Splashes of red. Yummy pot stickers. Street food. Conversations with strangers. Brightly lit Chinese lanterns. The sound of beating drums. Lion dances. Exploding fireworks. Red envelopes with money. Families having fun together. The first new moon in the Lunar Calendar. Rabbits. All this can only mean one thing. It’s that time again, when the Lunar New Year is celebrated and street photographers hit the streets.
Festivals are wonderful opportunities to practice street photography because everyone is in a great mood unless you are a street food vendor battling the demands of a hungry mob! But wait—there’s also loads of people milling around, children in prams, more lenses than you can poke a stick at and that’s before you account for all those pesky selfie sticks. Festivals can also be frustrating and challenging places to take images as there is always something or someone in your way.
I hadn’t expected the first day of this 15-day festival to be jam packed but it happened to fall on a Saturday when Sydney has also been unusually blessed with sunshine. This has been a bit of a rarity lately and it appears that everyone is more than ready to celebrate summer. Traditionally the Lunar New Year was called the Spring Festival but we don’t really care about details Down Under—a party is a party after all. The festival will last for 15 days of celebrations across our city and end when the first full moon of the Lunar calendar appears. There’ll be lots of Kodak moments, if you are brave enough to battle the crowds.
When we arrived at China Town, it appeared that the festivities would be quite spontaneous and no one was quite sure when or where the lion dancing might be. The street food vendors were doing a roaring trade and it was only five in the evening.
There are some unwritten rules for capturing festivals. Firstly, pack only what you can carry for long periods. I’ve come armed with my RF 24-105mm lens and my Canon R6. There’s enough flexibility with this zoom lens but later I would find that I could have been more creative had I also packed a wider lens! I always pack a spare battery and card and make sure I’m wearing comfortable walking shoes. Be flexible and prepared for anything. The weather can and did change. Spontaneous moments are never repeated when it comes to performers. Fortunately, the storm was just a summer afternoon burst that didn’t Stlast long. I hadn’t packed any wet weather gear because the forecast was clear but you could choose to come prepared. Find good vantage points although this is easier said than done. I wish I could carry a ladder with me or could be lifted up like the little kids were!
Engage with both the performers and the crowds who are there to have fun and are usually most obliging when it comes to having a photograph taken. While I am not a fan of posed shots, sometimes the beautiful costumes and playful moods can combine to give you a keeper. Capture the details and also go wide as this will enable you to put together a portfolio of images that tell a compelling story. Wide shots will help you capture the masses of people, the lights, the excitement and the energy of the event which is important for your narrative.
After asking around, we walk toward Haymarket where there were performers on a makeshift stage. I can hear that the lion dances are on but I’m too far away to take any images. I squeeze my way toward the action but found myself wedged against a fence surrounding the side of the stage with most of it covered in black cloth. The only way I could get any images was to hold my camera above the fence while peaking through at the stage to also enjoy the concert.
The Canon R6 has a great live view screen that can be pulled out and rotated. It gives me a good view of the images I was trying to capture. I have turned on a button that enables me to touch my screen to both focus and take an image. I’ve also turned on eye detect for people. Perfect. The shutter speed is set nice and high around 1/300 sec, to account for the movement on stage. I’m shooting on Manual with Auto ISO and an aperture of F/4. My subjects are about 3m away so this gives me enough depth of field (6m). The stage is quite small, so this will do nicely. The R6 has great stabilisation, so I am comfortable my images will be sharp enough.
But after awhile I get a little bored and walk away, only to find that the lion dances are still hanging around. Sometimes, when you are at a street festival or concert, the best images are to be found when the performers are either getting ready of have finished their act. We start chatting. A few pose for me and I hear they will be doing a street parade soon. They start walking to some unknown destination and I follow them, hoping that if I stick close to the group, I might be able to get some good shots.
Suddenly it starts bucketing. We take shelter because the lion head dresses must be protected at all costs. We chat some more. The rain clears and we walk a little more. I stick close to the performers and suddenly they are getting into position and I find I am in prime position mingling with the event photographers. Nobody asks me to leave. I’m dressed in black like a pro. The crowd is quite thick and pushing in so getting clean shots is almost out of the question. I try different perspective, go low to get some reflection and go high to eliminate the heads and other obstructions. There isn’t much time to think. I keep shooting and before I know it the drummers are drowning out everyone else and the lion dancers are on the move around China Town.
Everyone is in a wonderful mood and I know this is going to be a fun evening.