First wear comfortable and cool shoes. Now when I say cool I don’t mean trendy I do mean cool. Most parades take place on roadways and most roadways in the summer get hot. So will your feet, so wear a shoe that lets your feet breath. Really good walking shoes (in photographer’s black of course) are terrific. If you’re feet give out, you’re out.
Wear black clothing as much as possible. It’s true, a photographer dressed in black blends into the background and you’re less visible and distracting to your subjects. On really sunny days you can make an exception but don’t look like you’re a tourist or some kind of hairball Gonzo photographer as you’ll just get kicked to the sidelines. Look like a pro and you’ll get treated like a pro.
Wear a hat. I know this makes for awkward moments when shooting photos but if it’s a sunny day you have to wear a hat.
Don’t wear sunglasses especially polarized sunglasses. Sunglasses so change the light that I can’t use them when I’m shooting.
If you think you’re going to do a lot of this sort of special event photography get a couple of black T-shirts made with the words “Official” or “Event” Photographer printed on the back and front. The lettering (especially on the front) doesn’t need to be huge but large enough that a cop walking up to can read it at 10 feet. A buddy of mine made up his own “press credentials” credentials and hangs them around his neck. Works like a charm.
Go to a quick printer and have 500 business cards made up on white stock with raised black printing that has your name on them with your new title of “Event Photographer” under and your gallery web address and email. Hand them out to anybody who asks. You can build a special event photography business this way.
BTW at the end of the event send a link to the organizers with your prints and ask if they’d like you to shoot next year for them. (See below about whether or not you can make money at this.)
Bring water with you. Unless you know for certain that water will be provided on route don’t count on there being water available.
Bring one and two dollar coins to purchase water from vendors.
If at all possible shoot from inside the parade. In other words get on the roadway and walk up to your subjects as they are walking towards you.
If you don’t have some sort of official status to be on the roadway pretend that you do. Most organizers and cops will leave you alone if they believe your the “official” photographer.
If anyone stops you just say “I’m shooting the event”. Most will misunderstand you to have said you’re shooting for the event organizers and will leave you alone.
If you’re stopped by officials or the police and told to move to the crowd do so and then walk 100 meters away and get back into the action. Even the most officious officials will leave you alone if you aren’t being disruptive. My favourite trick is to get the official or the cop to pose with somebody from the parade as they are passing by. Once they let you shoot their photo you’ll be consider official.
I like to find a shady spot if possible and shoot into the sun which means shooting east in the morning and west in the evening. Yes you’ll get some shots were faces are in too much shadow but the backlighting on costumes will make them burst out with colour.
Rainy day parades can be more interesting than parades on sunny days.
If you are in the parade pose some of your shots. Using big arm and hand gestures get people to stand closer or hug each other or kiss. Do whatever it takes to create action shots.
If somebody looks like their getting seriously pissed with you being in front of them move away. There’s lots to shoot.
As for equipment, less is more.
If you have an 18mm to 105mm (or better yet 200 or 300mm) on a decent (semi-pro level) DSLR with either a second battery in your pocket or a dual battery grip on the camera that’s all you need. If you’re being paid for your shoots, a hot shoe mounted big flash can make for some pretty nice images when balanced with the available light around you. Bring extra batteries for the flash.
Okay real pros bring a second camera body with a second lens. If you’ve got a second body bring it and put on either a super wide 10-12mm to 20-24mm or a fast 30-35 f/1.8 or better lens.
The super wide will allow you to walk into groups a create amazing shots because of the extreme angle of view. It will allow you to distort shots of musicians marching with trombones or drums.
The fast semi-wide 35mm is the only lens you really need if you’re shooting from the middle of the parade and best of all it will create very shallow depth of field shots and will allow you to shoot without a flash way into the twilight of early evening.
Do not bring a camera bag with you unless it’s absolutely necessary. First it will kill you after the first hour. Second you’ll bang into people with it. Third it will slow you down. Fourth you don’t need it if you’re only carrying one or two cameras.
If all you’ve got is one camera body with a kit lens of 18-55mm you can get away with this setup but you’ll have to work harder to get the shots you want.
Put some extra memory cards in you pocket and bring a soft eyeglasses cloth to clean your lenses as the day progresses.
Can you shoot a parade with something less than a DSLR?
Yes you can. I shot the 2012 Toronto Gay Pride Day Parade using two Olympus Pen cameras but it would have been easier to use my Nikons.
