Festivals, fairs, and carnivals are a great visual opportunity for any travel photographer because they provide us with a glimpse into the local culture. I remember working in the Gion Matsuri festival in Japan. While one can say that Japan is super modern and hi-tech, the festival allowed me to see a different, more traditional side of the place – from the local food to the clothing.
Here are some tips that will allow you to make the best out of your next festive event
Before you go
Build your next vacation around a festival. Why not schedule your next trip or family vacation around a festival? Not only can festivals and local events give lots of great visual opportunities, but a festival can be a good experience for your non-photographing partners as well. Thus, you can combine a family vacation with your love of photography at the same time and place.
How to find your next festive vacation
Choose your destination according to your schedule. If you know that you can take some time off in the summer, Google “best festivals in July and August” and Mr. Google will offer some great ideas – from a music festival in England to a tribal festival in Papua New Guinea. Now, all you have to do is to choose.
Or, choose your schedule according to your destination if you already decided on your next destination. If possible, try to choose the time and season according to a local festival or event.
Booking and planning your trip
Book your trip as early as possible. Well-known festivals and fairs tend to attract huge groups of visitors from all around the world. Everything from booking a flight ticket to getting a good hotel can be extremely expensive or even impossible. So, do your best to book everything well in advance.
Choose smart lodging. While traveling, time is everything and as a cultures photographer, you want to maximize your time by selecting a smart lodging. Don’t waste your time and money on a hotel which is far from the main attractions. Be on the streets with first light, before the crowds.
Get the event schedule. Knowing when and where to be is important for every photographer, but this is a must if you are working around a moving festival (like a parade). If possible, look for the event schedule online, and be sure to double check it with a local (like a receptionist at your hotel or a local taxi driver) upon your arrival.
Get there before the crowds. To get yourself a spot in the first row, you will need to be there as early as possible. It might feel a bit boring or like a waste of time, but this is essential if you want to photograph the action and not just the backs of people’s heads.
Get a good vantage point
Find an off-public vantage point. Get creative and find yourself a (legal) way to avoid the hustle of the street (and standard imagery) by getting to a high vantage point. Scout a location – balconies or windows that can give you a better perspective on the event, and seek the owner’s approval in advance.
Build your own vantage point. I saw this technique while working on that story on the Japanese festival in Kyoto. To get a higher vantage point, the local photographers brought small ladders and stools that allowed them to shoot the action without thousands of heads in their frame. This is a smart and extremely practical idea.
Watch yourself and your gear. Besides being a paradise for pickpockets, some festivals and events can get pretty wild and even violent (I never got so many elbows and punches as I had in India). Avoid getting into a situation that might get too crowded or dangerous!
This recommendation is relevant for any significant event, but from my experience, mostly in festivals which are religious in nature.
Create a diverse set of images. While sorting and editing your work, try to make your set of images as diverse as possible. Showcase the event from different points of view; high vantage points, portraits, day and night, food, local arts and crafts, etc.
Approach organizers and pitch your work. Sending your work to the event organizers can be a great way to get published, and it may get you a ticket for the non-public areas at next year’s festival. In a case of a traditional festival, you can always send your images to the local embassy and offer them to use your work.
Here is my list of some of the best festivals for photographers. You may want to add some of these to your list.
Well known festivals
Kumbh Mela festival India
The Indian Kumbh Mela festival is the largest religious gathering in the world, with millions of people coming to bath in the holy Ganges River.
- When: Every 12 years, with the next one on 2022.
- Where: Haridwar, Allahabad , Nashik-Trimbak and Ujjain in India.
Dia de Muertos Mexico
The Dia de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a unique and photogenic festival which takes place in Mexico. On that day, locals believe that their dead will return to earth and are preparing for the event. After preparing food and offering, the locals will visit the cemetery, decorating the graves with candles and flowers, making it both spooky and very photo worthy.
- When: The beginning of November.
- Where: Throughout Mexico.
Songkran festival Thailand
In this festival, which is the Thai New year, you will need to find a solution to cover your camera, because you are going to get wet. Very wet! In the Thai culture (and in many other cultures as well) water are considered as a purifying source and this festival is the largest water fight in the world. Along with great food, music, and dancing in the streets, it is the Thai culture as its best.
- When: 13-15th of April
- Where: Throughout Thailand.
Hanami – Japan
If you thought that Japanese people could be a little crazy sometimes, wait until you meet them at cherry blossom time. Local picnics, karaoke singing, and amazing natural sight of the white cherry flowers, making it a local event to experience.
- When: Depending on temperature and location on the island, but aiming for late March will be the best.
- Where: Throughout Japan
Less well-known festivals
Damadihana – Madagascar
Turning of the bones. A Malagasy tradition in which local families, take out the remains of their ancestors from the family graves and wrap them in new cloth. Dancing with the remains to the sound of local music is part of this morbid festival.
- When: Throughout the second half of the year.
- Where: Highlands of Madagascar.
Argungu Fishing Festival – Nigeria
This festival take place every year in the Northern part of Nigeria. The main event is a competition where thousands of men and women jump into the river with limited time to catch the largest fish, using only traditional tools or their hands.
- When: February or March.
- Where: Northern Nigeria.
German Christmas market
Maybe not as exotic as the other events on this list, but the Christmas markets in Germany are an experience not to be missed. Local art stalls, outstanding food, music, and everything from the unique design of the stalls to the lights illuminating the streets, is so visually interesting!
- When: November and December.
- Where: Throughout Germany.
Do you have any other festival or event photography tips to share? Or maybe you know of some other great festivals to add to this list. Please share in the comments below.
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- Photographing Festivals and Events – Tips for Travel Photographers