The Fun of the Fair
Enjoy our guide to photographing fairs
Whether you’re after creative long exposures or colourful candids, there’s plenty on offer at your local fair. James Paterson reveals how to capture the colour and excitement…
As the winter nights close in, touring fairgrounds light up our local streets and parks with a kaleidoscope of neon. It’s the perfect time to head out with your camera, not just to capture beautiful light shows, but also to photograph food stalls, coconut shies and candy-floss-scoffing, roller-coaster-riding revellers. There’ll be inevitable screams of delight, moments of panic, and everything in between! And then of course there are the Christmas fairs which follow a few weeks later, and which offer opportunities for slightly more relaxed images of festive fun.
There are two main approaches to photographing a fair: you can either go during the day to shoot colourful candids and detail shots, or you go in the evening to shoot long exposures that transform the rides into glowing patterns. Or you could start off in daylight and hang on until nightfall, as we did on our shoot at the so-called Malborough Mop in Wiltshire, in the south of England.
During the day
On short winter afternoons the hazy sunlight comes in at a low angle, so it often results in soft, directional illumination, which is ideal for photos of people. This is the perfect time to shoot portraits and candids. You can either shoot into the sun for delicate backlighting, or use the angle of light to create patches of highlights and shadows. It can be difficult to simplify your composition when the fairground
scenes you’re shooting are often busy. A long lens comes in handy here, as it’ll help to isolate subjects from their surroundings and emphasise background blur. As well as the people, there’s also all the paraphernalia of the fair. The brightly painted surfaces and shapes can provide a colourful contrast to your subjects.
Freeze the motion
Of course, most people come for the rides. You’ll see expressions of delight and terror everywhere you look. If you want to capture the full array of great expressions, a high shutter speed of 1/1000 sec or more may be necessary to freeze the action. Later on, when the sun goes down, a flash will help to pick people out. This is a good time to try some slow-sync flash: use a slower shutter speed and set rear-curtain flash for an atmospheric combination of blurred motion and sharp subjects (see page 56 for more on this).
Af ter dark
As dusk turns to night the fair takes on a different atmosphere. The young parents with their excited toddlers are replaced by sugared-up teens, hand-holding couples, and those drawn to the lights from nearby pubs. The sound systems crank up, the MCs keep bellowing ‘Scream if you want to go faster’, and the owner of the teacup ride decides to pack it in for the day. The mood, loosened by a cocktail of alcohol, sugar and diesel fumes, becomes more chaotic. It’s the perfect time to capture the character of the fair and any antics that may occur.
Night is also the time for long exposures, and not just because the dark
It can be diff icult to simplify your composition when the fairground scenes You’re shooting are often busy. A long lens comes in handy here, as it’ll help to isolate subjects from their surroundings and emphasise background blur
The sky provides the perfect uncluttered background!