Photographing festivals by Steve Davey

Masked Cham Dancers being photographed by a Buddhist monk, Korzo
Black Hat Dancers at the Korzok Gustor, Lake Tsomoriri, Ladakh,
Crowd of Changpa Nomads watching the Korzok Gustor, Lake Tsomori
This “Photographing Festivals” post is by Steve Davey (click on images for larger view):

I love photographing festivals – I always have done. In fact the very first story I ever got published, in Litchfield’s Ritz Newspaper in 1988, was on the Venice Carnival. I am so entranced by festivals that I was recently commissioned to write a major book entitled Around the World in 500 Festivals ( which as the more perceptive might deduce, features a listing of what I consider to be the best cultural celebrations around the world. When organising photography tours, I often try to schedule them around a local festival, believing it to be best time to experience the culture of a place.

Yet photographing festivals can be a tough ask. The very crowds and chaos that make them so much fun can also make finding a good viewpoint hard work and getting around like wading through treacle. To make things a little easier, though, I have set out my top tips for photographing festivals

A few tips for photographing festivals:

Do your research: The work starts before you even get to the festival: there is no substitute for good research. Not only do you need to know exactly what is happening, you need to be sure when it happening. Double and triple check. I have been caught out by probably the most established events website, which has got dates wrong! Be circumspect about information on the internet, and check your facts. Often websites just repeat incorrect information verbatim so be suspicious of near identical text on two different sites.

Arrive early: Allow yourself time at a festival, and wherever possible get there a day or so early to scope out an event. Use this time to confirm what is happening and to look for good angles. Establish a schedule of events that make up the festival and what you are going to try to photograph. Try to find out if there are any key moments or vital places or customs that you want to photograph. All of these are as important to photograph as the main events.

Get special access: Access is the key to photographing festivals. This starts with having a place to stay that is as close to the action as possible and your budget allows. This makes early starts and long days easier to deal with. It also means that you can stash some of your equipment but still have quick and easy access to it. You should also work out if there are any events that you will need tickets for and whether there are any rooftops or balconies that you can shoot from to get a better view.

Plan your shots: Imagine that you are shooting for a magazine, who are going to illustrate a feature with your pictures. Think of all the different style of shots that you might need: a big horizontal ‘establishing’ shot for the opening spread, a vertical full frame portrait, a close up food shot or other details. This will help you to construct the story that is your festival, and allow people who look at your work to build up a complete picture of what the even is all about. Make a mental list of all that you want to photograph. This should include all of key events, but also any behind the scenes shots, key portraits, details and even food shots.

Be technical: When shooting a festival you are not able to choose when you take your pictures. Often this will mean shooting in the middle of the day when the light is awful. To avoid the deep shadows caused by the sun being directly overhead, you should consider using a fill-in flash. Also be prepared to increase the ISO to allow a smaller aperture to boost depth of field, or a faster shutter-speed to avoid blur.

Be creative: Shoot from different viewpoints – high and low – and use a range of lenses to get different effects. Otherwise your pictures might end up samey and dull. Employ various techniques – maybe try a slow pan to show movement or freeze any action leaving people hanging in the air. If you are shooting with a flash, then consider using a slow-sync, to mix flash and motion blur. There is nothing more dull than having endless snap shots taken from the same viewpoint, in the same way with the same lens.

Take lots of pictures: With so many people around you will often have people walking into your frame or generally getting in the way. Taking a couple of shots at a time will get around this problem.

Get in close: The famed war photographer, Robert Capa, once said that if you pictures aren’t good enough, then you aren’t close enough. This is great advice if you are shooting a festival. Get in as close the action as you can. Your pictures will be for more immediate and will intrigue and engage those looking at them. After all, the worst thing you can have in your pictures is the back of another photographer who is standing closer than you are.

Take portraits: Festivals are a great opportunity to approach people and take pictures; not just of the participants, but of the watching crowds. If you want great, engaged portraits then get in close, seek permission and engage with people. Your pictures, and your experience will be much better! There is a time and a place for candid portraits, but don’t shoot them because you don’t have the guts to actually interact with people.

