There are a lot of festivals in the world: obscure or traditional parties where all sanity and reason seems to be suspended and whole towns give themselves up to a damn good party. Sometimes the roots of a festival are religious, other times they’re a little more difficult to pin down, but whatever the background, festival time is the quintessential time to experience a destination.
Of course, you could visit a town during the other 51 weeks of the year and look at postcards of the annual festival, but why miss the opportunity to appear in the postcards of the future or indeed make your own?
Some people try to avoid festivals, citing crowds, high prices and difficulty in finding accommodation, but others, like me, schedule their travels to be there just at the time when a place will be at its most chaotic and exciting.
Here are ten things to remember if you want to get great festival pictures and also bring yourself and your camera home safely.
Know what’s going on Try to find out what events are scheduled – there is no substitute for knowledge. Ask as many people as you can and don’t take one person’s opinion as fact, even if they happen to work for the tourist board. Remember that not everyone works on Swiss time, so be flexible and be prepared to wait around for a while.
Get a good vantage point To get a classic overview of a festival, you’ll need to find a high vantage point: this might be a rooftop, balcony or just a high wall. This will allow you to get a shot over the crowds, not of the back of all of their heads. You might have to be prepared to pay or cajole someone or just sneak in somewhere, but it will be well worth it.
Move fast, and then don’t…
If you’re photographing a procession, be prepared to move fast to keep up, but also be prepared to regularly stop and let the procession pass you. This will result in better, more considered photographs and probably fewer dropped lenses and lens caps too.
Fight through the crowds Festivals are often impossibly crowded, and moving around can be hard. Take the minimum amount of gear and a small bag and you’ll find it easier to get past people. If you can get some sort of pass from the organisers it can really help. Otherwise, just dress and act like you have one and people might automatically move out of your way.
Protect your gear Whether it’s the wild water fights of Lao New Year, or the massive tomato fight that is Valencia’s La Tomatina, you’ll often have to shield your camera. A good rain cover is ideal, but at a pinch cling-film or a plastic bag combined with an elastic bag can help.
Don’t photograph when drunk You want to enjoy the party and have fun, but you don’t want to drop/lose/forget how to use your camera. Join in, but try not to lose control: at least not until you’ve got the photographs. Then put your camera away and head out to party.
Look for other events. Most festivals will have a number of things that happen in parallel to the main events. These might be feasts, religious ceremonies or even a crazy water fight. Photographing these can give a more rounded coverage, with a better feeling of the overall atmosphere of the festival.
Shoot a photostory Rather than snapping random single shots, imagine you’re photographing a story for a magazine, and take a range of shots using a various techniques. Take portraits, establishing shots, action shots and details. It can be worth studying your favourite magazines to get an idea of the sort of shots they use to illustrate a story.
Be prepared Always take adequate batteries and memory cards as you may be out all day taking pictures.
Be flexible and have fun The more fun you’re having, the more atmospheric your pictures will be. People will relate to you better and you will get more empathetic portraits.
Steve has just returned from leading a photography tour to Lao New Year at Luang Prabang in Laos. To join him photographing a religious festival in Ladakh, or a Berber Wedding Festival in Morocco check out: http://www.bettertravelphotography.com/phototours