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20 Tips for Photographing Historical Reenactments and Festivals

No matter what the season, people love to congregate in special places to celebrate or commemorate special events. Here are some tips that may help you take maximum advantage of the opportunities that festivals and historical reenactments present.

firing the canon

#1 Research the event before you go

Do some homework before you attend the event, to get an idea of the subject of the celebration, and something of its history. For example, if you are attending a battle reenactment, a little research before you arrive may give you an inside advantage as to how the battle may unfold in front of you. Even local street festivals exist for a celebration, so know what you can expect to experience, such as special displays, parades, entertainers, and fireworks.

#2 Know the rules of the event

For instance, some events may not allow you to bring coolers or large backpacks into a crowded venue, which could include your camera bag. Prepare accordingly to abide by the rules.

#3 Acquire a schedule of events and map of the venue before arriving

You’ll know ahead of time when to arrive and which locations you would like to shoot first.

#4 Develop a shot list

Preparing a shot list is a good way to help you to get all the images that you intend to capture. It is so easy to get caught up in a single attraction, then, when day is done, realize that you missed a lot of other shooting opportunities. So give yourself a game plan for the day, remembering that schedules can be flexible.

#5 Arrive early and stay late

The early bird gets the worm or the best parking place. Of course we know the best light of the day is during the early morning and pre-sunset, so arrive early and stay late to take advantage of it. Also, at many events the crowds don’t arrive until midday, and many who arrive early may also leave early.

Sunrise at the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival gives a colorful view of the event before the crowds arrive.

Sunrise at the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival gives a colorful view of the event before the crowds arrive.

#6 Bring a compass

Upon arriving it is very important to get your bearings, which may require taking a compass reading. This becomes very important when looking to for the best lighting and vantage point from which to shoot.

#7 Meet the people involved with event logistics

Interaction with the event coordinators, staff, participants or re-enactors of an event can be very beneficial to you when it comes to getting inside information, and perhaps some behind-the-scenes shots. In some cases getting to know the right person might land you a unique vantage point, not accessible to the public. Offering to send photos to them can also be great way to get access to some great images. (Don’t forget to get contact information.)

#8 Be prepared

Always bring a spare camera battery. There is nothing worse than missing a great shot because your battery went dead. Spare memory cards are a must also, because you could be shooting thousands of photos each day and you want to have enough memory with you to hold all your images. For shooting in the middle of the day, in the harshest lighting conditions with deep shadows, consider using your pop-up flash to provide fill light for close-ups and portraits.

#9 Prepare for weather

Be prepared by checking the weather forecast ahead of time. You may find yourself standing for long periods of time in the direct sunlight, so sun screen is a must. Also bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. A wide brim hat can also be useful to keep the sun out of your eyes. Your equipment also may need protection from weather elements, especially moisture related.

#10 Be aware of the wind direction

Wind direction can be very important if you are photographing an event where there will be weapons (e.g. canons) fired. If your shooting location is downwind from the action, all you may get in your image is a lot of smoke. In some cases this could add some very interesting effects but, it is best to be aware of this ahead of time.

#11 Play nice with re-enactors and other photographers

Sometimes photographing these events can mean shooting in very crowded locations with everyone wanting to get that same great shot. Be courteous to your fellow photographers, interact with the people around you and work to help everyone have a great experience. Offer suggestions that might be helpful to those who are obviously less experienced. Also, remember festival workers are providing a service to you and in many cases it might be for very little or no pay, so be considerate of them.

#12 Choose an appropriate lens

A good walk-around lens, like a 28-300mm or 18-200mm zoom, is a desirable choice for these types of events and will allow you to use the same lens all day. However, if such an item is not in your arsenal, narrow your options down to just a couple of lenses, like a wide angle and a 200mm or 300mm telephoto.  If you choose to use multiple lenses, remember there can be lots of dust in the air at outdoor festivals, so you need to be careful while changing them not to get dust in your camera, which will find its way onto your sensor. If you must change lenses it would be a good idea to try to find a dust-free area, (your car would be a good spot, if parked nearby).

#13 Shoot with a higher ISO if necessary

Raising your ISO will allow the shutter speed to stop the action and aperture to maximize your depth of field. However, in some instances a narrow depth of field may be useful to make your subject stand out from the background.

#14 Watch your background

When you are shooting at a reenactment event, the last thing you want in an otherwise perfect image is a car or other object that will seem historically out of place in the background. In some cases you can remove these objects in post-production, but it is best to avoid them, and look for a different vantage point that allows you to exclude them.


#15 Look for details

Be observant to discover details that may make your shots stand out from all the other photographers shooting at the same location. Look for expressions on the faces of participants and spectators, as well as interactions between them.

Two officers standing at the fence discussing battle strategy.

Two officers standing at the fence discussing battle strategy.

Look for detail

This image captured from ground level, features a unique detailed view of reenactment maneuvers.

#16 Think safety

Remember to keep in mind where you are, when you are looking through your lens for an extended period of time. It is easy to lose track of just how close to the action you might have become.

#17 Tell a story

You’ve heard it said that picture is worth a thousand words, so look for images that tell a story. It doesn’t make much difference how well the photo is composed, that your exposure is correct and image is in sharp focus, if the shot doesn’t communicate the event experience to the viewer.

Lady in era dress watching and waiting, tells a story

Lady in period dress, watching and waiting, tells a story.

#18 Attend more than one day

If possible, returning for a second day can allow you to get some really great images. After attending the first day, it becomes easier to anticipate the action (especially in the case of a reenactment event), pick up other happenings missed the first day, or re-shoot favorite subjects with alternate lighting and camera settings.

#19 Capture images that may interest the event organizers

Often times festivals or events are looking for images to use for next year’s promotional material. Depending on the event’s budget, some might even offer to pay for desirable images, while others may not be able to offer more than a byline (it’s still very cool to see your images published). Many events hold a photo contest that pays prize money and features the winning image in promotional material. You should give such an opportunity your best shot.

Shoot images that might interest event organizers, such as this image from the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival held in Marietta, Ohio.

Shoot images that might interest event organizers, such as this image from the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival held in Marietta, Ohio.

#20 Give your photos a vintage effect in post-production

Giving your image a nice sepia tone to match the photos of former eras can be an interesting way to present reenactment or old-time feeling events.  Click on this link to download an American Civil War Lightroom preset. This preset will give you the era’s sepia tone effect, with faded corners and added grain.


Remember to have fun when you are photographing events and festivals. It is easy to get so involved with getting that perfect shot that you don’t take the time to enjoy the experience. Please share some of your favorite reenactment or festival shots.

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Bruce Wunderlich
Bruce Wunderlich

is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr