Festival Photography

There is a spectacular array of religious, cultural and just plain bizarre festivals happening around the world and they can be fantastically rewarding occasions to take photographs. Festivals are often what define a place: Rio for Carnival, New Orleans for the Mardi Gras or Pushkar for the camel fair; visit at other times and you may well feel that you have missed out.  

Here are a few handy hints for how to capture the best festival photos, taken straight from our award winning Travel Photography book, written by Steve Davey. 

Yet festivals are a difficult time to visit a destination: accommodation is often booked up, there can be too many crowds and many sights and museums will be closed. To me, that sounds perfect! I have been to festivals all over the world and I often time trips specifically to photograph them. I am, quite literally, a festival junky.

Research and exploration

If you are hoping to photograph a festival it is vital to do some research and planning in advance to find out what is happening and when. If you wait until you get to the festival it will be too late. Take your information from a number of sources and be circumspect about information on the internet: often websites just repeat incorrect information verbatim, so be suspicious of near-identical text on two different sites.

Allow yourself plenty of time. Whenever possible, get there a day or so early and use the time to confirm what is happening and to look for good angles. Try to establish a schedule of events that make up the festival and choose what you want to photograph.  If the festival includes a procession, walk the route beforehand and work out the vantage points that you are going to use. This might involve knocking on a few doors and charming or paying your way up to a balcony or open window. Consider the angle the light will be coming from at the time of the procession.

Try to find out if there are any key moments or vital customs that you should photograph: the first beer barrel being tapped at the Munich Oktoberfest; the blessing of the horses in church before the Palio horse race in Siena or the water-vending standpipes at the Songkran water festival in Thailand. Give yourself as much time as possible at the festival itself. There is no point in just turning up for a day and expecting to get really good pictures; it can take that long just to get used to the chaos. 

Book accommodation in advance and get a place as close to the action as you can afford. There is nothing more depressing that commuting in to a festival. Not only are you more likely to give up and go home early but you have to carry a whole day’s worth of equipment with you. Being able to pop back to your hotel, check your equipment and take a 30-minute siesta can be a lifesaver.

Planning your shots

If you just wander round and snap pictures, you will get fairly haphazard coverage of the festival. Although it may sound a bit tedious, it pays to make a list of all that you want to photograph. This should include all the key events and also behind-the-scenes shots of people getting ready or making their costumes, food shots – giant frothing steins for Munich or a massive steaming vat of paella for Pamplona – and the crowds along a procession route. 

Try to be creative with your range of shots as well. Imagine that you are shooting for a magazine, which is going to illustrate a feature with your pictures. Think of all the different style of shots that you might need: a big horizontal ‘establishing’ shot for the opening spread, a vertical full-frame portrait, a close-up food shot or other details. This will help you to construct the story of the festival and allow people who look at your work to build up a complete picture of what the event is all about.

Getting in place

You should find out if there are any events that require tickets and also whether there are any rooftops or balconies that you can shoot from to get a better view. Do some research on photolibrary websites to see what angles other photographers have managed to achieve and whether they are worth finding. All of this should be sorted out in advance but make sure that you are flexible with your plans.

Sometimes crowds or official crowd control mean that you won’t be able to get to the spot you were hoping for. At any of the more popular events vantage points are rented out as a commercial venture. In Pamplona, a balcony overlooking the bull run costs around €50 but offers a fantastic view, especially since the vantage points right up against the barriers are taken by press photographers with passes. For the Palio horse race in Siena, balconies overlooking the race are sold weeks in advance but are among the best places to see the action. 

The famed war photographer, Robert Capa, once said that if your pictures aren’t good enough, then you aren’t close enough. This is great advice if you are shooting a festival. Get as close to the action as youcan: your pictures will be far more immediate and will intrigue and engage those looking at them. Try to get to your chosen vantage point early to stakeout your space and, if you can’t get close enough to the action, try to find a spot a short distance away and shoot over people’s heads with a telephoto lens. 

Collapsible step ladders, designed  specially for press photographers, can be useful, although it is often difficult to use them in a crowd and you run the risk of being moved on by an overzealous police officer. In general, you should carry only the minimum amount of equipment. At fast-moving events, don’t keep running after the action; you will never be in one place long enough to compose yourself and take any creative pictures. 

Try to predict where the action will go and get in place, so that the action can come to you. This will give you time to think about what you are photographing and to make creative decisions rather than just banging off snapshots. It takes some practice and there will be times when you get it wrong, but the successful shots are likely to be far more memorable. This is particularly crucial if you are photographing a procession or parade. 

Once you’ve found a good spot, decide which lens and techniques you are going to use. Change lenses while you are stationary and work out the exposure. When the procession passes you will be ready to take the shots you want and can then move on to the next point.

Protecting your gear

Festivals can be a hostile environment for both you and your equipment. Dust, crowds, water and even tomatoes can ruin your precious camera and lenses. Some festivals, such as the Tomatina (the world’s largest tomato fight held in Spain) or Songkran (the Thai water-throwing festival) are extreme cases, where you should either use an underwater housing or a small, disposable waterproof camera. In dusty conditions, you can protect your camera with a plastic bag or cling-film. A zoom lens on a digital SLR is a good idea as it means that you have to change the lens less often. Carry a spare set of batteries, film or memory cards with you and, for yourself, make sure that you have a bottle of water and a couple of energy bars tucked into your bag. There is no point in having a spare set of camera batteries, if you are too exhausted to keep going!

Faces that you meet

Festivals are a great time for portraits. People are often relaxed, happy and more open to having their photo taken than during their day-to-day lives. Festivals also tend to attract a wide range of people, making it possible to photograph many different characters in one place. The Pushkar camel fair, for instance, attracts camel traders, holy men and pilgrims and can be a fertile ground for shooting portraits. Don’t ignore your fellow revellers and other tourists, either: their involvement and enjoyment can really give life to your festival pictures. For more on portrait photography, see pages 162-170.

Technical stuff

If you are walking around at a fast-moving festival or in changeable light, I would suggest setting both the focus and camera meter to automatic in order to get more accurate exposures. However, if you are in one place for a while, photographing a parade, say, then manual exposure or calculating exposure compensation from a histogram will give you more precise results. When shooting a festival you are not able to choose when to take your pictures and you may well have to shoot in the middle of the day when the light is awful. To avoid the deep shadows caused by the sun being directly overhead, consider using a fill-in flash to give a more balanced picture, particularly for close-ups and portraits. 

A flash can also be useful at night when there is too much movement to use available light, though a slow-synch flash setting is usually preferable in these instances, as it enables your camera to balance available light and flash to give a less stark effect and show some movement. In the excitement of the festival, don’t just snap away without thinking. Remember to vary viewpoints and lens perspectives and creatively to interpret any movement. Take lots of pictures – especially if you are shooting digital. People are likely to walk into your frame or generally get in the way, so it’s a good idea to take more than one shot at a time.

Are we having fun yet?

Above all, when photographing a festival, remember to enjoy yourself. Don’t get so hung up on taking the perfect photograph that you forget to experience the festival itself and all that it has to offer. It would be a shame to come away with great photographs but no memories.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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