Photographing the 2017 Croaker Festival

my approach to event photography

Little girl climbs the steps on a bouncy house.
It’s a long ways down when you aren’t very tall!

My Approach to Event Photography

Event photography is one of my favorite disciplines. My approach to photographing events is the same as my approach to street photography. All photographers have to obey the laws of light. Aside from that, the message of our work is only limited by our own creativity.

I like event and street photography because it forces me outside of my comfort zone. Taking pictures of strangers can be intimidating. Taking quality pictures of strangers is challenging because you have to focus on making a proper exposure while composing your subject.

Your concentration can’t be broken just because they look at you and your cover is blown! And you certainly can’t scamper away and pretend like you weren’t just trying to make a photograph with them in it!

Mother, daughter and dog watching a concert and looking at the photographer taking their picture.
Stay focused on the composition and exposure even when your cover is blown.

Event photography will make you a more confident photographer. Confidence will never trump quality but it does go a long way in establishing your credibility. Before people know the quality of your work it can only help that you look the part of a professional.

Photographing the 2017 Croaker Festival

Kids and families sit on the street curb waiting on the parade.
When photographing an event your job is to capture its heart and soul.

How to capture the essence of an event

Once you’re comfortable photographing strangers the next challenge you’ll face as an event photographer is capturing the essence of the event. “Essence” is one of those ambiguous words that doesn’t tell you much but we all know it when we see it. Of course this varies from person to person but there will typically be an “essence” that even the masses can agree on.

Because I’m the web developer for the Croaker Festival I had a much better idea of its “essence” and how I wanted to capture it with photographs. The heart and soul of the festival is community. Without community the Croaker Festival wouldn’t be the same.

I set out with a general idea of what I wanted to capture, the parade, the vendors, the entertainers, the venue as whole and the people that make up the event. I otherwise approached the day with a clear head and a clean slate.

The Parade

Veterans lead the Croaker Festival parade down Broad Street.
The parade is an event highlight. Plan your shots accordingly because you won’t get a second chance.

The Croaker Festival parade embraces the community spirit. Each participant is passionate about their position in the lineup. From an event photographer’s perspective all entries are not created equal. Shooting what is intensely personal for a single person doesn’t convey the essence of the event.

This is when you have to ask yourself over and over again, “What’s the essence of this event and how is it personified in the parade?”

For a 4th of July parade the answer is easier because anything celebrating our freedom embraces the essence of the event. I like to focus on our service members because they’re the ones who made the ultimate sacrifice, laying their lives on the line so I can have the luxury of pursuing the craft of my choice.

I try to think not only about the essence of the event and the parade but how to capture the service members in a way that does their service justice. By getting low to the ground and shooting up I’m able to make their presence feel that much more commanding.

Longer focal length lenses compress the image and make the background appear closer to the viewer. Understanding how to use this image distortion to your advantage affords many creative opportunities during a parade. In this image of the Marine Corps Marching Band I’m shooting at 100mm on a 1.6x crop factor camera body for an effective focal length of 160mm. I use the inherent compression to create a stacked symmetry created by the perfect formation of the band.

The Marine Corps Marching Band at the 2017 Croaker Festival.
Using a longer focal length makes the background appear closer to the viewer.

In reality the length of the band is much greater than it appears but the compression of the image captures the essence I was after, that of perfect timing and precise execution.

The Vendors

Young lady giving an interview in front of her business.
Brittany Cahoon, owner of Lady B’s Boutique, gives an interview to Spectrum News about what it means to be a part of the Croaker Festival.

When I walked around the vendor area with Channel 14 News anchor Jessi O’Neal I realized that the vendors and their products were not capturing my attention. Even once we found a suitable vendor to interview I was still searching for the answer to my question of, “What is it about this scene you want to capture and convey?”

After lunch Julie and I returned to the information booth to say hello to my Mom who was manning the station from 1-3pm. Our friend and daughter to Mayor Sally Belangia, Amber Belangia, bumped into us at the booth. While we were talking it occurred to me what I wanted to capture in the vendor area.

Event participants hanging out below Live Oaks near Lou Mac Park in Oriental, NC.
Oak Trees capture the “essence” of a southern event well.

It’s not everyday you get to rep your products beneath a beautiful grove Oak Trees.

