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Monday, September 14, 2009

Photographing the California State Fair

20090830 Balloon A Rama
(View this image larger.)

Although I always loved to go to the Yellowstone County Fair when I lived in Montana, it took me 5 years to make it to the California State Fair after moving to the Sacramento area. And the reason I went was just to shoot a lot of photos with my brand-new digital camera.

I'm on my fourth digital camera now, and have shot the fair with all of them. Two years ago I took a Gorillapod and a compact digital camera and got my first long exposures of the lights on the carnival rides at night. Last year I went with a DSLR for the first time, my Nikon D40, and I brought a tripod. This year I went all out--I bought a season pass ($36 for unlimited admissions--regular tickets are $12 for each day) and visited the fair on 12 different days, bringing my tripod on several of them.

The purpose of this blog entry is just to share the highlights of the hundreds of photos I have taken at the state fair the last and offer some ideas for other photographers. More fair photos can be found in my set on Flickr, California State Fair, and select photos are now available for purchase in prints of up to 20 inches by 30 inches on my account at

(I've put small shots of photos that link to the Flickr page for each one, which shows a medium-sized shot, but I've also added links that take you directly to a larger shot than that [although not full-sized]. If you want to know the camera settings for a shot, click on the photo to be taken to the Flickr page, and on the lower right just below where it tells you what camera it was taken with click on "More properties." My photos from 2001 won't have that information.)

Midway Lights at Night

We'll start off with my favorite subject, and also the most difficult subject to photograph. Just after the state fair in 2006, I was looking at some great long exposures of Ferris wheels on Flickr, and was inspired. But I had to wait a year to try them myself (although I did make a rather lame attempt at the Sacramento County Fair in May of 2007). Armed with my Kodak Z740 Zoom, a Gorillapod, and a .6 neutral density filter, I made my attempt.

20070825 Grand Wheel

It took quite a bit of effort before I was able to get the shot above. Unlike a free-standing tripod, the Gorillapod needed to be attached to something. In scouting around for what to attach it to, I also noticed the problem of floodlights facing the camera. Finally I attached to a metal support for a sign next to one of the restroom stations. I had to use the neutral density filter to get a long enough exposure, as the smallest aperture on the camera is f/8, which didn't cut down the light enough. I took exposures at several different shutter speeds to make sure I got a result I was happy with. When I shoot neon signs, the camera often thinks I'm underexposing, as it averages all the black area in the background when metering. But in this case, I found for the results I wanted the camera thought I was overexposing--because I wanted to expose for those lights not just in one location, but as they keep moving about.

In 2008 I came back with the Nikon D40, a tripod, and more experience as a photographer under my belt. I thought it would be easy to match and likely surpass my work from the previous year. I shot a couple of nights, and was sorely disappointed with the result, so I had to go back a third time and get it right.

20080826 Grand Wheel

Another thing I tried in 2008 was what I was calling a digital double exposure. The technique is to shoot a long exposure with the lens zoomed in somewhat for half the exposure, then rapidly zoom out wide for the other half of the exposure, producing a close up shot within a wide shot, and a bit of streaking from the zoom.

20080826 Grand Wheel Double Exposure

It took a lot of practice, but I finally got a result I was happy with. It would be easier with a heavier and sturdier tripod than what I have.

In 2009, I found that I basically had to relearn how to shoot this kind of subject each year, as so much time had elapsed since I had last tried it. And adding to the difficulty was the fact that there wasn't much for crowds on many nights, so the rides were often just sitting motionless waiting for riders to come along and get on. I was also disappointed that the Grand Wheel was replaced with the less impressive Giant Wheel. But I made up for the problems by spending a lot more time at the fair taking photographs.

20090901 Giant Wheel & Monorail

This shot of the Giant Wheel would have come out pretty boring by comparison to my previous efforts, except that the monorail came by in front of it during the 30-second exposure, nicely filling out the frame. Another way to fill the frame was to include the ride next to the Giant Wheel, the Falling Star.

20090901 Falling Star & Giant Wheel

Having had some positive feedback from the previous two years shooting the terrifying-looking ride Evolution, I tried that one again. It took 3 nights of shooting to get the shots I wanted. First there is the ride as a whole:

20090901 Evolution: The Ride

And then I wanted to capture just the most interesting part of it, the wild spinning at the top:

20090906 Evolution: The Ride

The most beautiful ride at the 2009 state fair was a new addition, the Wave Swinger (the name is the ugliest thing about it), purchased from Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch. One of the employees of Butler Amusements told me that it took extra time to set up because of all the parts. I gave it a ride too, and it was awfully fun.

