Beginner's Guide to Photographing Festivals

Beginner’s Guide to Photographing Festivals

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Festivals are a great place to practice a wide variety of photographic disciplines for any photographer. With plenty of action in one central location, often over a couple of days or more, there’s a chance to try your hand at everything; portraiture, street photography, landscape, night photography, fast action, and more, as well as play with all kinds of lighting and subjects, and the chance to tell a photographic story.

So much to learn about photography all in one place.

Festivals are a great place to photograph everything from portraits to panoramas, and pretty much everything in-between.

There is a festival for just about everything from the massive Burning Man Festival, to small food, wine, music festivals, there’s some bizarre festivals like Tunarama in Australia, where the key event is tuna tossing. Unfortunately I didn’t make it to Tunarama, so for this article I have used images from a small country town folk festival. Regardless of the kind of festival you choose, here are some tips to get you started – a beginner’s guide to photographing festivals.

There's so many different festivals for photographers to practice theirs skills at.

Look up a local festival and get out there with your camera.

Camera gear

If you are a beginner reading this, chances are you have a DSLR with a standard kit lens, so you are good to go. I would highly recommend a zoom, but it’s not necessary, you can still get great images while learning a wide variety of photographic skills. For all these images I used either a standard kit 18-55mm lens, or a small point and shoot camera. If you have other lenses, take them, you’ll most likely have a chance to use them.

A tripod will also come in handy if you are going to photograph at night. Many festivals have fireworks, or people twirling glow in the dark things, that need long exposures.

Spare memory cards and batteries are pretty much essential, and a polarizing filter wouldn’t go astray for bright daylight.

Photograph your festival with any gear you have, even your phone.

You really don’t need fancy camera gear to get some interesting images at a festival.

Camera settings

If you are a beginner, and not used to rapidly adjusting manual settings on the fly, I would recommend starting with Auto or setting your camera to Program Mode, or pick an appropriate “Scene mode” for night and low light. But also take the opportunity to experiment with manual settings. Read up on low light, street photography, fireworks, etc., before you go. Try to avoid using your flash.

The bottom line though, in order to have a great time photographing a festival, and getting a few images you are really happy with, you don’t need anything more than your mobile phone – everything else is bonus. If you are using your phone, and I recommend you do so as well as use your camera, try looking up some free extra apps to experiment with.

Any gear will do for photographing a festival, even your mobile phone.

This image was photographed using a small point and shoot with its auto filters.

What to photograph

Photography everything. Shoot non-stop from the setting up, to the live acts, parades, stall holders (vendors), the crowd, surrounding landscape, behind the scenes, people in audiences, details, packing up, and even what was left behind. Sometimes shooting from dawn until evening, in close, panoramic, and everything in-between.

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Try to tell a story

You can capture a story in a whole series from a festival, or small series within a series, or within a single photograph.

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Small festival stories can be fun to capture

These two pegged a drawing on the fence with a request for a lift to the next station. It worked!

Festivals are great to try capturing a story in one image or over many.

Locals hanging out at the festival bar.

Each festival I have been to, has a different feel. For example, a food and wine festival has a different crowd, and is more relaxed than a rock music festival.

Capturing small details and panoramas set the scene, give the viewer a sense of place. Then, capturing events, acts, and people give a sense of what is going on there. Capturing audience reactions and small details create a sense of really being there.

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Getting involved

Festivals are often annual events. Depending on the event, there may be an opportunity to volunteer. While you may spend most of your time helping out, you could have access to back stage, or other areas behind the scenes. When you have a decent portfolio, you could volunteer as photographer to build up an excellent portfolio to apply as official paid photographer.

The last festival I went to, I worked as an assistant to the artist in residence, dressed as a clown. This helped me to capture a lot of smiles, and some not so smiley expressions. Not everyone loves a clown.

Get involved in the festival you are photographing.

Photographing as a clown was a new experience!

This guy from the band 19-Twenty just noticed he was being photographed by a clown, and he didn’t miss a beat. I certainly wouldn’t have got that shot had I not been in my rather amusing costume.

Don’t be afraid to approach people

People photography is also a great thing to practice at a festival. It can be pretty intimidating approaching strangers, as it is to be approached by a photographer. But most people don’t really mind, and are often flattered.

Don't be afraid to approach strangers, most people are OK about it.

Most people don’t mind having their photograph taken if you are polite about it. Some, like this lass, love it.

So just ask, be honest with them, and let them know you are a beginner practicing at the festival. Perhaps even carry some cards or pieces of paper with your name, and a website, where they can see your images.

If you’re too shy, sometimes a smile and a wave, pointing to your camera and giving them a hopeful questioning look will do the trick. Or you can try a street photography approach, capturing people more candidly, and naturally.

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Thank you Elvis, thank you very much.

Keep doing the rounds

Walking around the entire the festival over different times of day/night, can provide fresh images of the same spot as the light changes, and different people and characters pass by. A stall that doesn’t look like much during the day, could be lit up beautifully at night. Capturing stall holders when busy and quiet, can provide two entirely different moods.
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Don’t get in the way

Try not to annoy the live acts, and audience, by photographing all the way through the entire act, or getting in anyone’s way. A good general rule for band photography is to only photograph for the first three songs.
Morris dancer with evil eye.

Keep your eye out for moments, rather than just firing away. Look for different angles and interesting color compositions.
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The best tip I can give you is to have fun. Enjoy the festival, as well as photographing it. So much photographic fodder in one place, often with good food and music as well.

So get out there, find yourself a fun festival, and start photographing. Please share your festival photographs with us in the comments below. Have you any tips to add for our readers? Any great festivals to recommend?

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Lea Hawkins is an Australian photographer working mainly in the areas of portraiture, fine art, and for the local press. Her work has been published, exhibited, selected and collected - locally, nationally and internationally, in many forms. All shot with very minimal gear and the photographic philosophy that it's not so much the equipment, but what you do with it. You can see more of her work at www.leahawkins.com