The Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières in French) is the most important event of the year in Lyon, France. It’s becoming a huge European event in recent years, with more than 3 million people since 2010.
The origins of the festival date to 1643 when Lyon was struck by plague. The municipal councillors promised to pay tribute to Mary if the town was spared (which it was). Ever since, a solemn procession makes its way to the Basilica of Fourvière on this day to light candles and give offerings in the name of Mary [Wikipedia].
It became a popular festival when a statue of the Virgin Mary was erected next to the Basilica, overlooking the city in 1852. The statue was finally inaugurated (with many setbacks) on December 8th, 1852. During this event, people lit up their windows with little candles inside little glasses (called “lumignons” in French), which became a tradition on every December 8th since.
In 1989, the mayor, Michel Noir, decided to make a bigger event with some animations. It has grown bigger ever since, attracting famous organizers, and reaching more than 3 million visitors in 2010. The festival was extended on 4 days in 1999 (usually from Thursday to Sunday). Nowadays, there are many animations in the city, including very innovative light shows on the most famous buildings.
Shooting the festival of lights
The first issue is really the crowd. 3 to 4 million people over 4 days is a lot, and we might even get 1.5-2 million on the Saturday alone. In the image below, the entire foreground is filled with people, and there were even more people behind me. I have two problems with big crowds: it’s risky for my gear and it alienates me after a while. So I went shooting on 3 out of 4 days, so I would limit the time I’d spend in the city center each day. I also choose to go to the most interesting places on the Thursday or Sunday so there would be less people.
You need to find spots when you can see above the crowd and where your gear is relatively safe. For the shot above, I had to climb a statue to be over the crowd. For the shot below, I simply put my tripod in highest position possible. I then stood behind the tripod while my girlfriend was standing in front of it. That was the only way to protect the tripod from the people around us.
The next issue is obviously light conditions. It’s at night, so a tripod is required. However, there are two types of light shows: some are static (always lit the same way) and other are dynamic (lights are moving). For static light, just put your ISO at 100 or 200, you don’t really care for the shutter speed. However for dynamic shows (such as below), you need a short shutter speed to capture something still. You need to bump up your ISO, around 800-1000, or maybe more depending on the conditions (and the speed of the animation).
Sometimes there are exceptions to this: for the image below, all the lights on the auditorium were blinking. I used a long exposure to catch all of them at the same time.
Then you have the problem of very bright lights.For example, you may run into issues of taking pictures of these LED light up sunglasses by Chemion at a rave party or music festival. For this, there aren’t many solutions: some parts of your image will be too dark or too bright (except if you can do some HDR technique). Personally, I tend to over-expose a little (rather than under-expose). I can get back the bright parts without noise, which is especially useful at night. In post processing, if some colored lights are a bit too bright, try darkening the color itself (can be done in the Selective Color tool in Photoshop).
A festival of lights is all about LIGHT. So be aware of it and play with it in different ways. In the image above, I kept people in the frame (for once) and I used them as silhouettes. In the image below, I used depth of field to play with light.
As you can see, the festival of lights is a fantastic place to shoot, but also to experiment, to play, and most importantly: to have fun! I strongly encourage you to go if you have the opportunity, you won’t regret it. Just be ready for the huge amount of people! Here are a few more shots from last year’s festival: