How to get meaningful shots of community events and festivals.

Australian band Sunnyboys at Nightquarter on the Gold Coast in 2017.
ISO 640, 1/125 second exposure at f/2.8 with a 32mm focal length on a camera with a M4/3 sensor.

While photographing community events provides you with opportunities to hone your shooting skills, it’s not always straightforward. Getting good results requires you to be aware of what’s going on around you and making sure your equipment has been set up appropriately. You must also learn to shoot unobtrusively so as not to interfere with others – or risk being interrupted.

Shooting an event will also involve telling a story. It’s essential to look for pictures that encapsulate the spirit of the event, highlight interesting and unusual features, elicit an emotional reaction in those who view the images and ‘connect’ them to the event and its participants.

Pro surfer Stephanie Gilmore moments after winning her way through to a final at the 2015 Roxy Pro Gold Coast.

You’ll need:
– Establishing Shots that show where the event is taking place and what’s special about it;
– Detail Shots that provide close-ups showing key aspects of the event;
– People Shots depicting the participants;
– Closing Shots that summarise the event and wrap up any loose ends.

In between, watch out for any shots and angles that can contribute to the story by adding colour, vibrancy, personality and interest.

Morcheeba at Bluesfest 2018.


The equipment you use depends on the nature of the event and how much gear you’re prepared to carry – and be seen with. Basically, you’ll need a camera that can operate in aperture priority AE mode and record raw files. The ability to deliver adequate image quality at sensitivity settings up to ISO 6400 will be handy if you’re shooting indoors or after dark.

You’ll also need decent lenses with an appropriate range of focal lengths – or a fast zoom lens that covers the equivalent of about 24-135mm in 35mm format. Stabilisation – either in the camera body or the lens, or both – is a must.

Our preference is for a mirrorless camera body, partly because mirrorless cameras are usually smaller and lighter than DSLRs and, therefore, less conspicuous. However, a ‘premium’ compact camera with high-resolution EVF and a large (at least 12.8 x 9.6mm, or ‘1-inch type’) sensor plus an adequate (at least 6x) zoom range could also be used, particularly if it supports 4K video recording and you want to shoot movies as well as stills.

Benjamin Booker at Bluesfest 2018.

Fast and accurate autofocusing is important, particularly if you’re shooting in low light levels and/or recording moving subjects. Quick access to manual focus override is a useful feature, although you can probably manage without it if the camera supports spot focusing and focus tracking.

Cameras with larger sensors and newer sensor designs plus up-to-date image processors tend to perform better than those with older or smaller chips. More recent cameras will also handle artificial and mixed lighting better than older cameras and provide you with a quick way to tweak colour balance settings as you shoot. This can be important when shooting indoors or at night.

A highlight of the annual Vivid festival in Sydney involves projecting images and patterns on the sails of the Opera House. Projections on other buildings in the CBD and other light shows provide plenty of great subjects for photography. ISO 1600, 1/2 second exposure at f/5.6 with a 45mm focal length on a camera with a 1-inch type (12.8 x 9.6mm) sensor.

Shooting tips

1. Capture the spirit of the event with a range of wide-angle, close-up and even panoramic pictures that show who’s there, what they are doing and the focus of their attention.

2. Watch your exposure levels. In bright conditions keep checking highlight areas to make sure they contain usable detail. In contrasty conditions, watch out for shadows blocking up. While you might be able to restore some shadow details when editing images, they will often contain visible noise, particularly if you’ve shot JPEGs. Note: lost highlight details can never be recovered.

3. Shoot raw files with JPEGs, setting the size of the JPEGs to meet usage requirements. Small JPEGs are easy to share online as the event is unfolding but the raw files give you plenty of scope for editing and printing shots. When working outdoors you’ll often need all the dynamic range your camera can offer, while indoor venues usually contain a mixture of light sources. Raw files will record a wider brightness range than JPEGs and you’ll be able to tweak the white balance to produce the results you want.

4. Guard against noise. Two types of noise that can ruin your pictures are image noise and actual ambient noise. To counteract the first, shoot with your camera’s auto ISO setting but limit the maximum ISO to a value you know will show minimal noise. Most modern cameras will produce relatively noise-free images at sensitivities up to ISO 1600; cameras with larger sensors will support higher ISO settings. However, the camera’s two highest settings should always be avoided. Ambient noise can be your friend or your foe. If it comes from the environment it may help you to shoot without being noticed. It’s also part of the ‘atmosphere’ in the movies you record and can be included, suppressed or eliminated when clips are edited. If it’s created by the camera (shutter clicks, AF drive, etc) it will draw attention to you and may prevent you from capturing the shots you want. Cameras that can be set to a quiet mode are well worth seeking out, particularly if you shoot video.

5. Control depth of field. This is the reason we recommend using aperture priority AE. Adjusting the lens aperture lets you determine the zone in the image that will be acceptably sharp. Choose a wide aperture to isolate subjects from distracting backgrounds and a small one for keeping as much as possible within the frame as sharp. Be aware of the background. Backgrounds can become very cluttered in large crowds. You must decide whether this is an important aspect of your picture or if you want to concentrate on a small area to direct the viewer’s attention. A longer (telephoto) lens with a wide aperture will help you to isolate the subject, while a wide-angle lens with a small aperture close to the subject helps you to show the subject in context. This is a creative choice, based upon your judgment of how the subject should be rendered.

6. Choose interesting shooting angles. Often the viewpoint of the photographer will determine whether the shot is a ‘keeper’. Try to avoid taking the shots that everyone else is capturing and look for a different viewpoint. Whether it’s behind, to the side or above the subject, any difference that is novel will make your shots stand out from the crowd.

7. Prioritise people. People are the focus of all community events, so they should play an important role in your pictures. Whether it’s a concert, parade or street festival, people who attend are there to see and be seen, so there’s every reason to photograph them.
Recording large crowds of people should present no difficulties, provided you don’t get in their way. Taking candid close-ups is a trickier matter. Be aware of the basic courtesies involved with taking candid shots and be prepared to ask people to pose for your camera.

A close-up view of the Chinese New Year activities near Sydney Opera House shows a family engaging with the main display. ISO 500, 1/60 second exposure at f/8 with a 63mm focal length on a camera with a 35mm sensor.

If you are polite and undemanding and explain why you want the shot, most people will be happy to oblige.
But often the best people shots are candid, taken within a split second without attracting attention. If they are purely for your own use and you won’t be earning money from them, you don’t need to ask permission; simply take the shot and move on. If you’re noticed and the subject objects to being photographed, explain why you took the photo and, if they still object, be prepared to delete it. One shot is not worth an argument.
Remember that if you plan to use the shot commercially (ie sell it) you will need the subject to sign a model release. And your subject is within his/her rights to ask for payment, either in cash or in the form of copies of your pictures. You will also need to check the terms and conditions of photographing performance events like music shows and festivals, and be aware of the performing artists’ rights.

8. Watch your camera settings. If your camera has a focus priority setting for autofocusing, use it. Similarly, switch to centre-weighted average or spot metering when you’re working in challenging lighting.

9. Avoid flash; it draws attention to you and your camera.

10. Take care of your equipment. Events that attract large crowds can also attract pickpockets and thieves. While you’re capturing shots, you won’t have time to put equipment in your camera bag and make sure it’s secure. For this reason, it’s best to stick with one camera body and one lens and carry them around your neck throughout the event.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with the Panorama shooting mode, particularly when you want to show audience involvement. ISO 1000, 1/125 second exposure at f/2.8 with a 12mm focal length on a camera with a M4/3 sensor.

Article by Margaret Brown –  see Margaret’s photography pocket guides  

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 72   

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