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Chinese New Year in Paris: Tips on Photographing Street Festivals

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Paris is widely known as a multicultural city. Traditions and celebrations of various ethnic communities that have long become a part of Parisian life make locals and visitors feel like they are traveling without even leaving the city. Of course, such festivals and celebrations are a great way to practice street and travel photography, and capture some vibrant images! One of the most popular annual events is Chinese New Year, celebrated in February, and this year I decided to experience it through my camera lens. Dragons, Chinese Lanterns, dancing lions, firecrackers, illuminated lanterns... let the celebrations begin!

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Knowing that in 2015 the Chinese New Year falls on February 19, I started by searching information on where and when to go. There are three main Chinese communities in Paris: in the 13th arrondissement, in Le Marais (3rd and 4th arrondissements) and in Belleville (19th arrondissement). Each of them organises a celebration of their own, timing it in a way that everyone could experience all three of them. I chose to go to Le Marais in search of images combining both the traditional Chinese festivities and some historic Parisian backgrounds.

In Chinese culture, astrology plays an important role. Each year corresponds to a Chinese animal sign, and 2015 is believed to be the year of Wood Goat or Sheep. According to Chinese beliefs, Goats are mild mannered, friendly and kindhearted, with delicate thoughts, strong creativity, and perseverance - all the necessary virtues for a travel photographer!

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I arrived Place de la République in advance in order to look around and find the best spots to take photos. By that time the square was already full of people, dancers mingling in their colourful costumes and a giant yellow dragon ready to be carried along the streets of Paris. After taking a few photos of the dancers, I heard loud firecrackers and saw some smoke rising on the other side of the square, so I headed to the epicentre of events and the carnival started.

After navigating for some time in the crowd, I finally found a spot, from where I could see the cheerful and flamboyant procession, as well as Parisian streets in the background. As the carnival was passing by me, I was able to take many photos of people in their colourful costumes, traditional Chinese decorations in the streets, as well as spectators of the event, which sometimes were as interesting as the participants themselves. After the procession disappeared in the streets of Le Marais, what had started as a light drizzle turned into proper rain, so I found refuge in a nearby café, where I could look through the photos while sipping a hot cappuccino.

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Tips on photographing a street celebration:

  • First and foremost, be safe! Do not get too close to firecrackers and try to stay away from places where the crowd is particularly dense;
  • Think strategically: choose the best spot that will allow you to follow the events and get the most out of it, knowing it might be difficult to move around in the crowd and that you may spend more time trying to get through than actually taking photos;
  • Observe the light: position yourself to avoid too many strong shadows on the event;
  • If you find yourself photographing against the light (even on a cloudy day), use exposure compensation (+) to override the metering of the camera and add more light into your images;
  • Since you'll be photographing moving people (dragons, fish, other creatures), set your camera on Shutter Speed Priority Mode and choose a shutter speed of 1/200s or faster to stop the movement. Depending on the light conditions, you may also need to raise the ISO to make sure your images are bright enough;
  • Use a wide-angle lens when right in the middle of events to fit more of the atmosphere in, or a zoom lens for portraits and details. Zoom lenses and low depth of field may be challenging to use in a moving crowd, however, with some practice and a dab of luck, you may get some interesting images;
  • Finally, enjoy the event!

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Chinese New Year and other street festivals are definitely lots of fun and an opportunity to put your photo reporter's skills in action, both at home and when traveling. Feel free to share your images of celebrations with us!

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About the Author

Nadia Gric

Nadia Gric

Nadia is passionate about the visual aspect of life and the personalities she meets along the way. Living in the heart of Paris, Nadia never stops exploring the City of Light through her camera and readily shares her knowledge and love for photography. Learn more...