How To Photograph A Large Festival

How To Photograph A Large Festival


Hi there, my name is Anthony and I’m from . I’m going to write about my experiences and provide a few tips for photographing large festivals.

The example I’m using here is the Notting Hill Festival, which is held every year in London. The festival is located in the borough of the same name, and it’s like cramming a couple of million people in a few streets over a long weekend!

To give you an idea of what the Notting Hill Carnival is about, I put together a short video clip which shows the colour and movement of this festival. You can compare notes of what a video production conveys when compared to my photo essay, which is the main focus of this post.

This festival is the result of a travel press trip I went on, which you can read more at Darren’s Problogger site, titled How Your Blog Can Score You Free Travel.

For Starters

Large festivals seem to produce colour and movement in truckloads, so you shouldn’t have any problems finding dressed up people and other interesting characters. This is especially true if a parade is involved. The biggest trick photographing a large festival is to pick out moments that define the essence of the festival and capture a single point in time. You just have to keep a look out for good subject matter.

Couple at Notting Hill Carnival.jpg

The irony about being in a massive crowed of millions of people, is that you can be anonymous and take numerous candid shots – which I feel portrays the natural emotion of the day better, rather than having people forced to pose in front of the lens. Candid shots show what someone is feeling, or doing, at a single point of time and can be the most effective way of capturing the ëmoment’.

Having said that, since everyone is having such a good time anyway, your subject matter won’t mind posing for a photo because they’re relaxed after a few beers and partying hard! But as always, be polite and make sure to ask permission first! If you’ve got a travel/photography blog, I’ve found it’s a great ice breaker to hand over a business card with your website listed, so that your subject matter can look at the photo later on. I’ve never had anyone refuse my request to take their photo when I’ve done this!

Portaloos - Notting Hill Carnival.jpg

So in a large festival setting, you can use both candid and posed shots to mix things up a bit.

Use the Rule Of Thirds and Patterns

If you don’t know what I mean, basically divide your shot into a frame of nine squares, and make sure your focal point is in the left or right of frame, or at the top or bottom. This draws attention to the subject matter. For example, the photo of the couple leaning outside the window with the big crowd in the background focuses attention on two people having a good time, with the festival as the context.

Patterns are also an effective way to show off something. For example, the London policemen keeping an eye on the crowd. Note that I have the focal point in the right hand side of the frame, with more Bobbies trailing away to the left.

Focus on things that tell a story

Street Rubbish - Notting Hill Carnival.jpgIt’s like the classic writer’s motto – show, don’t tell the experience. For example, the pile of rubbish in the foreground with the police in background shot shows how much food is eaten on the day.

The people lining up at the portaloos (above) show some of the peripheral activities going on.

I’d also suggest hanging around the festival for a while – the Notting Hill Festival runs from morning and into the night, so the feel and activities change throughout the day.

Other Practical Issues

On the day, I used an 18-55mm and 55-200mm lens (for an APS-C sized sensor SLR) which I found a bit annoying at times because I needed to keep changing the lenses. I’d probably suggest an 18-200mm all in one purpose lens to quickly capture ëthat moment’.


While you may be in a crowd of millions of people, the key is to select great subject matter that portrays the feel of the festival. Have a look around for the interesting people, and your festival photos will come out great.

Happy Festival Photography!

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Some Older Comments

  • aneeskA February 22, 2011 07:07 pm

    Hi Anthony,

    Nice article. When you are in such a situation, are you using manual mode or aperture priority mode? From my little experience with DSLR, I have found that I often lose a moment because I am in manual mode (which didn't use to happen with my P&S). Sometimes I am in the sun / shade / etc . What do you do?

  • Trav February 19, 2011 09:15 am

    Lens changing issue for the shallow-pocketed: When I bought my camera, I wasn't too keen on the default 18-55mm lens it came with, so I ended up buying the camera body + an stabilized 18-105mm (Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-105), and am I ever glad! I can't get quite as close as my girlfriend can [without being intrusive] with her 55-200mm, but I'm still very pleased, as for now, this is the only lens I own, and it provides a fairly broad amount of focal lengths (broad enough for the time being). As the entry-level DSLR photographer I am, I've found it to be an excellent all-around lens that has proven to be more than worth the money when photographing festivals and large events. Being able to switch from wide angle to tele without having to change the lens is a great bonus (changing lenses in a crowded, bristling, possible dusty environment can be a hassle, not to mention a hazard for our treasured optics's well-being), and the VR (stabilizer) is great for low light environments or when you just have to zoom in, as well as granting an extra couple of F-stops of margin when needed (Nikon claims 3, but I can't say I entirely agree with that assertion). Although I don't want it to sound like propaganda here, I'm extremely happy with this lens's optical performance and possibilities, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

    Some of my favourite festival shots are either candid street-photography-style - adding a more personal touch to my shots, while putting them into context -, playing around with focal length to isolate an interesting person/element/scene/expression from the usually chaotic/overcrowded background, or finding a high-up spot from where I can catch a broad perspective of the whole event: in this case, taking advantage of any kind of captivating/interesting kind of lighting the scene may offer (be it natural of artificial) helps give the picture a bit more personality (although sometimes it can require a fair bit of patience just to find the right moment).

