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Oostduinkerke Festival: Photographing Shrimp Fishing on Horseback

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Almost every little European town has its own secret. So does Oostduinkerke in Belgium, where I was recently to see and photograph a unique Shrimp festival that included a demonstration of traditional shrimp fishing on horseback, a shrimp parade, a fishing contest, a folklore market and of course the tasting of local dishes made of shrimps. While traveling towards the seaside with the festival program in hand, I could not even imagine what fishing on horseback might look like... And eventually the whole day on the beach of Oostduinkerke among horses, fishermen, seagulls and of course shrimps turned out into a wonderful photographic surprise!

Shrimp festival in Oostduinkerke 10

Oostduinkerke, a small town located on the North Sea coast in the province of West Flanders in Belgium, is known for its shrimp fishing on horseback tradition, celebrated since 1920 during its famous Shrimp festival. In 2013, UNESCO recognized this unique tradition as intangible cultural heritage that is vital for the local fishermen's community. Every year, the Shrimp festival attracts over 10,000 visitors and photographers alike.

Shrimp festival in Oostduinkerke 2

The most visually exciting and unusual part of the Shrimp festival is the demonstration of shrimp fishing on horseback on the beach of Oostduinkerke. Twice a week, for almost a hundred years now, shrimpers in bright yellow outfits ride their strong Brabant horses with long-haired legs into the sea, pulling nets held open by two wooden boards to catch shrimps. The chain, attached to the net, creates vibrations and makes the shrimps jump into it. After about 30 minutes of fishing, they come back to the shore with the catch, pick the shrimps from the net and place them into the baskets hanging on the horse's sides. A shrimper and his horse work in a team: shrimp fishing requires a lot of knowledge and skill, as well as trust and respect for the horse.

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The Shrimp festival usually starts in the early afternoon, so I arrived in advance to scout the location, camera in hand, in search of some seaside views and shrimp catching action shots. The tide was low, turning the vast sandy beach with a thin film of water into a mirror with seagulls flying over it. According to the festival program, the shrimpers started their demonstration around 4 pm, just before the high tide starts. This gave me time to discover the town with its folklore market and sample some shrimps, accompanied by live music on the town square. After lunch, I headed back to the beach and already from afar I could see that the action had started!

Shrimp festival in Oostduinkerke 1

My plan was to capture a cohesive story of shrimp catching on horseback, so I wanted to make sure this included all the key moments of the process: long nets, the Brabant horses, brightly dressed fishermen, hungry seagulls, and of course the shrimps. Through my viewfinder, I watched the shrimpers riding their horses with two large baskets hanging on both sides, going into the water and back,  as well as a huge crowd of shrimp catching contestants from the festival with their buckets ready to be filled and weighed later.

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At 4 pm, the sun was still very high in the sky and the contrasts were strong. I noticed, however, that I could make it work to my advantage by either photographing towards the sea with the sun behind me, or by placing myself against the sun and capturing silhouettes of people and the omnipresent seagulls, reflecting in the wet sand.

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My trusty 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens with the hood was the perfect choice for the occasion: it allowed me to take both wide-angle panoramas and thus enhance the feeling of the vast beach and deep blue sky, as well as some portraits of shrimpers and close-ups of the small grey shrimps. My camera was set on Aperture priority mode, as I was switching quickly from f/8 for landscape and action shots to f/2.8 for portraits or detail shots.

Shrimp festival in Oostduinkerke 8

Bearing in mind the bright sun, I also opted for exposure compensation from -1/3 to -1 for even stronger contrasts and brighter colours. With lots of natural light available on a bright sunny day, I kept the ISO low at 100 or 200, knowing that my shutter speed would still be fast enough to stop the seagull in its flight or splashes of water as the horses were going out of the water.

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The shrimp fishing demonstration lasted for about an hour, which was just enough to cover all the angles of this traditional fishing technique. After the shrimpers and horses left the beach, the fishing contest participants headed back to the town square to weigh their catch, and I opted for a glass of good Belgian beer with... some shrimps, of course!

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What you need to know if you go to the Oostduinkerke Shrimp festival:

  • The Shrimp festival takes place every year on the last weekend of June. Make sure to check the program of the day in advance on the official Oostduinkerke tourist office website.
  • Plan your day in advance, arrive early to scout the location, check your camera settings and enjoy some time on the beach before the action starts.
  • A lens in a range of 24-70 mm with the hood will suit perfectly for the event. You may also bring a longer zoom and a polarising filter to reduce the glare and make the colours pop.
  • One of the main challenges while photographing shrimpers is to avoid other photographers and observers: think strategically and be aware of what's happening in the background of your image.
  • Since most of the action is taking place in the surf, wear shorts and do not hesitate take a few steps into the sea for an interesting perspective. Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are also a must for good protection.
  • Watch for any water drops on the camera or lens. This is salted water and not your best friend for camera equipment.
  • Be safe and careful: make sure to wear the camera's strap around your neck and hold it tight while walking in the water!
  • Finally, enjoy the event and remember to taste some of the catch!

Shrimp festival in Oostduinkerke 9

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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...