Light in Motion - Shooting a Carnival at Night

I love night photography and carnival rides are among my favorite subjects.  The colored lights and the movement of the rides make for some interesting patterns in the dark.  I've built a small collection of carnival ride images over the past couple of years.  I thought it would be fun to share some of them here and offer some tips for capturing great images of light and motion from my experience.

Long exposures are essential for carnival rides.  Sneak in a tripod!

The Gear

  • Camera - You'll need a camera capable of shooting in manual mode.  You could get by with aperture mode but you'll be much happier if you make the exposure decisions.  The bright lights of a carnival will mess with your camera's meter and you'll end up rather frustrated.  You also want to be shooting in your camera's raw format.  You'll be capturing a huge dynamic range, so you want your camera to grab as much data as possible.  It will make life easier when you go to process your images.
  • Lens - Use a wide lens, like 35mm or wider.  Some of the rides will be really tough to fit in frame with anything tighter than that unless you're a good distance away.
  • Tripod - Sneak one in if you have to.  Several companies make small and sturdy travel tripods.  If tripods aren't allowed, see if you can get in with a small Gorillapod or even a table top tripod.  You can get by without a tripod in the early time of dusk if you bump your ISO.  However, you'll get sharper images and be a lot happier if you can get that camera on a tripod!
  • Remote Shutter Release - This is very helpful to have.  You can get by with your camera's self timer in a pinch.  It's a lot easier to get the timing right with a remote shutter.

A good exposure preserves the color of a ride's lights.

The Exposure

  • Aperture - I like to be in the f8-11 range most of the time.  This gets me a good depth of field and helps me get the long exposure times I'm after.  Focus becomes less critical when you're stopped down a good bit.
  • Shutter - This gets a bit complicated and it takes a bit of experimentation.  Your exposure will vary by the time of night, the speed of the ride, and the intensity of its lighting.  In the early evening, you might be at 1/4 second.  After dark, you will be holding the shutter open for several seconds.  Arrive early, at least an hour before the sun goes down and experiment.
  • ISO - Keep it as low as you can.  If your shutter speeds are approaching 10 seconds, you might bump it up to keep your shutter speed reasonable.  I'm generally at ISO 100 or 200 depending on the camera.  I'll go higher if needed.  How high you can go before noise becomes a big issue depends on your camera.

Carnival rides are a frenzy of light and color.

The Rides 

  • Color - Look for rides with multicolored lights.  Rides with minimal color variation or plain white bulbs aren't very interesting.  The more varied the colors, the better.  Many rides alternate colors as they move, which makes for interesting variations in long exposures.
  • Patterns - Some rides have lighted patterns that appear as they spin.  Ferris wheels are usually a good example.  You can get several unique images by capturing the varied patterns that appear.
  • Movement - Rides that move through long vertical rotations or swing in wide patterns make for great light trails.  Rides that spin on a static horizontal axis are less interesting and more prone to burning in a colorless or blown out light trail.  Merry Go Rounds are a common example of this.
  • Speed - The speed of the ride will help dictate your shutter speed.  Experiment with shutter time to determine what looks best.  Arrive early and take some test shots before dark to get an idea of your shutter speed and how the ride will look in motion.
  • Ride reset time - Some rides are great to shoot but have really long reset times - i.e. the time it takes to get people off the ride and get a new group on.  Ferris wheels are the worst.  Don't waste the entire blue hour waiting for a ferris wheel to get going!

Get there early and take some test shots!  Figure out how the rides move and the shutter speeds you'll need before the sun goes down.

Ferris wheels can have some interesting patterns.  Merry Go Rounds are often less interesting and the lights can burn into colorless trails.

A wild ride?  Not really - it's more of a kiddy ride.  Slow moving and called for a nice long exposure that gives the impression of rapid movement.

The Environment

  • The night sky - Blue hour, that brief period when the sun ducks below the horizon and the sky turns a brilliant deep blue before fading to black, is by far the best time to get some colorful shots.  Get shots of the best rides during this time and work quickly!  When the sky goes black, keep shooting.  Look for the most colorful and well lit rides.  Go shoot that ferris wheel that finally started spinning.
  • People - Carnivals are usually a crowded place.  People will walk in front of your lens during long exposures.  Most of the time you won't notice when you view the image later.  As long as they keep moving, they won't register on the sensor.  Watch your tripod legs and take a wide stance to help guard them.  Kids running around or adults chomping on corn dogs probably won't notice your tripod legs.
  • Environmental details - Your exposure will determine the amount of environmental details around the carnival rides.  You might choose to expose such that the surroundings are visible or you may find that a silhouette is a more interesting effect.

Blue hour makes for a wonderful backdrop.

A silhouette can make for a more interesting image.

Other Attractions

Besides the rides, there are a lot of other colorful lighted features at a carnival.  After the sun goes down, I like to walk around and get some shots of the food stands, prize displays, and colorfully painted walls on things like fun houses.  

Food stands can make for colorful subjects.

Not all carnival attractions are in motion.

Post Processing

I don't usually have to do a whole lot of post processing to my nighttime carnival shots.  Sometimes all it takes is a bit of contrast tweaking, black point adjustment, and maybe a boost on recovery to get some highlights back.  Depending on the ISO you used, noise reduction may be in order. I prefer Noiseware for night shots.  If you have any HDR software, you might want to experiment with some light blending of a tonemapped image from a raw file with your original.  I often use Nik HDR Efex Pro on single raw images and bring that into a separate layer to subtly blend it in with my original in the parts where I want a bit more pop to the color and light.

Some light HDR can help bring out detail in skies and give the lights a bit more pop.