Funnel cakes, ferris wheels and fun houses - what could be better than a county fair? With all those sights and lights, carnival photos should almost take themselves. Except that they usually don't. So why is it so easy to capture blurry, chaotic and generally uninteresting shots at a carnival, and so hard to bring home photos that wow?
Carnival photography is tricky for a couple of reasons, and once you can pinpoint why your photos don't have that wow-factor, you'll be able to avoid those ever-present shooting conditions that create uninteresting photos even in that most interesting of settings.
[Top image: Disney - Cinderella's Golden Carousel Detail by Flickr user Express Monorail]
Avoid Chaos and Monotony
Problem number one: Carnivals are full of people. Most of the time, these people are standing around with their mouths open, trying to wipe pizza sauce off of a screaming toddler or loitering in front of the ticket booth wondering where to go next. These people do not make for compelling carnival shots, as ubiquitous as they are. So crop them out. Avoid wide shots of crowds of people, because those shots will look exactly like what they are - chaotic.
Of course, people are also the soul of any carnival, so don't neglect them either. Instead of shooting wide, zoom in on small groups or individuals doing those things we love about carnivals--riding the rides, eating cotton candy, and losing big time at that game where you have to throw a ping pong ball in a goldfish bowl.
Make sure you're there at the right time
Problem number two: Carnivals are less interesting during the day, and harder to shoot at night. Carnivals have their own golden hour, and it isn't that late afternoon sun that photographers are always prattling about. A carnival transforms from a dusty, disordered, visual nightmare to an almost otherworldly land of color and light after the sun goes down, but before it gets dark. Once this happens you have about 45 minutes to get your best shots of the evening. Shooting during this time will bring out all the colors in the carnival lights while giving you a beautiful deep blue sky as a backdrop. You'll also capture detail in the environment that you'll lose as the light fades.
Bring the Right Stuff
Some fairs frown on tripods and won't let you bring them through the gates. Others don't really seem to care. Either way, if you're with your family you may not really want to lug a tripod around with you anyway. If this is the case, you could stash a Gorillapod in your camera bag or just get creative about using railings and fences to stabilize your camera. But the bottom line is, a stable camera will make for a more compelling photo. As the sky darkens, you'll need to increase your shutter speed and you won't be able to do that if you can't find a way to keep that camera still. So if lugging a tripod and a couple of kids around doesn't sound particularly appealing to you, consider visiting the fair solo one evening so you can get a few shots of the spinning lights in all their splendor. And bring a cable release, too - that will make it easier to get the right shot at the right time without causing accidental camera shake.
You'll also need a camera that has a manual mode, because the inbuilt light meter on your camera is going to give you all kinds of wonky readings in the changing light, and you're probably not going to agree with its exposure decisions.
Bring a couple of lenses - a long zoom and a wide angle at the very least. If you want to capture a ride in its entirety, you'll need the wide angle lens. Carnival rides are huge and packed pretty closely together, so sometimes it's difficult to even step back far enough to get the whole ride in one frame. And if you want to capture the expressions on your kids' faces as they wind that first bend on the roller coaster, you'll need the zoom lens to get close enough.
Use the Right Settings
Many modern digital cameras can produce good photos at higher ISOs, without all that ugly noise that often plagues photos taken with a high ISO value. While it is generally a good idea to keep the ISO as low as you can, don't be afraid to turn it up when you think you need to do so in order to get the best shot.
Shoot in RAW, if you can. Carnivals are full of color, highlight and shadow, and the potential dynamic range is too good to pass up. Shooting in RAW will help you capture the full dynamic range of the scene, which will ultimately make for better images.
Track Your Subject
You've probably seen those amazing action photos where the subject is frozen but the background has a wonderful motion blur. This is done using a technique called "tracking" or "panning". It's tough to get the hang of and it does require a lot of practice, so try it out a few times and then try it a few times more. To track your subject, use a slower shutter speed and try to move your camera at the same speed as the moving object you're trying to photograph. (Tip: you can do this when hand-holding a camera if your shutter speed isn't too slow, but you'll have better luck with a tripod or something else you can use to stabilize your camera). You can also use your onboard flash to freeze your subject amidst all that motion blur. This technique is great for photographing people on rides.
Pick the Right Rides, and Take Lots of Shots
If you're hunting light trails, choose rides that spin erratically and/or have lots of color - these will give you the best light trails.
Carnival rides move fast, so you may not need a really long exposure to get a great shot of a spinning ride. They also change color, and sometimes one shot of the exact same ride at the exact same shutter speed looks completely different than another - one may have few lights or just boring white ones while the other is full of reds and blues. This is where it's handy to take lots of photos, and I mean lots. For each ride shoot a series of images at different shutter speeds, adjusting your aperture as needed. You'll be a lot happier with a half dozen images to choose from, rather than just one you later decide was taken at the wrong shutter speed.
A final note: carnivals are fun to visit and fun to photograph, but they are also fraught with peril for photographers who have expensive or beloved cameras. Theft is common, so don't leave your camera sitting on that tripod. And breakage is even more common, so make sure to shield your stuff from that pack of rampaging grade schoolers who probably don't have very good spatial awareness. And for goodness sake, don't take your camera on board the Screaming Slingshot of Death, because though you'll probably survive, your poor DSLR may not.
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