Most point and shoots and other non-DSLR cameras like the Micro 4/5th Olympus Pens can produce professional-quality images. In fact, I shot the Gay Pride Parade with the Olympus cameras in JPG mode Large Medium (not Large Fine) format which yielded JPGs from 4 to 7 megs in size which is big enough to print 11″X14″ prints and still allows for some cropping without losing quality online. And since almost all of my shots never go farther than the Internet where 100K files are plenty big enough, these JPGs were perfect.
Now after revealing I shot JPGs I’ll also reveal that for the most part I shot in Automatic Mode!
Why? Because automatic Pens, Sonys, Panasonics and all point and shoots do not allow for user changes to the controls. You get to push the shutter button and the camera does the rest.
Once you go off automatic all the little dials and control knobs on the top or back of these cameras are turned on. For normal shooting that’s wonderful as you can now customize your settings for a specific shot.
For pro-level shooting parades it’s terrible because, especially if you’re shooting with two cameras, you will inadvertently move critical control settings such as exposure compensation or two-second timer (You can just tell this happened to me can’t you!!) or focusing squares and worse of all you may not realize it until you get home and view your images online (This didn’t happen to me. After a couple of attempts at shooting in Program and Aperture Modes I went back to Automatic and for the most part got great images.)
The big advantage to DSLRs, especially the more expensive ones, is they can shoot more rapidly and more often than smaller cameras. They can recycle faster and there’s virtually no hesitation between when you press the shutter button and when the photograph is shot. The Pens are pretty good but as their batteries exhaust they do slow down and this is frustrating.
In their defence smaller cameras are much much easier to carry than even one DSLR.
On my Pens I had a 40mm to 150mm (80 to 300mm equivalent in 35mm terms) on one body and the 17mm pancake (34mm equivalent) on the other. I could have gone with my 9-18mm (18-36mm equivalent) f/4-5.6 super wide but it’s not as fast as the 17mm at f/2.8 and I was shooting from behind the police barriers so the 17mm made more sense as it has a little more reach and I could shoot it without even framing.
I bought the Pens for travel (after lugging my Nikons through Brazil a couple of years ago) and I also got one for my wife who loves hers and has taken great travel shots with it. All the Pen bodies, lenses (and I’ve got five so far) and flashes with the electronic viewfinder (which is a must-buy) fit into a Think Tank Disguise messenger bag that I can easily carry onboard an aircraft and stow under the seat or in the above seat bins. I can carry it over my shoulder all day long without complaint. My two Nikons with battery grips and with just some of my equipment and lenses can fit into a Think Tank Shape Shifter bag that I can barely lift when filled.
Now here’s a question: Can you sell your special event photography and actually make some money at it?
I shoot a lot of my special event photography because I enjoy doing it. I do shoot for some organizers for photo credits and letters of recommendation which I use with my commercial clients when I’m doing a paying gig.
I publish all my best shots online at Flickr (where they get picked up by the photography community) and on my professional site at SmugMug where I post the images in full resolution without a watermark which I think is ugly. If I wanted to protect my shots I would use a discreet watermark on images that were less than 50 kilobytes in size.
Anyone is free to use any of the shots for non-commercial purposes. In other words, if you are making money from the event, I want to be paid but if the event is a community activity or other type of special event I am quite willing to shoot it for you and not charge you for the work. For example, I shoot the Toronto Zombie Walk each year and I post the images the next day and local zombies download them for use on their personal websites and I’m fine with that.
One of the ways to get business is to send emails to all the identifiable groups in the special event and let them know that you have a photo of their float or president or whatever and invite them to view the images at your gallery site (You do have a SmugMug or at least Flickr site don’t you?) with a notice that the images can be used again for non commercial use and contact you for information about commercial use.
For most of the special event images I sell in this way, depending on the agency, the photos cost between $20 and $50 each. It’s not a lot of money but it pays for the gas.. What I’m looking for is an opportunity to shoot for the organization next year and negotiate a more lucrative deal.
Get your local community calendar and at least six months ahead of the event send a proposal to the organizers and follow it up with a phone call. There may not be a budget for photography but you might be allowed to sell your photos to the participants for an agreed upon sum.
And, don’t forget your local politicians.
I used to shoot exclusively for our local MP at all of his political special events. We had an arrangement where whenever he’d shake someone’s hand and reach out and turn them toward me with his other arm that was my signal to shoot the photo of that greeting. I could make several hundred dollars an event and this was 30 years ago. Politicians haven’t changed and they do have budgets for marketing themselves.
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