10 Tips for Photographing New Orleans Mardi Gras at Night

0Share

When it comes to festivities, few can compare to the parades and fun of Mardi Gras, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The sights, sounds, smells, sticky stuff on the ground, and world-class people-watching make the entire event a spectacle that lends itself to rich and colorful photography—especially at night!

Nighttime photography at Mardi Gras is all about one thing: motion. A Mardi Gras parade is only semi-static when a float-pulling tractor breaks down on the parade route, but, even then, things are in motion; beads are still flying, people are still shouting and waving, and animated floats are still animating. So, as a photographer wishing to capture the action at night, you need to bring your basic night photography knowledge—tips, tools, and setup—and then come up with a plan to deal with subjects and scenes that move in unpredictable ways.

So, here are our 10 tips for nighttime parade photography. We hope you will find them useful the next time you are photographing the action at Mardi Gras.

  1. Controlling Motion
  2. Embracing Motion
  3. Adding Motion
  4. Make Eye Contact
  5. Shoot a Great Deal
  6. Look Out!
  7. Bokeh
  8. Use Lights
  9. Night Portraits
  10. Capturing Details

1. Controlling Motion

Short of sending someone out on to the parade route illegally to stop a float, the best way to freeze the Mardi Gras nighttime action is with a fast shutter speed. Of course, in the dark of night, this means either opening your lens to its maximum aperture, increasing your ISO, or both.

2. Embracing Motion

When it comes to Mardi Gras motion, the adage applies: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Unless you are intent on freezing the action, try embracing the movement of everything around you. Drag your shutter and pop a flash (if you have one), or pan with the action, or mount your camera on a tripod or alternative support and let the motion do the work for you—streaking through your frame.

3. Adding Motion

Guess what? There are no photographic laws that prevent you from moving your camera around when your shutter is open. There is motion all around; why not add to it? Use the lights and colors and action to your advantage and see if you can make some compelling images by adding your own movements into the frame.

4. Make Eye Contact

As strange as it sounds, the folks riding on floats do notice a camera in the crowd. When you are just yelling for beads and throws, you are transparent to them as you look just like everyone else, but point a camera at the float and people look back. So, be ready to make eye contact through your camera and be ready to shoot when people stop heaving throws and flash you a smile or give you a pose.

5. Shoot a Great Deal

Because of the motion of everything and the experimental nature of low-light photography in such a busy environment, don’t be afraid to fill up your memory cards with a lot of images. If you are trying to freeze action, focus on your technique, be as steady as possible, and try to get the best sharpness you can by shooting multiple images or bursts of images. If you are letting motion happen in your frame, or adding your own, you really won’t know what you’ve got until you see the images, so shoot, and shoot some more. While you are shooting more and more, try to shoot more and chimp less—but do check to see if your results are getting you in the right direction, and make alterations to your settings or plan as needed.

6. Look Out!

During the big parades, you will get hit by flying beads and throws and you will eventually have adult beverages spilled on you by neighbors. A UV filter on the front of your lens will be a good investment for Mardi Gras to protect from beads, doubloons, plastic cups, coconuts, or whatever else comes your way. Try to keep an eye out for your own protection, but just be prepared, and have your gear prepared for impact.

7. Bokeh

Mardi Gras is bokeh-licious. There are so many lights on the floats, around the city, on top of emergency vehicles, and everywhere! When shooting nearby subjects, look for great background bokeh to add to your image. If you feel creative, throw the autofocus switch to “manual” and spin your focus ring to make everything melt into beautiful balls of bokeh.

8. Use Lights

When I have photographed Mardi Gras parades at night in the past, I have not used a flash, but, if you are comfortable with flash photography, this is a great place to throw some light. There is plenty of ambient light from the floats and street lamps, but, if you want to do some shutter dragging, or rear-curtain sync, there are abundant opportunities for those types of photography. Also, if you want to really freeze action, say, as a float rider is in full wind-up and about to hurl some beads, a powerful speed light might be your best bet.

9. Night Portraits

The Mardi Gras celebration in the Crescent City is often associated with the parades, floats, throws, great feasts of food, formal balls, and more. (Please forget the unsavory things you saw on DVD back in the ’90s—that is not an accurate representation of the very family-friendly environment of New Orleans Mardi Gras.) But it is all about people—spectators, performers, parade riders, the citizens of New Orleans, and tourists alike. People make Mardi Gras what it is, so as photogenic as the floats are, be sure to train your camera on the personalities that make the parades so festive, as well as your own family and friends.

10. Capturing Details

Mardi Gras floats are basically gigantic mobile art installations and, especially the newer floats, are adorned with amazingly intricate designs and lighting systems. The entire float is a sight, but, as they pass by, especially if the parade pauses in front of your shooting location, look for eye-catching details and capture them with your camera. You can create some great abstract images and show a unique viewpoint of the parade. Quite possibly, because of the uniqueness of your own vision and the capture, you might walk away with a more personally meaningful image than a “standard” parade photo. And, when you get home, don’t forget to train the camera on your loot! Beads and parade throws can make wonderful photographic subjects on their own.

Have you photographed Mardi Gras at night, or another parade after dark? What tips and tricks do you employ?

Close

Close

Close