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Some people go to the fair to ride the rides. Some people go for the horse racing or the food or the animals. I can’t think of a better reason to go to the fair then to capture fair memories with a photograph. Fairs can provide some of the greatest photographic offerings ranging from multi colored lights, rides in motion, textures, crowds and carnival food. The options are infinite.

Important notes for taking photographs at the fair. Keep in mind that most people don’t want their photos taken by a stranger, and especially not their children. If you feel compelled to take a photo of a child, be sure to ask permission first. Remember that security is watching and may approach you to ask if you have permission to be there as a photographer. Security is not there to give you a hard time, but merely protecting the welfare of their patrons.

This article was written for DSLR cameras, however most cameras today offer creative modes and manual modes that will allow you to take full advantage of these techniques and capture some amazing photos.

Capturing Motion

Ultimate swing

Ultimate swing

Capturing movement is a wonderfully challenging and rewarding opportunity, especially when the subject has lights. It can make for an incredibly dynamic scene. Fast shutter speeds are used to preserve the overall sharpness, but the use of slow shutter speeds allows the subject to blur, creating motion and a sense of speed in the photograph. Experiment with different speeds to get the desired results and if you push your comfort zones sometimes you will be amazed with the effects.

Drop Zone

Drop Zone

Some of my best shots have been captured during twilight. The fair comes alive during twilight as thousands of lights start to race and twinkle. The only issue with twilight is that it lasts about 20 minutes, so you can think of it like a sunset. You want to capture the rich blues and purples in the open sky, and the rich oranges and yellows at the horizon. That provides a pleasing background for the fairground lights. This magical time is when you can get fantastic eye popping balanced photographs.

Panning takes some practice to nail down. With practice and good timing this effect will convey movement and give a sense of speed like no other technique. Panning allows us to keep the subject in focus while allowing the background to blur. See my full article Using Panning to Photograph a Moving Subject.

The range that I use for panning is between 1/60th and 1/4th second. The reason there is such a large range of shutter speeds is that the lighting, speed of the subject and environmental conditions can vary dramatically. If you are going to drop below 1/4th second I have found that a mono pod will help with camera shake.
Here’s how: Press the shutter release as gently as possible to reduce camera shake.  Continue to pan with the subject, even after you’ve heard the shutter release close. This follow through is where most amateurs fall short. If you stop panning during the exposure you risk the change of blurring the subject along with the background. A smooth follow through will ensure the motion blur is smooth from start to finish.

Shooting up at carnival rides make them appear larger than they are, so get low if you can. By shooting low you can eliminate some of the busy ground and separate your subject from the background.

Freezing Action
Freezing the action of a fast moving carnival ride at night can be a bit of a challenge. Vibrant fairground photographs can be captured by pushing your ISO up so that you can obtain faster shutter speeds. Shutter speeds of 1/125th – 1/250th should capture most carnival rides although some rides can get some intense speeds. For these rides increase the ISO higher until you get a shutter speed that can freeze the action. You can also use a smaller aperture such as f/2.8 (or the lowest f number your lens has) to increase the shutter speed. Now keep in mind that increasing the ISO will also increase the grain in the image. However, capturing a photo with grain is better than not capturing the photo at all. And, often times higher grain adds to the character of the image. Don’t be afraid to experiment with higher ISO’s.

The Midway offers a plethora of photographic options so take some time to walk up and down and check out all the possible angles and vantage points.

Candied Apples

Candied Apples

Have fun and be creative.

About the Author

Ray Mabry has over twenty years experience in photography. He started in film and used black and white to capture images in architecture, landscape and abstract forms. In 2001, Ray with his extensive computer technology and digital imagery experience, made a natural and seamless migration to digital. Whether shooting film or digital, Ray loves the freedom of creative expression that photography has to offer.

A writer, a photography instructor, sports photographer and photojournalist, his goal is to capture the sights, sounds and feel of the environment and translate those senses into a visual experience that will transcend the two-dimensional bounds of the photograph itself.

Ray has a professional photography studio,, runs a blog , offers training courses for digital photography and Photoshop, and also co-organizes a Meetup group called the Sonoma County Photography Group.

Tags: challenging, Fairground, Freezing Action, ISO, Panning, Perspective, Photography, Safari Books Online, Twilight,

10 Responses to “Photography at the fair: Techniques for capturing unique and creative fair memories”

  1. mewithmycamera

    nice post, could have used it a week ago when the fair was in my town…but no worries though cause the big city (toronto) is having theirs in a few weeks so i’ll try the tech’s there…thanks :-)

    • Safari Books Online

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Have fun at the Toronto fair and let us know how your shots come out. Is there anything you’d like us to cover in our blog post for next time?

  2. Lloyd De Villiers

    Most of these techniques are good if you have a DSLR. That is not exactly clear in your article and such there might be some frustrated happy snappers out there now.

    • R. Mabry Photography

      Lloyd, good catch and you are correct, I did write this article with a DSLR in mind. However having said that most of the point and shoot cameras today have manual modes that will allow the photographer to follow the article. Thank you for commenting and I will expand my article to reflect your point.

  3. nabh7

    It was a awe-inspiring post and it has a significant meaning and thanks for sharing the information.Would love to read your next post too……


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  4. ISO 9001

    Very good post, I was really searching for this topic, as I wanted this topic to understand completely and it is also very rare in internet, that is why it was very difficult to understand.

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  5. dallas photographer les wollam

    nice post.
    I saw some pictures once where the shooter took a softbox and strobe out to the fair, and set it up in front a ride she thought would make a great picture. then, while her assistant guarded the equipment, she went off looking for interesting subjects, brought them back to the ‘set’ and shot them in front of the twirling lights or whatever of the ride. really nice shots.