I spent the spookiest night of the year shooting halloween street photography at the West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval. And while the party raged on into the wee hours of the morning I learned a few things about shooting an event of this scale. Hit the jump to check out my lessons learned!
10 Things I Learned Shooting Halloween Street Photography In West Hollywood
I like to think I’m ready for just about anything as a street photographer. But when I decided to shoot at the West Hallywood Halloween Carnaval I realized I might be in over my head. The festival attracts nearly 500,000 partiers to Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood for a night of costumes and partying and I braved the sea of humanity with nothing but camera and flash.
It was a little bit scarey and a whole lot of fun. And I came away with a few ideas to make shooting a large scale event like this easier in the future. So here are the 10 things I learned shooting Halloween street photography in West Hollywood.
Go Flash Or Go Home
There’s no way around it. If you’re going to shoot at night you’re going to need a flash.
I know, I know.. The mighty Sony A7S can shoot in complete darkness so there’s no need for flash, right? WRONG! Apart from the interface issues I have with Sony’s A7 series of cameras, even the A7S with it’s incredible low light ability suffers from terrible colors at its highest ISO. No matter how you look at it, the flash is your friend when shooting at night.
But how you do it makes all difference in the world.
I generally like to drag my shutter to let in a bit of the ambient light. Thie can create light trails and all sort of interesting artifacts on top of giving your shots a sense of place instead of stark figures on a black background. I generally shoot in manual mode as the double flash of TTL throws off my timing. It’s not as hard as you might think to shoot manual flash – just know your gear and practice before you head out.
Set your camera to f/8 and set your flash at a power level that properly exposes your subject at a given focus distance and juggle shutter speed, ISO and aperture to balance the flash to the ambient light.
Because flash exposure isn’t affected by shutter speed (the flash duration is always way faster than your shutter speed) you can use shutter speed to control the exposure of ambient light in the background. Focal plane shutters will have a maximum shutter speed that can sync with your flash so if your ambient exposure is above that speed you’ll need to lower ISO instead of raising shutter speed. It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it!
Be sure to check out the Two Cute Dogs Guide To Flash Street Photography on StreetShootr for a more in-depth discussion of shooting flash on the street.
I work with off-camera flash so I can control the angle of light and create a few more opportunities on the crowded streets. By angling the flash you can shoot groups of people with more even illumination and in general it’s just more interesting that the flat on camera flash that everyone’s used to seeing. One more benefit of off-camera flash is I that can move the flash backwards and forwards to control exposure for those moments when a subject might creep a little closer to the camera.
You can do this with an inexpsensive off-camera flash cord but I used a wireless trigger so I wouldn’t be fighting with wires all night. My kit included a Fuji X-Pro2 with 23mm f/2 lens plus a LumoPro LP180 flash with PocketWizard PlusX wireless triggers.
I’d probably go with a smaller more compact set up in the future as the combination of the LumoPro LP180 with a PocketWizard strapped to it is a honking big chunk of plastic that was sometimes difficult to manage. A lot of street guys use the Yongnuo 560 Mark IV and 603 II wireless trigger for because they’re inexpensive and resasonably reliable. The 560 Mark IV has built in wireless so you end up with a fairly compact package that will get the job done.
These are knock-off chinese products that are super cheap so use at your own risk!
Be A Part Of What’s Happening
When shooting Halloween street photography, there’s no point lurking around in the corners and hoping nobody notices you. You’re shooting flash at night, of course people are going to notice you!
At events like this, I find it better to talk to people and become a part of what’s happening. Don’t influence the action or pose people but let them see you’re having a great time shooting then look for candid moments in their natural acceptance of you. Enjoy their reactions and document the event as an unplanned adventure.
Some people will ham it up for the camera (in fact, almost everyone will strike a pose when you pull out your camera). And there’s nothing wrong with that! But the more people see you doing your job the more likely they will be to simply accept you. And that’s when you can disappear and shoot people as they really are in the moment.
Let your vision be influenced by the event as it unfolds. Relax, have fun and enjoy the process!
Everything Is Fair Game, Until It’s Not
At large scale events like the West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval, people go out for the purpose of being seen and most people are excited to be in a picture. In a venue like this it’s safe to assume that everything is fair game until it’s not.
On the few occasions when people questioned me for shooting them or gave me a dirty look, a simple “Happy Halloween” usually turned the page and we went our seperate ways. Of course you still have to keep your wits about you and use your head but I’d say there’s no reason why you shouldn’t shoot anything you see.
2 men kissing? Got it. A 12 foot tall troll costume? Yup, got that too. Countless Hillaries and Donalds? Fer shiz. It’s a party atmosphere and everyone is in a great mood. Be repsectful and curious and have a great night!
Concentrate On Character
When you’re shooting flash at night there are some practical limitations to what you can include in the frame. Light falls off quickly at close range so you’re not going to be able to do much with layers. Composition is always important but it’s a great time to focus on the character of the people you’re shooting!
This is a great exercise for when you’re shooting ambient light as well. Look for unusual expressions, and interesting relationships in small groups of people. Emphasize the unique character that made your subject interesting in the first place.
Connect with your subjects on an emotional level. Explore the night and fill your frame with its many unique characters. It’s actually a lot of fun!
Masks Are Boring
The best costumes don’t come out of a box. The best costumes are homemade concoctions designed to convey an idea as unique as the person wearing it. Anyone can buy a mask and put it on. Masks are boring.