Don’t intrude: A lot of festivals are religious; don’t blunder into the way and intrude. Photography is how I make a living and feed my children; yet I always try to photograph with respect and will avoid taking pictures if I think I am going to offend someone, and I am always aware of not getting in the way of a festival. I am constantly amazed by the attitude of some holidaymaker who think that they have a divine right to do just what they like when taking pictures – all for their own ego! Don’t be that person!

Practicalities: Festivals are not just tough on you – they are tough on your kit as well. Your equipment might get covered in water, dust or even drink! The crowds could conceal thefts and there is always the chance of damage. Apart from making sure that you have good insurance, you should think about carrying a smaller amount of equipment. This might let you get in much closer to the action than if you are toting a heavy bag full of expensive equipment. If you are shooting at a messy festival, such as the Tomantina tomato fight, then an underwater housing can keep your precious gear dry. If you don’t have one of these, then cling film, or even a hotel shower-cap can help.

Above all though, remember that festivals are supposed to be fun. Don’t get so hung up on looking for that perfect shot that you forget the most important thing about any festival – to enjoy and truly experience it!


The Korzok Gustor

The pictures here are of the Korzok Gustor festival, near the remote Lake Tsomoriri in the high altitude region of Ladakh in the Indian Himalaya. The festival attracts Chang-Pa nomads who camp in the high plateau about the lake for their summer grazing. Over two days a series of religious events are held in the cramped courtyard, with is ringed by a roofed two storey gallery, which often creaks alarmingly holding so many people.

Changpa Nomad pilgrim applying paint to the Monastery Pashmina g
The first day is largely a preparation day: a large pole is erected in the centre of the courtyard and monks practice their slow, rhythmic dancing. The second day is the most auspicious, and starts off with various animals being herded into the courtyard. Pashmina goats, horses and even a small herd of yaks are assembled, before one of the yaks is selected and the rest taken back to pasture.

Restraining the monastery Yak, Korzok Gustor Festival, Tso Morir
Changpa Nomad pilgrim running from the Monastery Yak, Korzok Gus
In a noisy and chaotic ritual, the animals are daubed in red paint, symbolising a ritual sacrifice. The yak seemed not to understand that it was only up for a ritual sacrifice and escaped from its bonds, charging into the crowd. Most scattered whilst a few brave souls wrestled it into submission.

As the crowds form, they are kept in line by some of the novice monks who are dressed in large orange masks. Carrying, and often using, whips they wrap religious scarves around pilgrims and tourists to make a ‘contribution’ for their blessing.

Eventually the animals were driven out of the courtyard, and the religious dancing was able to start. Much of the dancing is masked Cham dancing, which acts out religious and morality plays. Characters wear large masks and tap out their rhythm with drums.

The Korzok Gustor though is most famous for the Black Hat dance, which tells the tale of the killing of an apostate king by a monk. As well as more dancing, the tale is exuberantly acted out, including the roughing up and humiliation of the king figure.

At the end of the festival, a loud procession takes a mask representing evil to the edge of the village where it is ceremonially burned, whilst being pelted with stones.

Changpa Nomad woman at the Korzok Gustor, Lake Tsomoriri,Ladakh, Masked Cham Dancer at the Korzok Gustor, Lake Tsomoriri, Ladakh, ©stevedavey11 ©stevedavey13 ©stevedavey14
Steve Davey is a writer and photographer based in London. He juggles a young family with traveling as much as possible to some of the more exotic and photogenic parts of the world. Steve has just released the second edition of Footprint Travel Photography, which has been hailed as the leading guide to traveling with a camera. The book is also available on Kindle, iBookstore, Barnes & Noble and Kobo editions.

To complement the first edition of the book, Steve launched his own range of travel photography trips to some of the most photogenic parts of the world. Uniquely pitched between a photography tour and a workshop, Steve accompanies each trip providing copious instruction as well as countless photo-opportunities. More detail on

Steve’s professional site can be found on

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