Festivals make a rewarding subject for travellers to photograph. You can expect vibrant colours, powerful portraits, buzzing atmosphere and photogenic scenes everywhere you look. Here are a few tips to help you capture the moment and get the max out of your equipment and the event you’ll be covering. Have fun!
Dancers applying body paint before a peformance at the Marquesas Arts Festival, French Polynesia. All photos by Jean-Bernard Carillet, author and LPI/Getty Images photographer.
Research and planning
If you turn up at a festival without preparation, you’ll certainly miss out on lots of photographic opportunities. The key thing is to plan well in advance. Find out what’s happening, where and when. Contact the organisers or the local tourist office and check out the internet - try to get a detailed schedule of events with times and exact locations.
It’s also a good idea to ‘visualise’ and learn about the festival and the logistics. You should find out beforehand what the festival celebrates or commemorates. Is it a religious or a cultural event? Is it a big event with masses of performers and chaotic crowds or a more intimate, sedate affair? Is is a parade with constantly moving scenes or is there a central stage? Does it last one day or does it take place over several? Are roads closed in town? Is a pass necessary to approach the stage or the procession? Will you have freedom to move? Also make sure you do a quick check of the weather and lighting conditions.
Try to identify good observation points in advance, too - it’ll save you lots of time on arrival.
Festivals offer great opportunities for taking portraits.
Choosing the right equipment
It’s best to bring a combination of lenses to be able to capture most situations. A telephoto lens (a 150-200mm focal range is perfect) allows you to take a frame-filling shot even if you are seated, stuck in one place or can’t get close to the action.
A wide lens, such as a 16-35mm or a 24mm-70mm zoom lens, offers an overview of the scene and gives a sense of a place while putting your subject in its environment. It’s also great for close-ups and action pictures and allows you to shoot at a higher shutter speed.
Consider using a powerful external flash to brighten up the foreground, soften the shadows and light up dark scenes.
Always carry a spare set of batteries and cards with a high memory capacity. Bring cling film and plastic bags to protect your equipment from dust and water.
Detail of a dance performance captured from distance using a telephoto lens.
Telling a story
To document a festival it’s important to choose a variety of subject matter. Don’t just take random pictures of revelling crowds as they rarely make great pictures. Instead, focus on individual participants who are dressed up, capture details of costumes and try to make shots that are representative of the festival - dances, floats, musicians, the crowd’s enjoyment.
Get variety in your shots by framing vertically and horizontally and changing viewpoints (look for walls, balconies, rooftops) to give different perspectives. Don’t focus solely on main events, the peripheral activities are usually very photogenic too - think ‘behind-the-scenes’ shots, such as dancers dressing up, vendors selling knick-knacks, and so on.
A festival is also a great time to take portraits - people are in a festive, relaxed mood and are more open to being photographed. Plus you’ll have hundreds of different models to choose from! Have all your settings ready on your camera and work fast as you don’t get a lot of time to compose and shoot.
Don't just focus on the main events - 'behind the scenes' often offers great opportunities for photos.
Five photographer-friendly festivals
There are thousands of festivals each year around the world but the following ones are particularly great for photographers:
- Ati Atihan: held in Kalibo, Philippines, in mid-January. The Philippines’ most flamboyant Mardi Gras, with a week-long street party. The final three days are the most intense.
- Tapati Rapa Nui: held on Easter Island for two weeks in February. Revolves around a series of music, dance, cultural and sport contests.
- Thaipusam Festival: held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the Hindu month of Thai (January/February). The most spectacular Hindu festival, in which devotees practise body piercing.
- Calgary Stampede: held in Calgary, Canada, over two weeks in July. The best rodeos on earth, chuckwagon racing and lots of side fairs.
- Pushkar Camel Fair: held in Pushkar, Rajasthan, India, in the Hindu month of Kartika (October or November). Rajasthan’s most famous festival, with 50,000 camels and 200,000 visitors.