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Festival photography (10/12/2005)
By Tom Hirsch

A festival is a place where people go to have fun and be entertained. Beyond that, it's difficult to describe just what a festival is because they come in such a wide variety of types and sizes. Festivals are known by such names as Six Flags, Busch Gardens, Sea World, Hershey Park, Disney World, Disney Land, Renaissance Festivals, state fairs, county fairs, carnivals, and almost every small city in the country has its "Days." The entire city of Wisconsin Dells in south-central Wisconsin is devoted to providing a festival atmosphere during the warm months of the year.

Festivals offer great picture-taking opportunities. Possibilities for human-interest photos are limitless. And parents can be assured of prompting some great memories later on with pictures of the kids absorbed in exciting games or rides, eating cotton candy, or just watching musicians displaying their skills.

Any camera is appropriate at a festival, but the smaller the camera, and the less camera equipment you have along, the better. You don't want a heavy gadget bag around your neck while you're riding the Tilt-A-Whirl, or trying to devour a turkey leg.

For adequate versatility, the camera should have a zoom lens with at least a range of 35 to 70 millimeters (if you're using a digital camera, this would be the 35mm zoom equivalent). The wide-angle lens is great when you want an overall view of a scene or event, such as the parade as it passes near you. The telephoto lens is excellent for pulling in distant activities, or to enlarge something of interest. For example, you can use it as the kids come hurtling down the water slide, or to capture a young girl's expression as a clown paints a butterfly on her cheek.

At most festivals, photo opportunities occur so frequently that you have little time to make adjustments on the camera for optimum results. For this reason, you want to make as few decisions as necessary. If you use a film camera, an ISO 400 film is quite versatile for festival picture taking. It will allow for a fast enough shutter speed to "freeze" horses in a jousting match, and provide good exposure as you shoot a blacksmith forging a horseshoe in the subdued light of a canopy. With a digital camera, you can set the dial on the Auto or Program mode for worry-free shooting. If your camera has both modes, check the camera manual for the differences between them.

Many photographers find that the most dramatic period of time for picture-taking at festivals is from about one hour before sunset until dusk. There is still enough daylight to get detail, shadows provide more interesting effects, sunlight is warmer, and, if they are not exhausted from a long day on the go, performers are more relaxed.

Beginning about an hour before sunset, if you're shooting film, you'll want a fairly fast film, such as an ISO 1000 or 1600. Maybe even an ISO 3200 film if you don't mind the grain, and your camera will handle that fast a film. Fast film is also ideal if you plan on doing much indoor shooting. With a digital camera, you can set the ISO at the highest setting.

After dark, midway lights cast a warm glow that adds a new dimension to pictures of people, rides, and attractions. Use a very fast film, or the highest ISO digital setting. And remember to use the backlight button or increase exposure by +1 or +2 when there are bright lights in the background.

Much of the charm of festival photos is found in the genuine feeling that is only attained with available light. Under bright sunlight, there might be times when you'll want to use flash for filling in shadows on nearby subjects, but go with natural lighting whenever possible.

At a festival, there are photo opportunities from the time the gates open until they close for the night. It's difficult to spend an entire day there, but choose your favorite time period and go for it. Hopefully, you'll come refreshed another day during a different time period to get the shots you missed. 


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