7 Great Tips for Better Parade Photography

Read this and you’ll never again say, “Seen one parade, you’ve seen them all.”

Watching a parade is kind of square, I guess. So that means walking away from one with worthwhile photos must be a bigger accomplishment than people might think. Here are 7 tips I've learned over the years to help you take better photos at parades.

1. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst
Photographing parades involves a lot of walking, a good deal of waiting and plenty of weaving your way through crowds, so don’t overload with equipment. Take a couple DSLR bodies. Pack your zooms, of course, a 70-200 and a 24-85 if you have them. Parades also provide a great chance to experiment with that oddball lens you don’t want to risk on something important, like the 60-300mm f/4 Tokina you found on eBay, for instance.

And although you should approach the event as if you’ll be shooting an endless procession of movie stars and sports heroes, pack a couple 30-gallon garbage bags to protect your gear in case of rain.

2. Challenge yourself to find something new
Be determined to find and capture an image of something entirely new and different. This requires watching the crowd as much as the marchers. Key in on food vendors, particularly if they offer a unique or ethnic fare. I found this guy using a Windows XP  patio umbrella on his hot dog cart and for some reason it just seemed so appropriate. I just had to shoot it.

3. Pick your spot but be ready to move
Learn the parade route beforehand and it should be fairly easy to identify good spots to shoot from. In some smaller towns, locals reserve the shady curbside locations by parking their lawn furniture hours or even days before the parade kicks off, so be mindful of that. I usually try to pick a corner near the end of the route, but I remain mobile, and sometimes walk against the flow of the parade for a fresh view.

4. Show, don’t tell
Strive for images that do not yell “PARADE!” but couldn’t possibly have been taken anywhere except at a parade. Successful parade photography—like so many other things in life—is all about context.

5. Dial in on details
Why shoot an entire marching band when you can convey the sensation of a marching band by photographing its reflection in a sousaphone (as I’ve attempted to do in the photo at the top of this story)?

6. Confront the cliché
A fire truck is a fire truck, no? Then find a new way to frame them. Use a long tele and compress them into a tight stack as I have done here. There are other ways.

7. Watch for sideshows
Some of the best action happens on the sidewalk, not in the street. The crowds provide the best entertainment, at least in my book. Stay sharp and be on the lookout for action that is not part of the parade. I also look for reflections that can convey the sense of energy and excitement in an abstract way.

—Jon Sienkiewicz