County Fair Photography in Nebraska
After growing up in Canada, I had never been to a County Fair until I moved to Nebraska. In Vancouver, there is the PNE (Pacific National Exhibition) which is an annual event to mark the end of summer. It started with a parade (always rained) and ended on Labour Day (then we all went back to school the following day). The PNE is a huge event held over 2 weeks and consists of everything a county fair has, but on a much larger scale.
Once in Nebraska it didn’t take long to get used to the ‘scaled down’, slower paced fairs that every county holds each summer. The Thayer County Fair has been held in Deshler since 1912. I can only imagine the excitement it brought back then (especially as electricity and running water were a feature that year!). It took place at the school grounds, then found its permanent home in 1915.
Even today, the county fair is cause for excitement as traditions are followed and new ones begin. Everyone has their favourite attraction or activity and bringing it all together for a few days is what makes the county fair so special.
County Fair Photography
As a photographer, a county fair provides a wide range of subjects to shoot. This year (2018) was the first year I made a concerted effort to shoot several events over a few days, rather than just grab random shots on the one day we attended. I also decided to focus on the “faces at the fair” this year and try to capture the expressions of attendees and entrants. Almost every shot I took used a 70-200 f/2.8 lens with the aperture wide. I wanted a minimal depth of field to isolate the subject from the background as much as possible.
County fair photography is tough, but fun. Trying to capture the decisive moments is a challenge, but thanks to the marvels of digital photography I can shoot as many frames as I want and then pick out the keepers when I get home. Needless to say, it’s been a busy week of shooting and editing, but in the end I was really happy with a lot of photos. Sharing them on Facebook for the community to enjoy made it all worth while.
The County Fair Parade
I’m not sure if it’s a law or not, but I think every fair must begin with a parade. Maybe it goes back to the early days when the circus came to town and paraded down main street to advertise the spectacle. Today’s county fair parades offer a mix of the patriotic, scholastic, political, historical and commercial displays.
Once again, I wanted to focus on the people in the parade, not just a big photo of the truck, float or other vehicle. So with my trusty 70-200, I found a good spot which allowed me to see what’s coming (and get some overall crowd shots) and have the sun lighting the faces. My spot wasn’t perfect, as the sun got lower and subjects would go from shadow to light depending on the shadow of the buildings they passed.
One of my favourite parts of the parade is the old tractors and gentlemen who drive them. You can see the joy and pride in their faces as they drive by, smiling and waving and showing off the machine they have restored to its former glory.
Kids and county fair photography go together like sheep and wool. One event at the fair this year I wanted to shoot was ‘Mutton Busting’. In case you haven’t heard of it, this is a kid-sized rodeo where small children grab onto a sheep and ride it until they fall off. The kids had a blast, I was shooting and laughing for an hour and the sheep survived as well. It wasn’t until I reviewed the photos on the computer screen that I saw the many tumbles, face plants and sheep trampling these kids endured!
The organizers were kind enough to let me into the ring, which gave me an unobstructed view of the event. I also shot at a low angle on one knee to be level with the kids and the sheep. I got in position with the sun mostly at my back and enjoyed the late, warm light before the sun set.
While shooting, my goal was to ‘freeze’ the action with a fast shutter speed. Other important settings were continuous auto-focus to track focus on the moving subjects and a “continuous low” shutter release to fire off a few frames at at time, as timing the next great expression or tumble would be next to impossible.
At first I was shooting quite close, but soon zoomed out a bit as the sheep were fast and moving from directly in front of me to my right. After four or five entrants, I had my system down and could concentrate more on framing and following the expected path the sheep would take.
I’ll have to admit that will all of the fairs I’ve been to, I’ve never stopped to watch the 4H kids exhibit their animals. Any previous trip usually involved a walk through the stalls to look at the variety of cows, pigs, goats, etc – but I had never watched the events which brought the animals there.
Living in rural Nebraska, I’ve also learned of the dedication and amount of work these kids perform throughout the year to get their animals ready for the fair. So a 4H show is a big deal in these parts, and I figured the least I could do was to set an alarm and get up for the Beef Show (yes, the beef show, not the cow show – these bovines are “going to the market”).
My first impression was, ‘Wow – these are small kids handling giant beasts!”. Impressive. When I was that age, I could barely manage a dozen chickens, and watching elementary school age kids handle a ton of animal was fun to watch. For the most part, the cows behaved, but of course, there was some stubbornness on display.
The kids handled any challenges with a certain calmness that would not have been my first response, and there were people in the ring to help when needed. I enjoyed watching (and photographing) the subtle interactions between these young people and their animals.
There were other shows for hogs, goats, sheep, rabbits and other animals, but without spending my entire week at the fair, I thought the beef show would be a good show to highlight.
Truck and Tractor Pull
Another new event for me was the “Truck and Tractor Pull”. I’ve heard of these and knew it involved a truck pulling a weighted sled over a certain distance – and that was about it. So I decided to spend some time shooting this event one evening. I didn’t plan to get too close to the vehicles, so again my 70-200 was put to good use! I shot at a fairly fast frame rate, not so much because the trucks move quickly, but because they can quickly leave the ground while pulling. It’s hard to predict, so firing off 20 shots during a single pull gave me options to review later. This photo on the left shows how planning, timing and luck can get a shot of a truck with all four wheels off the ground (not sure how this helps with traction).
I set up in a position which allowed me to get the front and sides of the vehicle. This way, I might see some of the driver as well as the truck name (usually along the side) and get a nice 3/4 view. I went for minimal depth of field as the background was busy and wanted it as blurred as possible.
An unexpected event was the inaugural Dodgeball Tournament! This had several teams ranging from smaller kids to adult men, some all-girl teams and various mixes. It was held in the ring where I had recently watched the Beef Show, so I’m not sure if it was cleaned out between events – but I felt sorry for the dodgeballers doing face-plants in the dirt!
I shot all of the games and LOT of frames – but somehow didn’t get a single shot of ball hitting someone! I was mostly shooting the throwers, but in hindsight should have shot more of the targets. This was a great example of “low light, fast action” photography, so I was pushing my ISO to 5000 for most of the shots.
You can’t have a fair without the midway. I was planning to be ambitious and set up the tripod I had carried all night and do some slow motion shots of the rides, but I was feeling a little tired and lazy, so I shot hand held for the rest of the night.
I spent an hour or so shooting some of the rides, the games and various other subjects I could find. While it’s fun to boost the saturated colours to create a nearly surreal effect, I think B&W midway photos create a timeless effect.
For any photographer, the county fair provides a great range of subjects. There are compelling human interest stories at almost every turn. There is drama, laughs, disappointment, fear and almost every human emotion on display at the fair. Finding new ways to shoot what is a very familiar subject can be challenging, but that is all part of advancing our photography.
Below is a gallery of random images shot at the 2018 Thayer County Fair. The faces may not be familiar, but if you’ve been to a county fair before, the themes and subjects are well known.
Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. – Art