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Photographing Historic Reenactments & Events
Historic Reenactments are one of my favorite events to photograph, and I jump at the opportunity to shoot the event. The first reenactment I photographed was when I was 16 years old. It was only days after I had gotten my license, and I was off to the neighboring state to take a few photos all by myself. I boasted a 1976 Pentax K1000 (still my favorite camera) with 6 rolls of film: 1 color roll and 5 black and white rolls. It was magical; the participants played their roles and rarely broke character giving me a real life lesson in history. Following that excursion I then finished high school, ventured through college and ended up working as an art director. It was then that I noticed the events pouring in one after another, and the events that always caught my eye first were the reenactments. I was so excited the first time an organization contacted me to cover their event, and I still get excited every time I get that call.
When you cover a reenactment you first must make a decision; what is the final outcome that you want to achieve with your photographs? Do you want to preserve history in your images, or do you want to show the participants in the event? This is very important to decide before your begin your assignment, even if you choose to do both. When you choose to cover the participants in an event, you need to focus on the people that are the main attraction as well as the visitors. You want to capture the fun people are having especially if your photos are being used by the organization. Most likely these are the photos that they will use to advertise the next year’s event. Make sure you get those images of people having fun spending time together, the music and the highlight moments (yes this includes the pie eating contest if you are lucky enough to witness one). Don’t worry about preserving history (the reenactment that is) focus on preserving the memories of the particular event you are covering.
If you choose to preserve history in your images, remember the goal is to give emotion to your photograph, set an atmosphere and most of all capture a story all in one photograph. The first step is to be very aware of the distracting objects that can take away from your art, focusing on the objects that are not relevant to the time period that you are capturing. Power lines are everywhere that you look, even in big fields where reenactments are primarily held. You need to really think about the time period that you are trying to capture, make sure that is someone is working with food that the cooking utensils are dated correctly, and that if plastic is not relevant in that time period, you don’t have any plastic in your photos. This is not an easy task and it takes a lot of practice to be able to observe your surroundings at the same time capturing history.
Remember if there is a battle there is smoke, and smoke is of course is timeless. When I first began taking photos at these events, I found the smoke to be constantly in my way, I tried to work around it and I missed a lot of shots because of this thought process. When I began shooting digital, it was no longer an issue with how many frames I had left, so I could shoot photos with smoke in them just to try it out and see how it worked. To my surprise, a little bit of smoke along with a battle reenactment creates a nice little story all within the image. Of course smoke is relevant to battle, where it would not fit in so well with making butter, but sometimes things that seem in our way are really the key to a great photograph.
With reenactments, specifically war related events, the big show is always the battle. People stand in line and fight for the best seat and photographer especially need to make sure they get the best angle. Don’t forget about the rest of the event, you can find a lot of great shots if you just wander around. Even if it is a character just relaxing, sometimes you can capture a great expression that will fit with the costume perfectly. Although your real story may not be that interesting, when people look at the image and create their own story, it can be amazing.
Action is always the best way to tell a story, and capturing historical action can be breathtaking. Battle is of course the most common action, cannons, fire, people acting out death, running and such. But battle wasn’t the only thing that makes our history. Culture, engagement and community also create beautiful images, and especially photographs that your audience can relate, such everyday actions; drinking tea, book shopping or cooking dinner. Your viewers can relate to these images because they to participate in these actions, just with a more modern approach.
Be sure to choose the right equipment for the job. I have found that these events normally take place at high noon, with a lot of sun, and poor lighting. Bring lenses that allow you to zoom in, as well as smaller lenses for events that are closer to you. Bring a tripod to assist with your larger lenses and to aid with camera shake. And bring a lens hood for the extra sunny days.
To successfully be able to shoot a reenactment event, remember that the first step is to decide how you are going to capture the event. Are you going to preserve history or are your going to cover the event to preserve memories? You can choose both, but you must be aware of your surroundings when you are taking a photo, and be sure that you know what is in the frame. Have fun with it, and try to preserve the emotions in your images as you feel them at the event. Tell a story with your photography, and make sure to share your work for feedback, which is one of the most rewarding benefits.