In general I avoid shooting people wearing masks as they hide the subject and create images that are just a description of what that particular mask looked like. We’re not shooting catalog shots here!
If you really want to shoot someone wearing a mask look for other people in the group to hold the frame together. This is a tricky one that is difficult to pull off under the best circumstances but pixels are free so shoot away and worry about it later!
Let The Party Come To You
When the streets are closed for an event you can be sure that people are going to be on the move. If you walk along with the crowd you’re going to be stuck seeing the same people for an extended period of time so it’s a good idea to stake out a location and let the party come to you!
Find a location where there’s a break in the crowd or an interesting background and don’t just stand on the sidelines. Jump right in the middle of the crowd and look for interesting characters all around you. If things get stale where you’re standing then it’s easy enough to migrate to a new location a fresh batch of new people to shoot.
I used this stick and move method for the entire night and never ran out of interesting new characters to shoot.
The Optical Viewfinder Is The King Of The Night
I’ve talked a lot about how far electronic viewfinders (EVFs) have come in recent years. EVFs now have sparkling clear images with high refresh rates that generally look great under most shooting conditions.
But when you’re shooting at night EVFs tend to operate with high gain and low frame rates. The viewfinder image can look bad enough to take you out of the moment so you end up looking at the problems with technology instead of the subjects in front of your camera. Hate that.
I was shooting with a Fuji X-Pro2 and 23mm f/2 lens for this event and the optical viewfinder was a dream in the dark. Not only could I clearly see the people I was shooting, but I could visually confirm the flash went off with each exposure. On top of this, the OVF draws way less power than a conventional EVF so I was free to shoot a little longer on my limited supply of batteries.
Most of the time I used the EVF in the X-Pro2 but the OVF was definitely the king of the night!
Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate, Hate, Hate
Any time you get a large gathering of people together to celebrate a pagan festival like Halloween, you’re bound to attract the religous zealots. Megaphones in hand as they call out the crowds for wearing costumes instead of staying at home and praying. We’re all going to burn in hell!
The temptation here is to use some corny juxtaposition to show the futility of their sermon. Sexy nuns dancing in front of their signs?
Solemn devils standing and watching as they yell at the crowd? Shots like this have been done a million times!
If you have to shoot these guys then I’d recommend skipping the obvious visual cliches and concentrate on the protesters themselves. This particular group was made up of tough looking former biker types and the closer I got the more interesting they became. Try to include some element in the frame that shows people reacting to their message so it’s not just another pic of people yelling.
This is a tough one but some good shots can be had if you’re in the right place at the right time. Just don’t waste all night on these people… There’s so many other interesting things happening!
Beware Of Event Restrictions
We live in an age of security where any large scale event has to be protected from a variety of attacks. We’re used to not taking liquids on planes but more and more events are limiting what you can bring with you. On the day of the West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval I happened to watch a local news report that stated no bags would be allowed at the event. NO BAGS OF ANY KIND! All personal belongings had to be carried in a clear plastic bag.
This put a huge crimp in my plans and I had to suddenly rethink my entire kit. I stripped everything down to the camera, flash and wireless controllers plus 2 enough extra batteries to fill my pockets. It was a major pain but I got to the event without issue.
And once I go there I saw JUST ABOUT EVERYONE else had a bag on their shoulder. So much for following the rules!
Best to check these things in advance though. Would hate to get all the way to the event and find out you can’t get in because you’re carrying a camera bag!
It’s Never Too Late
If shooting Halloween street photography in West Hollywood taught me one thing it’s that all the fun happens when mere mortals have already gone to bed. While the festival officially ends at 11 pm most people don’t even venture out until after midnight!
Of course there’s a practical limit to how long any one person can stay awake but the longer you can stick with the action on the street the more opportunities you’re going to have for memorable shots. At some point the sheer volume of people will make it tough to shoot anything but this tends to happen in waves. Grab yourself an espresso and recharge while you wait for the crowd to thin a little. Then when you’re jacked up on caffeine you can get right back at it.
Things get really interesting when everyone is tired and ready to go home. Pretenses drop and people stop acting like the character of their costume. They become disheveled travellers reflecting on a night of fun as they grab snacks on the way home. A most surreal ending to a night filled with crazy costumes and over-the-top partiers!
Things get interesting when the party is over so be prepared to stay up late!
On Using The X-Pro2 And 23mm f/2 Lens
All the Halloween street photography in this article was shot using the Fuji X-Pro2 with the excellent 23mm f/2 lens. The camera and lens performed well with sharp results and zero problems along the way.
It was interesting to shoot with the X-Pro2 again after reviewing (and falling in love with) the X-T2. The two cameras share the same processor and sensor but they fill very different roles on the street. I have to say I really loved the OVF for shooting at night but missed the X-T2’s fantatic EVF the rest of the time. And while I like the way the X-T2 handles, I honestly prefer the boxier form factor of the X-Pro2. Sounds like I might need to get both at some point!
Watch for my Fuji 23mm f/2 street photography review coming up in the next little bit. It’s an exciting addition to the Fuji lineup that really cements their position as the go-to camera for a lot of street photographers around the world!
The West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval took place on Monday, October 31, 2016 from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Santa Monica Boulevard between Doheny Drive and La Cienega Boulevard. It’s one of the largest events of its kind in the world and attracts between 200,000 and 1,000,000 people every year.
What’s your take on the lessons I learned shooting Halloween street photogrpahy in West Hollywood? Do you shoot Halloween every year or would you rather stay at home and give out candy? Post your ideas in the comments below and keep the conversation going!