    Regarding some criticism I read above regarding the pictures, I must say, though those possibly wouldn't be the most defining pictures of the event (from my stance), I've always found it interesting to photograph the less usual, often less attractive sides of such events (toilets, security, the mess left behind...), as they're also part of the experience, and think it's a good idea to encourage others to look outside their usual scope and go for the less expected side of the festival. It's all about adding & sharing ideas; judging won't help anyone ;-)

  • Mei Teng February 18, 2011 11:38 pm

    Ditto on the changing lens. I prefer sticking to a zoom lens which will enable me to cover from wide angle to mid range.

  • Singapore wedding photography February 18, 2011 05:28 pm

    I agree with the changing lens bit. I end up carrying 2 cameras in the end, which is heavy and occassionally cumbersome. My issue is i haven't found a good and fast 18-200mm lens yet.

  • Trep Ford February 18, 2011 09:14 am

    Great tips, even if our taste in festivals is a bit different.

    I like to mix shots that show the scale (from up high or far back) with shots that connect very intimately with the people and small moments that can get lost if we don't take time to notice them. I always found festivals to be very enjoyable for exactly this reason ... opportunities to take in and convey the "big picture" as well as the tiny, personal moments. Great stuff.

  • Helene February 17, 2011 05:10 pm

    Bobby, I absolutely agree with you. The advice may be useful, but the photos don't actually tell me anything beyond what we all know about festivals. They're pretty mundane. I came to this post thinking I would find variety, diversity and interesting people, things you can find in most festivals. I am no professional and I am not being critical just for the sake of it, but for wanting to actually see emotive photographs. The first one is pretty interesting, though. Thanks for taking the time to write the article!

  • Jon C February 17, 2011 06:55 am

    I got a crash course in this the first time I took a DSLR to Burning Man....oh wow that place is a photographer's wet dream. Amazing experiences and people.

  • Kelly Carmichael February 17, 2011 04:53 am

    Since we are in the Critiquing mode, The following links are to photos shot around Oregon at festivals in 2008. They were a lot of fun to photograph but again, when I do a photo excursion I am looking for ONE maybe TWO photos out of the whole event where I may have shot 50 frames or 2000. The rest of the photos are ok but most go to the pixel burial grounds. (yes I am my own worst critic!!!)

  • ScottC February 17, 2011 03:11 am

    Another tip, find some "high ground" wherever you can.

  • Jeff February 16, 2011 10:32 pm

    Wow Bobby, who are YOU to tell someone what's "lovely" or not? We all have our tastes. Don't be such an a$$

  • Steve G Bisig February 16, 2011 03:10 pm

    Good information even though the images did not help support the article.

  • Anthony From The Travel Tart February 16, 2011 09:37 am

    Thanks for the feedback! I had a great time photographing this festival, I'd love to do it again!

  • Kiran February 16, 2011 08:39 am

    Thanks for putting the spotlight on festival photography :)

  • Bobby February 16, 2011 08:03 am

    Lovely pics? Mohammed, you've got to be kidding. Fair pics at best. While I liked the expression on the two people in the window, there's nothing unusual or particularly interesting about either them OR the photo. In fact, it's rather mundane. And neither of the two other shots told me much of anything about the festival except that people eat and use the bathroom! Really. In fact from a purely photographic standpoint both photos were rather poorly composed and uninteresting. I hate to say it, but in fact Anthony didn't really even follow his own advice of "select(ing) great subject matter that portrays the feel of the festival. Have a look around for the interesting people. Sorry, but I think the whole point of this post was lost on the writer himself. I hate being critical, but show me some more photos. I'd bet you actually DO have some interesting shots. I'm waiting...

  • Toni Aull February 16, 2011 07:52 am

    Woo-Hoo....I am Thinking Someday to bring a Street Photography Here In My Home Town In Livingston,Tx.
    Your Experience Shared Is Most Welcome, Thank You

  • matabum, MaP blog February 16, 2011 07:45 am

    great article, anthony!
    street festivals are superb chance for people who wants to start with "street photography". it 's a great oportunity to get close to the people and take some amazing shots...

    i took this pic in rotterdam during some street festival...

  • Kelly Carmichael February 16, 2011 07:11 am

    A few rules I like to be sure to cover are,

    Use different perspective than the normal eye. I have given my camera on a monopod to people on top of a semi trailer and used a remote to focus & actuate the shutter.

    I also like to extend the monopod or tripod out and hold it in the air as far as I can or put the camera down to the ground and use the remote.

    I try to keep some cash in pocket because I like to offer a buck ($1.00 us currency) to people that I want to photograph. I have never been tuned down for a photo

    last and most important if you want to drum up some business, carry lots of business cards, you can never have too many but if you run out, it is not good.

  • Mohammed Ishaq February 16, 2011 07:11 am

    Lovely pics… it very honestly conveyed the mood and the fun the Carnival had! great captures.