Natural Light Portraiture at Renaissance Festivals

November 03, 2016  •  5 Comments

There are two main reasons why I like renaissance festivals; 1) the characters, and 2) the atmosphere. People that attend renaissance festivals come from all corners of society. When you step through the front gate, it doesn't matter what you do or where you come from, everyone is on the same playing field and treated equally. Those that dress in garb take their persona seriously which makes for great photographs. It is interesting to see the effects renaissance festivals have on one's well being. Not only does a renaissance festival take you back in time, it also takes you away from the stresses of your daily life. I have never seen anyone leave a renaissance festival in a bad mood, except for maybe a child that doesn't want to leave the festival. This article will focus on how I interact with people at these types of events and get amazing portraits using only natural light. All photographs in this article were shot using natural light with no artificial modifiers and were all edited in Adobe Lightroom.

Just like anything else, photographing using natural light has its pros and cons. Shooting with natural light can be cheaper, lighter, faster, and on some levels, easier. However, there are limits in most night time shooting situations. Although I have less control over the lighting, I have learned how to get the most out of natural light. I use buildings, the ground, trees, and anything else around me to block, filter, or bounce light in my favor. I could bring reflectors or scrims but that would just be more gear to lug around. Current digital cameras capture a good amount of dynamic range, and as long as I manage the scene, I will have all the data I need to push the photograph in post to wherever I want to take it.

When I first went to renaissance festivals I took a lot of gear. I tend to spend all day at renaissance festivals and the amount of gear I brought felt heavier throughout the day. Over time I found myself using a telephoto zoom lens almost exclusively for all of my photographs. My gear load-out these days is a light weight setup; it includes a DSLR camera, a telephoto zoom lens, a standard zoom lens, an iPad, and a bunch of business cards. I use a cross body setup with a camera messenger bag hanging off my left side and my camera on my right. Having the straps of the messenger bag and camera strap cross the body give me a more confident feel that my gear will not fall and allows me to go hands free in an instant.

Before even going to the event I try to learn about the event and culture as much as I can. Knowing this information does several things for me; 1) using terms relevant to the culture is a good ice breaker and shows that I respect their culture, 2) knowing what type (viking, barbarian, elf, faun, etc.) of garb (outfit) they are wearing helps me come up with posing ideas and avoid disrespecting them by calling them something else (mood killer), and 3) knowing who the main characters/royal party are helps me avoid embarrassing myself in front of potential subjects. You will be surprised how far a small jester of respect will take you and may even open new doors you may not have had access to before.

When I arrive at the venue for the first time I scope out the "lay of the land" and schedule of events. Knowing the layout of the grounds and the event schedule helps me plan a route so I am in the right area at the right time. At the scheduled performances I do not only focus on the performers, but I also look into the crowd as they attract large crowds which could hold potential subjects. Think of it this way, you are meeting your subjects half way instead of you searching for them all day.

While walking the event I am continually aware of my surroundings. At any time I could find my subject and I do not want to waste their time by making them wait until I find where I want them to stand/sit. Sometimes I find my subjects just laying around. When I find a good background I might will wait there until a good subject comes along. While waiting I decide my composition and understand where my light is coming from. Then once my subject comes around, no time is wasted.

Before taking the photograph I ask for permission. It could be a simple point to my camera while looking at them, and they will nod if it is okay. I prefer to actually converse with them as I have found it garners better results in their expression. If they say no, I would not take their picture, accept it and move on. You don't want to say or make obscene gestures as you could ruin it for other photographers or be seen as that rude or creepy photographer. Word travel fast at these festivals so many other potential subjects may already be aware of you before you approach them. Luckily I have never been told no at these events. There are exceptions to where asking for permission is not necessary; during performances or if you are far away from the subject and getting a "snipe" shot to capture a candid moment. It is also proper etiquette to not bother them if they are eating, running to the bathroom, look upset, distraught, or crying.

I never touch the model, but if communication does not get the desired results then I will ask permission before I touch. The reasons I don't like touching them or their items are: 1) I don't want to break their items by accident, 2) I don't want to be accused of being inappropriate, and 3) I don't want to come across as a creepy photographer. Be careful of word choice when asking them to adjust something, this will go a long way as to whether you are seen as a professional or creepy. Using the wrong term can change your subject attitude, thus ruining the expression in all subsequent photographs.

When I see a potential subject there are a couple things I do before I approach them. I first analyze the area for a background that would go good with their style. If they have a prop I need to decide if I want it in my shot or not. Let's say I have two potential locations to shoot, my first choice would be the one that has better lighting. Depending on how things go with the subject I may shoot at the other location. I also try to have a couple poses in mind to get things started. So I have decided where I want to shoot and the look I am going for, now I need to make sure my camera settings are in the ballpark. I do all this before approaching the subject as to not waste their time. Being prepared comes across as you know what you are doing, thus making your subject more likely to give you 100% effort in return.

