I shot my first powwow in 2013 and since then I’ve attended many more. In the process, have learned what gives me the best photographic results.
First, be aware that a powwow is a feast of color, sound and movement. The dancers in the circle are constantly circling and, depending on the nature of the dance, they can be dancing rapidly and energetically or slowly and gracefully. This makes photography challenging, but a good capture can be priceless.
1. Powwows are popular events and dancers’ family members get there early to put up shades or chairs. I don’t take a chair with me, but usually find a spot on the ground next to the rope barrier that surrounds the circle (which you cannot enter unless you are a dancer or are invited by the MC). I’ve noticed that many visitors leave the powwow after a few hours, opening up space close to the circle. If you’re patient, you can often get closer to the action then.
2. By sitting or kneeling on the ground, I can shoot up slightly, which can help isolate dancers against the sky for head shots, rather than the backdrop of the circle, which is usually cluttered. Also, being low makes for better shots of young dancers (some are only toddlers!) As the dancers circle clockwise, they will come close to you, giving you several opportunities to photograph them. Sometimes the circle will be very crowded; at other times there will be only a few dancers. A long lens and open aperture can be very helpful.
3. All the powwows I’ve shot are outdoors, and the light can vary from cloudy to bright sun. Cloudy/bright is best for shadow-free portrait shots, but you can’t choose your weather, so you deal with what you have.
That said, I recommend the following settings: Continuous autofocus; ISO 200-400; f/8 or better; 1/500 or faster, depending on the focal length you are using. Forget a tripod or monopod. They’re too cumbersome and you want to be flexible. I shoot with a 70-300mm (DX format) and have been very pleased with the results. It’s not easy to find the balance of DOF (where you want the dancers’ faces to be sharp) and a fast shutter speed to capture the motion. You’ll toss a lot of shots because they’re not sufficiently sharp, the framing is off, or there’s something else wrong. It’s not unlike shooting a continuous sporting event. It’s not unusual for me to shoot 1,000 frames in a couple of hours, but keep only a few dozen shots. (I’m picky.)
4. I usually try to spot some dancers I find particularly interesting and follow them (photographically) around the circle, shooting when I get a good expression or angle. But, you have to be quick–such opportunities are fleeting. Other dancers get in the way and dancers sometimes are covering their faces with fans or their regalia covers their faces. Using your continuous shooting mode can be helpful to fire off 2-3 shots at a time.
5. When I go through my shots I consider the dancers’ expressions. Some are smiling and laughing; some are frowning with concentration; still others are deadpan. These are action portraits, so make your choices accordingly.
6. I edit my images in Lightroom and concentrate on getting the dancers’ facial features sharp and well-exposed. Often, some of the dancers’ regalia will not be in sharp focus because of the swirling costume elements. However, that can convey the motion of the dancers’ body. In addition to regular sharpening, after adjusting exposure and cropping, I bump up the Vibrance and Clarity settings to enhance the bright colors of the regalia. I finish by sharpening and adding just a bit of dark vignetting, just enough to darken the corners slightly while not being noticeable.
7. Powwow etiquette is important:
• Powwows begin with a grand entry, which includes the presentation of flags and the introduction of elders and special guests and an invocation. Photographers will be asked to refrain from taking pictures during certain times, such as prayers. Remove any headwear when asked and please respect the MC’s requests.
• Do not enter the dance circle unless the MC invites visitors to dance. Do not enter the circle before or after the powwow.
• Respect the dancers by not touching their regalia or getting into their personal space to take photos outside the circle.
• A powwow is a celebration, not a spectacle or a circus. Show respect for Native American traditions and the dancers. Polite applause is always appreciated and you’ll know when it’s appropriate.
• Keep in mind that some of the dances may be a competition. I once watched two young girls dance in a winner-take-all competition. The girl who won ran to and shook the hand of the girl who she bested. It was a touching moment.
• If you’re attentive you’ll notice different dancing styles and the MC may describe them. Dancing is a skill and dancers often attend classes to learn the various dances. The dances may look easy, but only because the dancers are experienced. For example, stopping at the exact moment the drumming ends requires concentration and experience.
• Sometimes a blanket will be placed on the ground for donations to the dancers (most often young dancers). Please be generous and give a few dollars to support the dancers and their art.