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Tips for Photographing Float Festivals

Every year, countless festivals take place all over the world. While this means lots of shooting opportunities, it can be unexpectedly difficult to achieve shots that convey the essence of the festival the way you see it. One photographer shares his approach to photographing the colourful floats and atmosphere at the Sagicho Float Festival in Shiga, Japan. (Reported by: Takashi Nishikawa)

Sagicho float from the front

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM/ FL: 70mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/9, 1/320 sec, EV-0.7)/ ISO 400/ WB: Daylight
Location: Omihachiman City, Shiga Prefecture, Japan


Preparation is crucial!

When it comes to photographing festivals, being simply physically present is no guarantee that you will be able to get the shots that you want. Preparation is crucial for getting the best photos.

1. To find the best shooting position, you need to do your homework
Check the event programme. Study the planned route of the procession, and refer to previous shots of the festival and maps of the area. Arriving earlier to recce the venue helps to make the shoot more efficient, and will probably also boost the quality of your shots.

2. Learn about the history of the event
This gives you a better understanding of what to capture. For this shoot, I photographed the Sagicho Festival, which is held in Omihachiman City located in Shiga Prefecture, Japan. The Japanese people consider it to be one of the most exotic festivals in the country. Legend has it that even the great warlord Oda Nobunaga, who unified Japan in the 16th century and had a reputation for brutality and ruthlessness, joined in and danced at the festivities. A total of 13 floats, most of which are made with grain and marine products, are presented at the festival. Each float is built by a neighbourhood in Omihachiman City, with the current year’s oriental zodiac animal as the motif.


▼Finding out more about the festival: What is the Sagicho Festival?

Building a Sagicho float

(Excerpt translated from the Omihachiman Tourism Association website)

“Each float at the Sagicho Festival is made up of three components: pine torch, dashi ornament and red paper (jyūnigatsu). Poles extending from the front to the back of the float are then attached and tied with ropes so that the float can be carried around on the shoulder by a group of people like a portable shrine. This entire structure is known as Sagicho. The dashi, an ornament that is decorated in front of the float, is painstakingly designed and created with pride by people from the respective neighbourhoods.”


My shooting conditions and decisions

Shooting spot: The spot that I chose overlooked the whole event, with the light falling evenly on the entire scene and other Sagicho floats visible in the background. It also allowed me to clearly capture the facial expressions of the people carrying the floats.

Lighting: The sky was cloudy on the day of the event – the most ideal condition for the shoot. Side lighting added dimensionality to the final image.

Approach: I had considered focusing on specific aspects of the festival by blurring the background or capturing close-ups, or conveying action and dynamism by creating motion blur. However, ultimately, I decided that what I wanted to convey was the atmosphere of the entire festival.

Settings: I narrowed down the aperture to f/9, which provided a sufficiently large depth-of-field. Raising the ISO speed to 400 allowed me to use a fast shutter speed to capture sharp, blur-free images of each moment.


Positive example

Sagicho floats with balanced composition

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM/ FL: 35mm/ Shutter-priority AE (f/14, 1/200 sec)/ ISO 400/ WB: Daylight

I composed this shot of Sagicho floats entering the shrine so that several floats filled the empty space in the background. The key here is to anticipate where the floats will go and find the best shooting position in advance.


Just a moment’s difference could disrupt the composition

Sagicho floats with overlap

Festivals like this involve a lot of fast movement, and you only have a split second to seize the photo opportunity. I captured the positive example above with continuous shooting, and the shot above is the frame that came immediately after it. Although it was taken just a moment after, you can already see how the balance of the composition has been compromised, with the 2 floats in the background overlapping (see white circle).


A different composition gives a different feel

Single Sagicho float

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS II USM/ FL: 70mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/9, 1/500 sec, EV-0.7)/ ISO 400/ WB: Daylight

A shot of a single Sagicho float. Although it clearly captures the movement of the people, there are no other floats in the background, which, to me, made it feel like something was missing from the photo. Including the surroundings in the composition helps to covey the atmosphere of the event more effectively.


Inspired? Check out the following for tips on how to photograph other types of festivals:
Capturing the spirit of Mooncake Festival
Mid-Autumn Festival: Dealing with Low Light
The Traditional Ceremony of Water Buffalo Impersonation in Banyuwangi, Indonesia
The Sacred Beauty of Rejepan Plabengan Ceremony in Central Java, Indonesia
Waisak Lantern Festival: Capturing the Beauty of Night Photography with Joseph Mak
The Holi Festival: A Photo Essay by Joseph Mak


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
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Takashi Nishikawa

Takashi Nishikawa

Born in Nara Prefecture in 1965, Nishikawa graduated from the Broadcasting & Movie Department of Visual Arts Osaka Professional Total Creative School. He self-studied photography, and worked at a commercial video production company and a professional photo printing lab before finally becoming a freelance photographer. A member of the Japan Nature Scenery Photograph Association (JNP).