Ideas and Tips for Photographing at a Fairground

Ideas and Tips for Photographing at a Fairground

Photographing at a fairground can be fun to do. It’s a fun place to go to, with lots of people, bright lights, and action. It can also provide some challenges for capturing great photos. I have some ideas and tips if you plan on photographing at a fairground.

The fairgrounds start appearing in the Netherlands again around springtime. These travel from place to place, providing a lot of thrilling amusement for lots of people. For the photographer, it can be a challenging subject. Shooting at a fairground at nighttime offers a lot of possibilities. The lights, action, and people having a great time are excellent subjects to take pictures of.

A fairground may seem like chaos at first. How is possible to shoot nice photos in that chaos, where people are walking back and forth, talking, calling, or screaming against a backdrop of ever-changing lights and movements? Do you want to take pictures of the fairground visitors or the attractions? What settings do you need, and how can you bring order to that chaos?

Just a simple image, taken with a fast shutter speed, which freezes the action. It's a nice snapshot. But you should try to make something more than just a snapshot.

Camera Settings

It’s impossible to use one setting that works for every kind of photography at a fairground. The correct setting depends on the result you want to achieve or the subject you are capturing. Photographers often ask about the EXIF data when seeing a photo that is shot at a fairground. But that won’t offer a lot of help when they make their own attempt.

There are basically two kinds of photos you can take. The one is capturing the moments of people at the fairground. The other is the movements by the fairground attractions. Both require different settings.

Shooting people at a fairground. Use the available light.

The first one is perhaps the most difficult one. Shooting people often requires a reasonably fast shutter speed. It means you have to rely on high ISO levels, even if you’re able to use a wide aperture like f/1.8 or f/1.4. I definitely would recommend a narrow depth of field in order to isolate someone from their surroundings. It offers a way of reducing distractions in the background. Often, f/2.8 will do nicely.

A lot of things are happening at a fairground. Just keep an eye out and find the moments that are worth capturing.

Exposure can be tricky due to the big difference in light levels. The background is often much brighter compared to your subject. You either have to choose between exposure for the highlights and the subject in shadow or a well-exposed subject and blown-out highlights in the back. The choice is yours. It’s possible to use fill flash, but that will draw attention.

Capturing movement can be much easier. Just use a narrow aperture and a low ISO level. The shutter speed will become long enough to capture the movement of the lights. You could even use a neutral density filter to achieve the desired shutter speed more easily, but I wouldn’t recommend something that is beyond three stops. Of course, a tripod is advisable.

Using a slow shutter speed will help to capture the movement of the fairground attractions.The results can be quite surprising.

Capture the silhouettes of people in front of an attraction. It doesn't matter if they're moving.

Try to see how a spinning fairground attraction is moving, and try to find the best composition.

A Sense of Calmness in the Photo

A fairground can be quite chaotic. The chaos can be distracting if you try to capture too much in the frame. The use of a wide angle lens may allow you to get a lot of the lights and attractions in one shot, but it may not result in an attractive image.

It’s often better to choose a subject and concentrate on that. For instance, zoom in on people and capture the things they’re doing. Or you can capture great silhouettes of people who are standing in front of a brightly lit fairground attraction. Combine this with a longer shutter speed, and the results may surprise you.

Capturing Movement

Wherever you look at a fairground, it all seems to move. The attractions and their lights never stand still. Capturing these attractions with a fast shutter speed doesn’t show the dynamics of the fairground; it just freezes the moment. Extend your shutter speed to capture that movement. Sometime,s one second is enough, but you may want to experiment with that.

Finding nice details can be challenging, but also rewarding. Sometimes, you just have to be patient.

As said in the previous chapter, adding a human element can help to make the photo more attractive. It gives a sense of dimension, something the viewer can relate to. It doesn’t matter if these people move during a longer exposure. It only adds to the dynamics of the fairground.

Using Fill Flash

To solve the difference in light levels between people and the background, fill flash can be helpful. Just set the exposure for the background and use the flash to light your subject. If you like, try dragging the shutter to add movement in the back.

Ask visitors to pose, or bring your own model. Merge the ambient exposure with the flash.

A fill flash may not be suitable for candid shots, as the bright flash draws attention. If you want to use fill flash, just ask people to pose. You’ll be surprised at how willing they are. Or you can bring your own model for a great photo shoot.

By seeing the movement of attractions, you can find fun compositions with your model. I used fill flash and a longer shutter speed.

Use Your Creativity

The lights at a fairground offer a lot of room for creativity. Especially long shutter speeds are a great way to express that creativity. But instead of shooting long exposures from a tripod, try them handheld. Use intentional camera movement (ICM) as a special effect. 

Intentional camera movement can be fun.

Perhaps your camera offers in-camera multiple exposures. The fairground is a perfect spot for this kind of images. Combine an in-focus capture and an out-of-focus shot with a large aperture for the so-called bokeh balls. Or you can combine a short shutter speed and a fast shutter speed. Let your imagination be your guide.

Multiple exposures in camera: one with fill flash, the second out of focus and with a wide aperture.

Do You Have Other Ideas or Tips?

There are probably a lot of other photographic possibilities at a fairground. Just try things out, no matter how silly they may seem at first. Look at the results at home, and go a second time with the knowledge and inspiration you get from your first results.

Just experiment with camera settings and camera options like multiple exposures. Try to capture people as well. 

ICM techniques combined with panning. Experiment with your shutter speed untill you get the result you like.

Perhaps you have another great idea or tip for this kind of photography. If you do, please share it in a comment below. It may help to achieve a lot of great and fun photos at a fairground.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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