The People

A couple watches the headliners play at the Croaker Festival.
The two white hats caught my eye but it was her smile that made me depress the shutter release.

Click here to see more images of people from the festival.

Ah yes, the people, my favorite part of event photography. How we choose to capture the people says a lot about the event and a lot about us too. I follow several street photographers on Instagram and have purchased a couple of books by famous street photographers. Each individual presents a clear image of how they see the world. This is where my work is the most genuine. Nearly all my personal favorites are candid portraits of people being people.

The Performers

Lead singer performing on stage for the Masters of Soul.
Event headliners, “Masters of Soul”, delivered a powerful performance.

Click Here to see more images from the show.

This isn’t really street photography because you’re working with a captive subject and they are well aware that you’re photographing them. Even the crowd is well aware of your presence so the element of surprise is usually lost.

The challenge of photographing performers is maintaining authenticity. When I photograph performers I watch them first and try to observe their unique mannerisms. Each member of the Masters of Soul and a well defined and unique attribute. I focused on that and waited for the right opportunity.

A lead singer for the Masters of Soul works the crowd at the Croaker Festival.
Every performer will have their own unique mannerisms. Your job is to discover and capture them.

To ensure I don’t miss the right opportunity I pick a single member and focus on them through the viewfinder. I frame the composition roughly the way I want it and then I select the corresponding autofocus point.

Then I wait, camera at my eye, for the precise moment I want to capture. Using the continuous shutter mode can be helpful for fast moving subjects but I typically shoot a single exposure.

The Venue

Waterfront festival in Oriental, NC
The heart of the Croaker Festival on the South Street waterfront in Oriental, NC.

The ability to capture aerial images makes the task of photographing the venue much easier. Just because you have an eye in the sky doesn’t mean you’re free from the laws of light and composition! Sure, any aerial image is inherently cool because of its departure from the normal perspective.

The Croaker Festival main stage on South Avenue in Oriental, NC.
Consider how you want the viewer to study your photograph and compose accordingly.

Combine the inherent with great light and composition and you’ll create some memorable images that’ll set your work apart from others.

The Fireworks

Two girls watch the fireworks show after the Croaker Festival in Oriental, NC.
Exposing for the bright fireworks resulted in the foreground subject being underexposed. Increasing the sensor sensitivity was how I compensated in these exposures.

This was my first time photographing fireworks. I admittedly had no idea what I was doing so I did what I normally do in situations like this, ask Google some questions! I read a handful of blog posts about “how to photograph fireworks” and set out to capture the show.

After one failed exposure I promptly scrapped all that I’d read and fell back on experience. The blog posts didn’t help me because my subject matter was not just the exploding fireworks. In fact, the fireworks were actually secondary to my main subject which ended up being the two young girls sitting in the foreground watching the show.

My intention was to capture the whole of the scene which would include the bridge, the harbor and the boats in the anchorage. I wanted to have something interesting in the foreground but I wasn’t exactly sure what. I was reasonably confident to achieve this I would need to use the widest lens in my kit which is 10mm for an effective focal length of 16mm on a 1.6x crop sensor body.

When the two girls sat below me I knew I had my foreground subject. To me the essence of a fireworks show is the awe and wonderment demonstrated by the viewer.

Two girls watching fireworks explode over the harbor in Oriental, NC.
The “essence” of wonderment is captured in this photograph.

Have a plan and be ready to abandon it. Know what you want to capture and rely on your skillset. That’s how you can become a better event photographer.

Putting it all together

My style of event photography is more akin to street photography. I approach these shoots by focusing on the essence of the event and asking myself how does that essence manifest itself visually.

Keep a plan in your head about what you want to capture then be prepared to abandon that plan and fall back on your skills and experience. It’s important to be able to react and respond quickly.

You’ll only get one chance to capture many of those classic moments that truly define what that “essence” really is.

A young boy jumps while another boy dances to the music at the Croaker Festival.
This, is “the essence” of the Croaker Festival.

Do you have a special event you’d like me to cover? Contact me and let’s talk about creating something beautiful.


William Conkwright

Will Conkwright is the owner at Circle Squared Publishing, LLC, a photographer, writer, full stack web developer, Google Street View Trusted Photographer, competitive cyclist, endurance athlete and adventure junky who loves riding motorcycles.

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