Capture the excitement in all its blazing glory! Veteran Carnival-hopper Roberto Delpiano shows you the way
by Peter Kolonia

For color, excitement, and often, wanton abandon, few events surpass Carnival.
Called Carnaval in Brazil, Carnevale in Italy, Mardi Gras in France, and Fasching in Germany, Carnival (in English) is the final explosive fling before Christians enter their somber season of fasting and penance called Lent. Many of the world's great cities throw fabulous Carnivals, and they're very different from the itinerant amusement shows we Americans call carnivals. Carnivals (with a capital "C") are the real thing. New Orleans, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, and other cities spend months planning and executing these extravaganzas that feature colorfully costumed celebrants parading through the streets, dancing at masked balls, and generally unleashing their libidos. Carnivals teem with great people pictures, and few know that better than Carnival-chaser Roberto Delpiano. An Italian by birth and Brazilian by marriage, this former Rio resident has Carnival in his blood. Now an advertising photographer from New Jersey, Delpiano has taken up the personal crusade of chronicling the world's great Carnivals on film. He's exhibited his pictures of Rio's Carnaval in Venice, and his shots of Venice's revelries in Rio. Who better to offer hints and tips on how to bring all the excitement home on film? He starts with...

Getting there. See a travel agent. They know all about Carnivals, because these festivals attract tourists from around the globe. Some agents even specialize in Carnivals. (If you have access to the Internet, check out Carnival usually begins in the second half of February, the perfect time for Northerners to escape to warmer climes. Carnivals vary greatly. Rio's is much different from Cologne's. Those in Europe tend to have a medieval feel, a little scary and Halloween-like. Those in the Americas are more musical, sensual, and celebratory. Before picking a Carnival, discuss the options with a travel agent. For some Carnivals (most notably Rio de Janeiro's), in addition to airfare and hotel, you'll want to buy tickets for the parade viewing stands. Travel agents can help you with these, too.

Photo equipment. Delpiano covers Carnivals with two Nikon 35mm SLRs and a 6x17 Noblex panoramic camera. The wide guy he uses for arty, black-and-white shots. Of his Nikons - an F4 and F2 - he prizes the F4 for its autofocus. "Most Carnival processions are constantly in motion," says Delpiano. "You have to be able to move quickly between near subjects and far. Autofocus makes it easy." Lenses? Because most Carnivals don't get hopping until nightfall, he opts for faster, single-focal-length lenses - 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, and 105mm f/2.5 Nikkors - over slower zooms. He gets down close to the action so he doesn't need longer, slower lenses. (When getting close isn't possible, he uses a 70 - 210mm f/4-5.6 AF Nikkor zoom, sometimes even adding a 2X tele converter.) Delpiano advises against compact point-and-shoots, because their lenses usually are too slow, and they rely too heavily on pop-gun-powered flash units for night shots. These flashes are nice, but much of the Carnival fun happens beyond their output range. Also, for nighttime shots under normal street-lighting, shooting daylight-balanced flash renders everything beyond the flash range an ugly shade of green. The color of the costumes, says Delpiano, is half the fun of Carnival. You'll want to capture these colors as cleanly as possible. For that reason, you'll need...

Filters. A must! Whenever he's shooting under streetlights at night, Delpiano uses a Tiffen FLD filter to bring lighting temperature closer to daylight. Made for color-correcting daylight-balanced slide film used in fluorescent light, FLD filters can improve color-negative film, too, says Delpiano. The filters absorb a full stop of light, but he likes them be- cause they get the green out.

Film. If you like negative films, you're in luck: fast color-negative films have never been better. Kodak's Gold Max Zoom and Fuji's Superia X-Tra 800 are both excellent choices for night scenes. Delpiano, however, shoots slide film. He likes "the greater saturation that captures color vibrantly." Because slower slide films are more saturated, he shoots the slowest he can get away with, usually ISO 200. He squeezes a little extra speed by rating ISO 200 films at ISO 400 and then having his lab overdevelop. Technically, it's a one-stop push. His favorite film? Fuji Provia 200, for its rich colors and pushability.

