Photographing Carnivals with Lights
There are quite a few illuminated carnivals, the best known being the group of carnivals around the Bridgwater area in Somerset. At this event you have a large number of very large floats, each towing a large generator, and every float can have a very large number of light bulbs on it. There are two types of floats, those that have people moving about and the static statue like displays. We have a location guide on the Bridgwater Carnival giving more details on this. The main carnival at Bridgwater is followed by a firework display, so you might also want to read the article on how to photograph firework displays as well.
We have a listing of illuminated carnivals we are aware of. If you know of others then please let us know.
Illuminated carnivals are very popular, so expect very large crowds, and as the floats are large getting a good view through the crowd can be difficult. Some have grandstands (seating areas) that have a better view, and you pay to go in these, while street positions are free. My favourite position at Bridgwater is on one of the islands, at this position the road is wider and the vehicles are gong in a curve allowing a better view. However it can be frustrating in that, while you are behind barriers, police and others are not and they will tend to gather at the best view points and get in the way.
To get a good position you need at arrive early and then defend your position on the barriers, so that others cannot push in front of you. Some people think you should allow children to the front, but if you do then you are too far back and others on the sides of you, who do not, both get into your line of sight and may move sideways in front of you. My reply to those who ask me to allow their children in front is that it would not be safe as I might hit them with my larger lens as I move it around.
The other solution is to look to get higher up, perhaps with a platform or steps. If this is to be your approach then visit the route before and work out in advance where you want to get to. Given there is going to be a lot of people you can't just put something where you like, you would get it knocked over, plus its likely the police or someone else would be telling you to move as you are causing an obstruction. If this is your plan then its worth a trip before with a route plan, and then chat to the locals about where you can get and where the floats go. You also need to be aware that on many routes there are rest areas where the performers stop and take a break before getting going again.
There are buildings that have a good view, and you may in advance be able to arrange to gain access, however as the occupants also wish to see and probably have friends and relations who would like to as well, these windows can be crowded.
It would be better if at points along the route people were held further back so you had a better view and the police and other parasites didn't get in the way at these points.
Focusing and Depth of Field can be a problem, in that the nearest part of the float may be only a few feet from you but the furthest point a long way away.
As the floats are moving, often pieces on them are moving around and costumed performers are often dancing about, you are going to need a reasonable shutter speed. At the same time you want to have the aperture that allows a decent depth of field. While they are bright with so many bulbs on you will still find you benefit from using a fairly high ISO.
If you have a decent flash unit then its worth having it on your camera and then deciding as you go which images to use flash with and which not to. You can just turn the flash on and off but some cameras you will find have a function button and one of the things you may be able to do is to set this up to enable and disable the flash without having to turn the unit on and off.
Metering can be slightly difficult, there are so many different lighting conditions, with some so much light and others having less. Particularly with the people on the floats they may be in white and inside the lights, so very bright, or at the other extreme in black, on platforms on the edge of the float so poorly illuminated, plus every combination in between, so all you can do is to use the exposure variation a lot as you see different situations.
Unless you have a good position up above the route somewhere out of the crowd a tripod is not a practical proposition so its going to be hand held or monopod possibly.
I normally take a very large number of photographs, some closer in, some wider shots, some when floats approach and some when they are alongside me. Given that this is generally moving at walking pace and lasts around a a couple of hours, there are loads of photo opportunities, even allowing for those the other side of the barrier who get in the way. Of course its not all giant floats, there are some marching bands, majorettes, and people in fancy dress.
Like all night time shooting with crowds you need to be very careful of your camera bag and other items you have with you, particularly if you put your bag down, put your foot through the handle or something so it can't go anywhere.
I enjoy these events, and get some interesting photos, but I haven't found a use for them.