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Regardless of whether you are a keen amateur or a working pro, there are certain environments that encourage great photography. Festivals rank pretty high up on my list. Festivals come in all shapes and sizes and cater to all kinds of tastes. This is precisely what makes them such great places to try shooting new subject material, new techniques and new tactics. Above all, you'll have a great time in the process! In this practical guide, using some recent examples from a UK-based world music festival, I am going to offer up some tips about how you might take your photography to the next level by experimenting in this environment.
Step 1: Amateur or professional?
First things first, it’s important to decide who you are going to be at the festival. Whether you consider yourself an amateur or a professional photographer, this might be one opportunity where you can try out either option. The terms amateur and professional are hotly contested, but quite simply, what I mean here is: are you going to try and make some money from your pictures or are you just going to casually take pictures of anything that takes your fancy?
Each option has its advantages and disadvantages, but it might be an opportunity to either take a break from the intensity and focus of your usual photographic work, or give yourself a bit of a challenge and a taste of what it’s like as a working pro. Going as a ‘professional’ often means you get a photo pass, and sometimes this even comes with a ticket. This means that, even though you are working, you get to enjoy many of the festival delights without the often-substantial costs.
Having a photo pass not only grants you access to more places than you would have as a normal festival-goer, but a nice lanyard and pass also legitimizes your presence as a photographer to otherwise wary subjects.
Step 2: How to apply for a photo pass
Each festival will have its different set of protocols, but as a rule, the earlier you apply, the more likely a chance you will have of getting a pass.
First of all, head on over to the festival website. There may be a form to fill in for press requests or you may have to send an email over to the most likely contact on the list. In the email, be honest about your intentions and whether you want to work for the festival directly or whether you simply want an opportunity to shoot for your portfolio. It is rare that festivals will give out tickets and passes to independents unless they can guarantee some positive exposure, but if you send in a small portfolio of some of your work, their PR team may be interested in taking you on.
Alternatively, you could contact your local newspaper (or the one closest to the location of the festival) and enquire whether they would like some photo coverage of the festival. Staffers are in short supply these days, so the paper may be happy to send you ‘on assignment’ if you can convince them you’re up to the job and won’t just take advantage of a freebie.
Finally, you could contact a magazine or blog that is related to the content at the festival and ask if you can attend on their behalf in exchange for some killer snaps! They may not pay for you to get in, but if you pick your publication correctly, they may well be interested in some of your shots.
Regardless of how you approach it, you’re bound to be able to get work that will look great on your portfolio, be good for a stock library, and most certainly liven up the dullest of walls as a framed print.
Step 3: Tactics!
Ultimately, there is something to be taken from both the amateur and profession camps. Professionals are often given briefs to work to (relating to subject material, aesthetics, etc.). Given the large amount of subject matter at festivals, giving yourself a brief can provide some necessary focus and help it seem less overwhelming. The tendency at large events like this can be to rush around in a photo-frenzy, trying to snap everything. Sometimes, however, the best approach can be to stay still for a while and see what comes to you. You can see how an area or situation develops over time. Having said that, the freedom of not having an official brief means that you are able to wander aimlessly, in search of that elusive moment.
Either way, your first question should probably be: what is the main event? It may be a straightforward music festival (such as Glastontbury or Lollapalooza), or it might have a specific focus, theme or reputation. Choosing your festival obviously comes down to your own interests and tastes. Basically, you want to take pictures of things that interest you!
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