Camera support. Delpiano rejects both tripods and monopods, which he feels limit his ability to move. Instead, he uses a repertoire of well-known camera-stabilizing techniques (he holds his breath, pushes his arms into his chest, pulls the camera against his forehead, takes a wide stance, and presses the shutter release very gently), plus a technique we haven't seen before: In advance, he places adhesive-backed, rubberized insulation tape on the bottom and both sides of his camera. (You find this stripping tape in hardware stores, sold in rolls.) This rubber "bumper" lets him press the camera against light poles, street signs, and other objects for added stability (and slower shutter speeds).

Location, location, location. Make sure your viewing position is a good one. Most Carnivals are very crowded. Once things get going, moving to find a better vantage point can be difficult or impossible. Moral? Arrive early and get as close to the paraders as possible. For events held at night, secure a perch that promises good night light. Try to be near something solid (like a pole) that you can use to stabilize your camera. If the Carnival (like Rio's) is a judged event, snag a position near the judging booth. "The dancers put on their best show for the judges," explains Delpiano, "and the lighting is best there, too." In Carnivals where you purchase seats or standing positions along parade routes, he advises buying the most expensive you can afford. For Rio's Carnaval, reserve your seats early - they cost between $50 and $150.

Get above the crowd. Unless you have fabulous luck, you're probably going to have an obstructed view, and you'll have to shoot over the heads of observers in front of you. Delpiano has two suggestions: Bring along a small, lightweight aluminum stepladder (or step stool), or use a waist-level viewfinder, turn the camera upside down, and compose your shot while holding the camera overhead.

Exposure. Because the most colorful Carnival moments occur after dark, wide apertures are a must. By setting a wide-open aperture, you'll get the fastest possible shutter speed. Delpiano shoots almost exclusively in aperture priority, setting the lens's widest aperture, and hoping that the resulting shutter speed will be fast enough to stop the action.

More exposure. Don't Mess with Mr. In-between! Especially for festivities held at night, Delpiano says you have two choices: You can shoot with the fastest shutter speed possible and hope to stop the action (often about 1/60 or 1/125 sec - admittedly not very fast!), or you can set a slower shutter speed (1/8 or 1/4 sec), and get a flowing blur on film that will suggest some of your subject's color and movement. What you probably don't want, he says, are the in-between shutter speeds - 1/15 or 1/30 sec - that will record mast human movement as an unsatisfying jiggle - something between sharp and blurred. The only time these speeds will work, he says, is if your subject is moving laterally in front of you and you can pan the camera, following the movement.

Weather or not. Often, bad weather happens to good Carnivals, says Delpiano. In Brazil, for example, Carnaval coincides with the height of summer heat, and early-evening thundershowers are an almost daily occurrence. Make sure you bring (at least) plastic bags to protect your gear. Also, dress lightly. Long sleeves are out. Conversely, in Venice, temperatures during the Carnevale can sink to a damp twenty degrees, freezing a photographer's feet, legs, fingers, and ears in a matter of minutes. Moral? In northern climes, dress extra warmly.

Shoot preparations. Depending on the city, you may be able to photo- graph rehearsals for Carnival festivities. During these rehearsals, revelers may actually pose for you. Great!

Watch your equipment. In some cities, tourists and photographers who look like tourists are instant targets for thieves. Delpiano's advice: Carry an inexpensive camera bag, dress like the locals, and try to blend in. Use an old gym bag or duffel bag for your gear, and de- face the bag, if new. If the locals are wearing T-shirts, shorts, and sandals, do the same. Buy clothes locally, and buy cheap. "Avoid wearing jewelry and don't carry your camera around your neck or shoulder," he warns.

Listen to the music. Many Carnivals are played out against a backdrop of blaring music. Let that music guide you. As melodies crescendo or climax, often the dancers will freeze and pose. Be ready for these moments, because when shutter speeds are around 1/60 sec, these moments may be your only opportunity for sharp pictures.

Wait until you get home to process. In some parts of the world, especially the less-industrialized countries, C-41 color-negative processing and printing aren't reliable, says Delpiano. If you have a lab back home that delivers consistently natural and satisfying color, wait until you return from your trip to have the film processed and printed.

Get involved yourself. In most cities, you can join in the festivities. That's right: Get yourself a costume and join in. It's often the most satisfying way to experience (and photograph) Carnival. WARNING: During the height of Rio's Carnaval, participants aren't permitted to take pictures from within the procession. Why? Because the event is a competition and photography might distract other performers. As you can see, these revelers take their parties pretty seriously. If you like great people pictures, do likewise!


back to photography page