Shooting Tips: Night Carnivals and Fairs

Grab your camera. Let's go to the fair!


We received a few questions about the night photo in the previous blog entitled Gathering Photo Assets, so I thought it would be a good time to talk about carnivals and night photography in general.

There are few places that have the color and action of a carnival or boardwalk. In the daytime those places appear cluttered and chaotic, but at dusk and sunset the sky gets darker and the lights start to come alive. For about 45 minutes it’s possible to get some great shots by ‘tracking’ with your subject.

The time to do the tracking shots begins just as the sun is on the horizon, as in the next shot.

Camera data: 1/250 sec @ f/ 4.5 using ISO 320. 12-24mm Nikon zoom w/Nikon D-300.


Tracking is done by moving the camera at the same speed as a passing subject. To get the next shot I stood at the railing near the ride and swung my camera as the passengers whizzed by. I had my pop-up flash on 1/8 power to get a little bit of frozen action along with the blur. This is a straight shot with no retouching. Camera setting: 1/30th sec. at f/6.3 using ISO 320.


As night falls, the darkness provides a showcase for the electric signs and illuminated rides. With the dark sky as a background, the colors are easier to isolate and appear more saturated. The examples below show how an illuminated ride can look very different after only 40 minutes following sunset.


Newer digital cameras, with their high ISO speeds, make shooting at night a real pleasure. Reasonably sharp results can be had with handheld exposures, like this one at ISO 640, f/4.5 @ 1/80th sec.

For more critically sharp images use a tripod or a monopod.


For me, the fun is in the longer exposures where the motion blur creates strange effects. I don’t even bother using a monopod for these, and I often wiggle the camera during the exposures to intensify the motion.

The following four images were taken at 1.3 second at f/22 using ISO 200. As I move the camera more quickly, the colored lights start making repeating patterns because they are pulsating 60 times a second.


Armed with many frames of streaked lights, I’ll capture foreground elements that I can drop into the shots to create new compositions. Note that the dark sky simplifies the job of stripping these elements together because the clipping path in Photoshop doesn’t need to be precise.


Vignettes of individual people or small groups can be captured with ambient light, like this shot of a girl getting a temporary tattoo.


Most county fairs and carnivals have some kind of live entertainment and that provides a great opportunity to practice getting shots of performers. Blues legend Jimmy Blake is shown below doing his signature scream. Camera data: Nikon D-300, 85mm lens, f/3.2, 1/640 sec, ISO 400.


There’s a lot to photograph at a fair, and this blog post only gives you a few suggestions. I hope this inspires you to get out there and burn some pixels!

Jeffery Jay Luhn and Team Photoflex

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