As a professional travel photographer, I shoot regularly in nearly all genres of photography. A typical day on the road might include shooting landscapes, wildlife, cityscapes, portraits, action (sports, dance, performance), and nighttime photography. While I enjoy all types of shooting, my great joy as a photographer is capturing portraits of the people I meet. Whether close to home or halfway around the world, getting to know the people and learning about their culture through making portraits of them is a wonderful experience. And there’s no better way to capture images of many amazing people in a short time than by attending local festivals. People tend to be their best selves at special celebrations like festivals and street fairs. They dress exuberantly, dance with abandon, make new friends quickly, and (nearly always) are overjoyed to pose for photos.
I shoot about a hundred festivals and other special events every year, so I’ve learned a few tips about how to make the best images during these occasions. In today’s post I share some simple but effective techniques for capturing great portraits at festivals and other gatherings, using San Francisco’s recent How Weird Street Faire as a case study. How Weird is a vibrant and colorful, only-in-SF, annual celebration of individuality, tolerance, music, art, and hula hoops. Read on to see some of my favorite images from this year’s festival, presented along with some discussion of how they were made. To view more of my images, or to buy some, check out this gallery: How Weird photo gallery.
I see a lot of fellow photographers at events like How Weird shooting with huge telephotos and even tripods, like they’re after images of wildlife on a Kenyan safari. In my opinion, they are missing the point. We’re making portraits of people here, so use a normal or moderate telephoto portrait lens, preferably a fast prime lens, ditch the tripod and monopod at home, and get in close to chat with and get to know the people you’re photographing. When you interact with people, you get a sense of what makes them special, allowing both you and them to capture that special trait in your photos. Random sniping from far away with a long telephoto will yield far more bland and generic photos. All of my images at How Weird Street Faire were made with a single camera body and one lens, my trusty 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens. Sometimes simple is better, especially when it comes to capturing people at fast-moving events.
Larger groups can be challenging to capture in portraits, particularly in bustling spaces like those of a festival. When they couple I was chatting with suddenly ran into a friend and they had a group hug, I quickly stepped back a few paces and made this expressive and engaging portrait. It’s okay to break the rules sometimes–here, one of the subject’s faces is completely obscured and another’s is partially obscured, yet the portrait works because it captures the energy and affection of the moment.
When photographers argue that the “street photography” approach (candidly sneaking images of people who aren’t aware they’re present) is the best for capturing people’s true essence, I show them images like this one. This wholly genuine and unguarded moment of the girl dancing was made with her full knowledge and permission. The trick is to chat with the subject and get their permission for photography first, then to lay back for a while and let them go back to what they were doing. After a few minutes, they’ll nearly forget you’re there and they will reveal their true selves. But unlike shots you sneak without permission, now you have a subject happy to have you photographing them, and you can take your time and not have to rush your work in order to hide your shooting from them.
Often we see only the most obvious subjects at crowded, chaotic events like festivals. It’s easy to spend all our time shooting people dancing, partying, and displaying their costumes, but I try always to look for the more hidden people and infrastructure that support the event. This DJ was partially hidden atop the big dance stage and behind the banks of speakers, but she made a fun subject for this portrait.
The interactions between people are at least as much fun to observe and capture as the individuals themselves. I had chatted with and photographed a group of people for a few minutes when I observed this fun interaction, so I stepped back and framed some shots of the two young people together.
While post-processing my images after the shoot, I decided to render this one in monochrome to achieve a gritty urban street scene sort of feel. Often color can distract from the power of an image, so always consider which of your images could benefit from conversion to black-and-white.
In ordinary daily life, I find that perhaps two-thirds of people are willing to have their portrait made if the photographer spends some time getting to know them first and then asks politely. But at a festival, nearly everyone is excited about posing for portraits. The trick is to capture scenes where they show you their underlying personalities a bit, rather than just striking a cliched pose for the camera. To achieve that here, I spent a few minutes shooting, asking the couple to pose in different styles and have fun with it.
Putting it all together. Here’s a summary of the basic techniques I use when shooting portraits at festivals: 1) Use a fast prime normal or portrait lens. 2) Set your camera for a fast shutter speed (1/500 second or faster is good for dancing and other fast action), wide aperture (f/2.5 or wider is ideal except for large groups) to isolate the subject, and an ISO appropriate to the lighting of the scene (I used ISO 100 the whole day due to the bright outdoor light). 3) Get to know your subject before shooting, let them relax, and capture them during an authentic moment. 4) Try to compose the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible; of course, this is often difficult at crowded festivals. 5) During post-processing, crop to clean up the scene and then vignette just a touch to further clean up busy backgrounds.
I hope this discussion of techniques to capture portraits during festivals has been helpful. The best way to learn these techniques and to find your own style is to shoot and shoot some more!
Please leave a comment with your own thoughts and tips about how to make great images of people at celebrations.
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