"Who might you be?" I asked the gent in the ruffled shirt and green jacket. "Why, I'm Thomas Payne. Would you like to sign the Declaration of Independence?"
Only in America.
After exchanging a few pleasantries and discussing the possibility that most colonialists had British accents similar to his, I got down to business and (after affixing my John Hancock to the Declaration of Independence reproduction) asked him if I could take some pictures. He was more than happy to pose for more than a dozen shots as I worked to find just the right angle. When I was satisfied with my take, I thanked him for his patience and willingness to pose, and he said, cheerily, "that's what I'm here for."
Guys in uniforms are like that.
A revolutionary photographic subject: He insisted he was Thomas Payne, and asked if I’d sign a copy of the Declaration of Independence with a quill pen. I said sure--if he’d pose for me. Photo: Mason Resnick
In fact, any time you go to a historic reenactment, such as renaissance fairs, revolutionary war re-enactments, or restored colonial, or civil war or pioneer villages, you enter a visually rich environment, filled with interesting sights and sounds--and people who are more than willing to pose for your camera. It's a target-rich environment, with many willing subjects.
In other words, it's heaven for photographers.
Practice photojournalism: At a colonial village in Pennsylvania, these two gents were happy to pose for me and describe their outfits in great detail as I worked the scene with my Canon EOS 30D and 18-55mm kit lens. When the woman appeared in the doorway behind them, that’s when I knew I a photo that told a more interesting story. (Note: I was careful not to include out-of-outfit visitors, whose 21st-century duds would have ruined the shot). Photo: Mason Resnick
Approaching subjects made easy
The easy-to-find photo opportunities such historic destinations and re-enactments offer are a great way for you to hone your craft--especially when it comes to candid people photography and environmental portraits. Yes, I know they can be touristy. But they are often brimming with people wearing period costumes who are definitely not camera-shy.
Surely, you joust: Work on your timing and you'll get some wonderfully colorful action at the jousting demonstrations at Renaissance fairs. Make sure to bring a long zoom lens like the Sigma 55-200mm f/4-5.6 (less expensive) or Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM (best quality) . This was shot at a slow shutter speed while panning with the action to get a sense of movement. The motion blur also makes the busy background less distracting. Photo © istockphoto.com / Stuart Brill
People working at a renaissance fair love to stay in character, and many will mug for any camera that's pointed in their direction. Same can be said for revolutionary war and civil war reenactment participants. If you're shy about approaching strangers and asking to take their picture, this is a great opportunity to practice overcoming this shyness.
> Local color: Face painting is one of many common--and colorful--activities at Renaissance fairs. Photo © istockphoto.com / Dr. Heinz Linke
I enjoy interacting with these re-enactment characters, and often play off their in-character shenanegans (or sometimes I play the time-travelling visitor from the 21st century and ask them questions about their outfits or whatever props they happen to be using). They love this kind of exchange and are more than glad to explain the history and function of what they're wearing or carrying.
While they're explaining, don't just stand there and listen--keep shooting! Zoom in and get those details they're so proud of. (Ask permission, of course. Sometimes simply holding up the camera with an questioning look on your face is enough.) Watch their faces, because now that you've engaged the person they may be more at ease and will give a more natural pose.
Colorful (in) character: The conversation I had with this revolutionary war re-enactor was totally in character. I didn’t ask if I could take his picture--remember, cameras didn't exist in the late 1700s! I simply raised my camera with a questioning look. He nodded, and I snapped a few pictures as we chatted about the contents of his mug (he denied, with a wink, that it was Snapple). The result: The subject was at ease, and I got a nice casual portrait. Photo: Mason Resnick
When you need a model release
In most cases you won't need permission to photograph people at re-enactments and restored towns, but if you plan to use the pictures professionally, and the people in the images are identifiable, you will need model releases. Keep some in your camera bag or back pocket! If your intention is to try to sell image usage rights, in addition to releases, you might also need permission of the organization running the event. If in doubt, call in advance and ask.
Use a model release--if you feel you have a good picture, ask them to sign it and, very important, give them your card with your name, phone number and email address. Offer to email them a print. Even better: Upload the image onto an online photoprocessing service, and order a 5x7 or 8x10 print and get it shipped to them directly. It's a small price to pay if you end up making money from their image.
> Not just at reenactments: I found this fellow with the funny curly thingies in his beard (he was selling them) at a balloon festival, just as the sun was setting and giving off some wonderfully warm sidelight. Be on the lookout for unusually attired people; they are likely to be interested in your photographic attention, as this gent was. Photo: Mason Resnick
If you're trying to find enough courage to approach strangers in the real world and ask them if you can take pictures of them, these events and places, where people don the clothing of the day and pretend they're from another time, are a great place to get comfortable asking people if you can take their pictures.
Historic reenactments and restorations can be found in almost every state in the union--and Canada! Here are a few listings to get you started...