Shooting Matsuri Part 1

"It seems that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away." - Antoine de Saint Exupéry

For me, shooting matsuri is an exercise in eliminating as many variables as possible and narrowing my focus solely to hone into what erupts around me.


After working to attain shooting permission, my first step will always be to explore the area several hours before the event begins looking for the following.

-What route will be taken? What direction will they travel on it?

-What natural light do I have on this route? What will be in the background of these shots?

-Will there be spot lighting along the route? Once more, what will my background look like?

The light matters above all else, with my available light understood, I look next all the following.

-Which performers am I most interested in? Why? What emotions do they express?

-Within the route I've learned, how can I get from point A to B and keep pace with the performers I'm interested in?

Search out route information and explore the area thoroughly. Know escape routes too!

I scouted this weeks ahead of time and realized these ladies would be in the shadows while the sun was still active. Tricky to process, but worth the effort.

Background elements can add charm and presence, however, the right lens can turn distractions into happy bokeh! 135 DC, you complete me... when you behave that is, which is rare... dammit.

In truth, as I am new to matsuri shooting, I am typically ignorant regarding the performers, but with enough Google-ing, as well using the available materials to determine who’s a local team versus who performs on a larger scale, you can narrow your focus even further.

The purpose of this information is to reduce the areas I should consider shooting, cull the volume of targets, and stay focused on searching for emotions within the festival. Festivals are manic and chaotic in every metric, so having where to be, when to be, and how to get there known in advance allows me to concentrate on the shot itself.

Summary (in order of importance!)

1. Get Permission!

2. Check the time, consider the available light

3. Know the performers

4. Check the route, consider the background

In simple terms, the route means little of the emotions aren't present and the performers mean little if you have no light with which to capture them. And of course, what you can get with permission varies wildly from what you can get without (though, if you know what to do, you can leap into the lane without permission and get something cool regardless, just expect security to kick you back to the side immediately after).


Camera settings are also refined downward so I never need to consider them once the festival begins.

-Shutter Priority is how I shoot 99% of the event. Limited light and variable light means Aperture Priority is out and Manual may produce differing results scene-to-scene.

-A controlled auto-ISO allows me to be picky about ISO noise, yet still get enough light sensitivity. It must be said, each sensor has its own personality when it comes to noise and how hard the RAW file can be pushed before it breaks. These should be considered with deciding your ISO range. Night time street photography will teach you a lot about how hard your RAW files can be pushed. Futher, some camera models do not handle auto-ISO well - they run simulations for non-standard ISO settings that make cause unusual artifacting (ex, 260 ISO from auto isn’t a true ISO setting, it is a software simulation). Usually, I cap that auto-ISO to 400 or 800 depending on the body I will be using.

-Image Review is OFF for two important reasons. Shot-to-shot I'm frantically adjusting the AF point and if and image review pops up I will be cycling images until I half-press the shutter. Further still, time spent "chimping" could be time spent missing the wonder flourishing in front of me. I review setting before the event begins by testing into the crowd and review group-to-group during any downtime; however, as there's always moments that demand my attention, this act is kept to the barest of minimums.

-Most cameras have two burst modes one for pure speed that does not AF between shots and one that is slower, but will still AF shot-to-shot. Although the slower, yet more active AF, seems like the smartest choice, which to rely on isn't a straight answer. Once you know how to force the AF to attention you can massage it between bursts as you move yourself to maintain distance - thus, careful management and practice gives you access to the full burst speed. However, some pro bodies have such a rapid burst there's little reason to force the AF and running the AF-reliable slower burst is wiser (because, you don't actually need 10 shots per second). For my camera bodies I used back button AF between each shot to keep the AF active on my D800e, but the slower, more active burst shooting with faster AF on my D3s.

There's simply too much action to be worried about camera settings - get it right before you start while keeping it flexible enough to last.


1. Shutter Priority (typically, 1/250~1/320+)

2. Auto-ISO (typically 400 to 800 depending on camera body)

3. Image Review OFF (no time for "chimping")

4. Continous AF on Single Point (typically aimed at the performer's eye)

5. Burst type based on body used (typically burst that allows for refocus between frames)

While this blog is still a work in progress, next I would like to cover the work flow used to generate these images. Please be patient and I will do my best to cover that soon.

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