20090824 I like this one better

There were actually 3 Ferris wheels at the 2009 state fair, and the Sky Diver, which is also a wheel ride. The one by the West Gate had interesting lighting, but it didn't look like it would make for a nice long exposure to me. The lights kept changing colors, so I figured a long exposure would just produce a muddle of all the colors. But I decided to try some shorter exposures that would still allow for blurring--like 2 1/2 seconds, rather than the 30 seconds I used on the Giant Wheel. And I was pretty happy with the result.

20090904 West Gate Ferris Wheel

Finally I like a shot of the Gravitron Thriller I took just after sunset. As you can see, there was no line of people waiting for the next ride.

20090824 Gravitron Thriller

The Food

I take a lot of food photos, and get more response to those than any other photos on Flickr. But what I've noticed is that people respond more to the outrageousness of the food pictured--monster burgers, bacon, chicken fried steak, gratuitous deep frying--than they do to the quality of the photograph. Looking back on my food shots from the state fair, I don't care for most of them, but here are two that I do like.

20090823 Turkey Leg

A turkey leg in front of the Zipper. I like to do contextual food shots when possible, rather than just isolating the food.

20090826 Churro

A churro.

The Livestock

I've always enjoyed going to see all the cute critters. Unfortunately, they are difficult to photograph, as the Livestock Pavilion is dimly lit, as is the "Fur & Feathers" exhibit at building 6 in the Expo Center. The goat below happened to be near one of the openings to the Pavilion, where some ambient light came in. I still had to use ISO 800.

20090901 Wary Goat

The lighting is a little better at The Farm, where UC Davis puts a bunch of pregnant cows, sows, and goats to have them give birth over the course of the fair. The most popular is always the pile of piglets.

20090901 Piglet

20090827 Piglet

The Exhibits

On the ground level of the California Building the counties put up their exhibits to promote themselves each year. They try and tailor the exhibit to match the theme of that year's fair. As I love to explore California, I like to see the county exhibits and pick up travel information.

20010821 Los Angeles County
The Los Angeles County exhibit from 2001 (large).

20060902 Frog in a Bikini
The Calaveras County Exhibit from 2006 (large).

20090826 Water Monster
The San Joaquin County exhibit from 2009 (large).

Over in the Expo Center, there are several more exhibits. Building 1 gets the youth art, building 3 houses the exhibits related to that year's theme, building 4 is always some big promotional exhibit where they try to sell a lot of merchandise--in 2009 it was candy, and in 2007 it was toys. Building 5 houses "Industrial & Technology Education"--you'll see students' architectural plans, woodworking, robotics, all kinds of stuff. Building 7 is for the fine art competition--my favorite, particularly the photography. And in building 8 they display the "Creative Arts," like quilting, scrapbooking, and woodworking.

20070817 Computer Speed
Computer Speed by Nan Roe, youth art 2007 (large).

20090821 Rubber Ducky, You're the One
Rubber duck collection from the "Weird Wild Wacky California" exhibit, the theme for 2009 (large).

20070817 Rubik's Cube
Toys for sale at the toy exhibit, 2007 (large).

20060819 Scream
Scream by Egil Knutson in the 2006 fine art exhibit (large).

Freestyle Motocross

I don't know how long they have had this at the fair--at least since 2007. I'm afraid I didn't check it out until 2009, and then just because I had so much time at the fair I was looking for extra things to photograph. I saw the ramps and thought they would just jump their motorcycles, which would be impressive enough. But no, they do all kinds of acrobatic maneuvers while flying through the air. The stands are situated so that you are looking into the sun for the 5:00 and 7:00 shows, so I mostly shot from the midway on the other side, with the 5:00 show offering the best lighting. But I also went at 3:00 to the top of the stands so that I could get a Ferris wheel in the background for an interesting juxtaposition, even though the light wasn't great (but better than at 5 or 7 from that angle).

20090826 Tommy Clowers
Tommy Clowers (large).

20090826 Wheatland's Jesse Jolson
Jesse Jolson (large)

20090901 Myles Richmond
Myles Richmond (large).

20090901 The Rock Solid
Destin Cantrell (large).

The Chair Lift

I don't get to ride much at the fair with all of the camera gear I'm lugging around, but the chair lift was something I always did ride. It just took you from one end of the fairgrounds to another up above the crowd, with nice views. Of course, I snuck a few shots of people coming the other way. But in 2009 I was disappointed to see that the chair lift was gone.

20070825 Young Couple

20070825 Sucking Face

There are so many more subjects to photograph at the fair: the entertainment acts, the 10:00 fireworks show, kids (although I'm not comfortable photographing other people's kids), carnies, and toys. But these are the subjects I've had the most success with and wanted to share with you.

20090827 Sunset at Cal Expo