So now I approach the potential subject. A simple introduction is all that is needed. I tell them my name and that I would love to get a photograph of them. There is no need to embellish your skills as it can be a turn off to your potential subject. I compliment them on their garb and tell them what drew me to want to photograph them. If the subject asks what I do with the photos I tell them I make a blog article of my trip to the event which will have a link to the photos that can be downloaded for a small price. Just be yourself, people can see through the BS.

Dealing with your subject can go south quick. Here are some tips to keep your subject in a good mood and engaged in the process; 1) make eye contact, 2) remember and use their name, 3) use only positive words, 4) ask them if they have any poses or ideas, and 5) focus your attention on them. If the connection between you and your subject starts to break down then it will show in their expression which can ruin the feel of the photographs.

Making eye contact about 30% to 60% of the time produces a feeling of mutual likability and trustworthiness. Referring to your subject by name shows respect and puts your subject at ease. It also shows you see them as a person and not just the subject of a photograph. Using positive words keeps the subject from becoming disinterested. Don't say "I don't like that pose," or "I don't like how you look in that photo." The subject doesn't need to know you may not like the photo or made a mistake; just say "Let's try this" and move on.  Asking them if they have any ideas makes the subject feel as part of the process; this can make the subject more willing to give you their best look, and believe me it works. Focus your attention on the subject and not your phone, a friend, or anything else. Your subject will feel disrespected and will likely give you poor expressions. Not paying attention to your subject is the fastest way for things to go south. I treat every subject as a friend I have not met yet and it makes all the difference. Most of my subjects have become my good friends as they are good people.

I strive to make my photographs look as if they were taken during that era or alternate world. To do that I need to remove anything that would tie it to the "regular" world. This means I need to pay attention to every little thing they are wearing and what is in the background. Don’t tell yourself I can just remove them in post-processing; take care of it at time of capture to save yourself a lot of time later. To control the background I use a telephoto lens with a large aperture and choose my angles carefully. If I want to blow out the background completely I just need to make sure the subject is a lot closer to me than the background.

The doorway to shops are a good place to get your subject lighter than the background. I used this method in the above photo of the Elf. I asked him to stand just a step in from being in direct sunlight. This makes for soft flattering light and makes them stand out more in the scene. Although the light is soft it usually has a quick fall-off which adds dimension to the subject. The final touch was to make sure I got good catch lights in the eyes.

Sometimes your subject may have a non-realistic object. I usually ask to get photos without those items, but occasionally you want them to help sell the style of the character. The photo above works with the plastic axe. But to make it more believable I needed to get rid of the bolt at the top of the handle and go black and white. Another benefit of going black and white with the photograph is how the tones in her headpiece are more noticeable without becoming a distraction. I did not go crazy with the post processing of her face as the imperfections sell her as being a warrior and from the past.

Not every subject needs to be looking at you. Getting candid shots can give the viewer a feeling as if they are there in person and can tell a story. For the shot above I waited for the people in the background to get further away from my subject. However, I didn’t want an empty background so I need to wait for the right moment. I also didn’t want too much information as I want to leave the viewer to wonder who this person is, are they waiting for something or someone, what could they be looking at, what is their reality like, and what ever else the viewer may think. I decided to go black and white for this photograph due to the potential distracting colors in the background. In post processing I spent a good amount of time working on the tones to add depth and interest into the subject.

Getting an action pose like in the above photograph can liven up the shoot. During this shoot I knew my exposure was good and by not chimping (look at the back of the camera) I was able to keep engaged with the subject and eventually got the expression and action position I wanted. If I had stopped to look at every photo I would have lost the momentum and likely would have not gotten this photo. If you know your gear you can spend more time engaged with your subject, yielding better results.

By getting things right in camera as best as possible you can reduce your time in post processing significantly. Also, don’t feel you need to make everything look perfect. Someones’ or somethings’ imperfection could be what makes the photograph great or feel realistic. By not having to worry about heavy retouching in post you can focus more on creating the mood or feeling of the photograph. Post-processing is what will sell your vision so spend time learning your software. But above all, have fun yourself.


This contains extremely valuable information that applies to a wide range of photography situations. Thanks Allen for making time to document your expertise and knowledge and share it with us!
Ken Hartlein(non-registered)
Very good photos Allen, thanks for the blog, it is very helpful and to the point. I like that.
Wow! What an impressive article, Allen. This is my second time reading this post, and I was just as captivated as when I first read it a year ago. Your approach to portraits is truly professional. You shared some very useful tips that apply equally well to almost any festival, not just ren fests. Some of your thoughts for dealing with potential subjects seem like common sense, yet I have not considered several aspects the way that you have. I do believe that I will be a better photographer from now on. Thank you!
Thanks for the tips. I will remember this as I take photos at the Kerrville event. This was very helpful and motivating.
Vance Strickland(non-registered)
Really good blog post! Good tips and nice post-processing choices.
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