On The Road; Parade Route; My Strategies For Festivals And Events

One of the things I always try to do when I’m planning a trip is check out the events calendars of the cities and towns I’ll be visiting to see what sort of festivals might be taking place. Sometimes I’ll even rearrange my schedule to make sure I hit those places at the right time; that’s how important it is for me to take advantage of these photo opportunities. Images of festivals are great storytelling pictures and great attention-getters, and they are ideal for stock sales.

I took this at Bolivia’s La Diablada festival with flash and my 17-55mm lens. The key here was positioning myself so the dust was backlit.
All Photos © 2010, Maynard Switzer, All Rights Reserved

Once I know about a festival, I’ll read up on it so I’ll know a bit about its meaning and significance. A little homework can also give me an idea of what to expect, and that’s very important because festivals and celebrations are challenging subjects. They can be chaotic. There’s a lot going on—a lot of movement and activity, and they can cover a lot of ground over a long period of time. I want the best vantage points, but I can’t get in the way of participants, viewers, or other photographers.

No flash for this, taken at a festival in Ladakh, India, at the Phyang Monastery. When I expose for someone who’s in shade—and he’s essentially in his own shadow—I try to position myself so the background is dark. That way, when I expose for the shadow, the background doesn’t wash out. Here I probably benefited from light reflecting onto him from the white monastery walls behind me. The lens was my 85mm.

I know that if there’s a parade involved, and there almost always is, I’m not going to get really good pictures if I’m behind the barricades. At home in New York City I have an advantage, so, for example, when the annual West Indian Day parade comes around, I make my way to the starting point in Brooklyn a couple of hours before the parade steps off. I can photograph the participants as they gather and put on costumes and makeup. I can wander around and get some terrific pictures. I do the same for the city’s Halloween parade.

Once a parade starts, I don’t stick to the bleachers or the roadside as an observer. I’ll get the best pictures by walking with the people. Fortunately, from my days in fashion photography, I’m able to walk backward and shoot at the same time. It’s a technique you have to develop, but you get a much more natural look to the pictures than you do by just standing still. Also, when you’re constantly moving, you seem to blend in with the group. The catch is that you have to be aware of what’s behind you, almost as if you had eyes in the back of your head. In some countries the roads aren’t very good, and you can easily step in a hole. There can also be cars on the road.

The street was in shadow when I made this photo at the Pushkar camel fair in India, and I needed flash to brighten him and the fan. For fill flash I almost always use -2 compensation, but I’ll go to full power for a backlit subject at midday. The lens was my 60mm micro.

Some parades and events offer greater opportunities than others. In Bolivia, the La Diablada festival, the Dance of the Devils, takes place in the town of Oruro. It is Bolivia’s most renowned and certainly largest festival. People come from towns and villages all over Bolivia and the festival’s parade starts early in the morning and keeps going past midnight. This festival highlights the importance of knowing what to expect. It seems that in La Diablada, water is a key element, meaning that people throw all kinds of water balloons and water bombs, so you have to be aware of where the water missiles are coming from. Because I know it’s going to happen, I’m alert to it, and I often wrap my lens with Saran wrap and place a UV filter over the front. Same sort of thing with the Holi festival in India, where they throw colored water, and I have to pretty much dress as if I’m going to throw my clothes away.