use a wide angle lens and get close


A wide angle lens might help you capture the entire festival in one picture if you stand back but a better option is to get as close as you can and use a wide angle lens to focus on one person.  This will give you more options to show as much or as little of the background as you like.  You can blur the background if it’s too busy or include other people that support the role of the person you are focused on.


3. Use a telephoto zoom lens when you can’t get close


Sometimes you can’t get close to the action and a standard zoom lens doesn’t get close enough for a good composition.  This is when you need a telephoto zoom lens so you can focus on individual performers or faces.  Any zoom lens that goes up to 200 mm or more will work fine.


4. Carry two cameras


Two cameras greatly increase the odds of getting good pictures at a festival.  Things change fast and you don’t always have time to change lenses.  If you carry two cameras, one with a wide angle lens and one with a telephoto lens, you can switch back and forth as events dictate.  The downside to this approach is cost and weight but if you want the best photos you can get, this will give you the most opportunities.


5. Get a good spot


Notice I did not say ‘find’ a good spot.  You will miss a lot of good opportunities if you wander around festivals hoping to find a good spot to take your photos.  Don’t be shy.  Ask for permission to stand up front where you have a good view.  The bigger your camera, the better chance you have of getting permission.  Find the festival organizer and see if you can get a press pass.  Or, if all else fails, move up front until someone chases you away.  As long as you don’t permanently block the view of others, most people are very tolerant of what they believe are ‘professional photographers’.


6. Use different vantage points


Festivals are often busy places and backgrounds are frequently cluttered with lots of people that you don’t want in your photos.  See if you can get low enough to the ground to make the sky your background.  Alternatively, see if you can get high enough to make the ground your background.  You will probably want to walk around so try not to be restricted to an assigned seat.


7. Get there early


Sometimes the preparations for a festival are just as photogenic as the festival itself.  If you get there early you can often photograph performers getting ready – putting on makeup, getting into costumes, practicing their routine.  People are much more willing to pose for pictures at this time too so you don’t have to settle for candid shots.


8. Be knowledgeable and respectful of local customs


When local people see that you are trying to respect their customs they often go out of their way to help you.  If you dress appropriately, greet people appropriately and ask questions when you don’t understand their behavior, most festival participants see an opportunity to share their culture and they are very willing to help.  In some cultures, you are an honored guest so you will be treated as such unless you do something to offend your host.  If their honored guest wants to take photos, they will assist in any way they can.  They will introduce you, encourage people to cooperate with you and even ‘negotiate’ photo opportunities for you.


9. Consider participating in the festival


Festivals are usually a joyous event.  People are happy and often invite you to join them.  They are just as curious about you as you are about them.  If you have the time, joining the festivities is one of the best ways to get unique photos.  Be willing to make fun of yourself.  Wear their costumes, if offered.  Dance or sing if you can.  Share a drink, a hug or a handshake and soon your new ‘friends’ are posing for you and you even have the opportunity to be in the picture.


10. Join a photo tour


When photo tours attend festivals, special arrangements are often made to give their participants the access they need to take great photos.  The guides can talk to festival organizers for you and ‘negotiate’ a good spot.  Having a group of photographers around you also reduces the odds of missing something because everyone is looking for the special shot and know that sharing is in their best interest.


May your travel and your photography both be rewarding!


      Roger Nelson