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.