Just after we’ve counted down to the New Year comes another colourful celebration: Lunar New Year. Celebrated across Asia though family gatherings, dragon dances in the street, fireworks and lanterns, it’s a bright and loud festival that begs to be photographed. The date changes every year but is usually around the end of January to mid-February.

Some of you might know it in your community as Chinese New Year, regardless of where you are, many major cities across the world now celebrate Lunar New Year. In my local town of Melbourne there are street festivals and celebrations. You don’t have to travel too far to capture the excitement.

Key elements to look out for in photographing the celebration are:

  • Red and gold decorations
  • Dragon and lion dancers
  • Lanterns
  • Traditional costumes
  • Firecrackers and fireworks

My best tips for getting good photos at Lunar New Year are:

1. Check the schedule

This could sound like a boring tip, but it needs to be said. The number of times I’ve turned up to an event only to realise the major fireworks happened an hour ago. This happened at the Daeboreum Fire Festival, and all I was left with was a low fire with a circle of people around it, rather than the huge burning pyre they’d been preparing for a week. Check the schedule and make a plan of where you’ll be and how long you’ll need to set up.

2. Capture motion at  night with a slow shutter speed

Woman dancing at Chinese Lunar New Year Celebration, Sydney

This woman was spinning around on a float at at Chinese New Year Celebration in Sydney. The photo was taken with a slow shutter speed to show the motion.There are lots of swirling details and colourful sparkles at a Lunar New Year celebration, especially at night, so turn the shutter speed down to about 1/10 or 1/20 of a second and play with movement. While it might be hard to keep the camera still at these speeds, and it’s difficult to use a tripod in crowded conditions, you can do a few things handheld such as:

  • Pan the camera with the subject while using a slow shutter speed. The subject will often stay clear while the background shows motion. This can take a few attempts to get right, so the festival is a perfect time to practice this technique.
  • Use a flash on or off camera to illuminate details while you’re capturing a longer exposure.

Photographing a local celebration is a perfect place to experiment with your camera settings, so don’t be afraid to try new things out.

Paper umbrella at Chinese New Year Celebration
Paper umbrella at Chinese New Year Celebration, shot at a slow shutter speed panning the camera.

3. Take a fast telephoto lens

Because a lot of Lunar New Year Celebrations happen at night, you’ll need to take a fast lens like an f/2.8 or f/1.8. Don’t stress if you don’t have one, but the faster the better. I usually shoot on a 24-70 f/2.8, but I think it would be even better with a fast telephoto lens.

4. Set up early for the fireworks display

If you know there will be fireworks at a certain time, pick a good location ahead of time. It’s helpful to have a buddy at these events so you can mind the spot, as you might need to wait a little while before the show starts. If you’re keen on photographing fireworks, check out my full article on how to photograph fireworks here.

5. Don’t miss out on details

Red packets on a tree at the Footscray Lunar New Year celebrations
Red packets on a tree at the Footscray Lunar New Year celebrations

While it’s easy to get caught up in the dancing and parades, don’t miss out on capturing small details such as red packets on trees, paper decorations, food stalls and costumes.

6. Go behind the scenes

I was recently at a Lunar New Year celebration in Footscray, and some of the best moments were seeing the dragon dancers warming up for their big performance. They were taking it very seriously – push ups, knee high running out behind the stage. And you know what? I didn’t take a photo. Serious photo regret.

7. If you can’t get in front, get up high

Dragon dancers at the Footscray Lunar New Year celebrations
Dragon dancers at the Footscray Lunar New Year celebrations

When I photographed the Sydney Lunar New Year parade one year, my friend and I and couldn’t push through to the front of the crowd. So we got up high behind the crowd and took some amazing shots. Just be careful where you’re standing and what you’re standing on!

If you’ve got a DSLR with a flip screen or you’re using a phone, you can lift your camera up to get a good vantage point, like the above photo I took on my phone.

8. Watch out in the crowds

Following on from my last point, stay safe in the crowd. It can be pretty hectic, and you don’t want to bop someone in the head with your lens, nor do you want people to trip over your tripod. Be considerate of others and also keep an eye on your gear!

Chinese New Year Celebration, Sydney
This photo was taken at a Chinese New Year Celebration in Sydney as the rain began to come down. I’m a pretty impressionistic photographer, so I quite like the painterly effect.

I love photographing Lunar New Year and I hope you enjoy it too. It’s a great festival to practice your travel photography at without having to go too far. One final tip from me: Have fun and enjoy the food!

Do you celebrate Lunar New Year? I love to check out other photographers’ work, so please share your links in the comments.

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