Thursday, May 13, 2010

Project 62 - Photographing the Munich Oktoberfest

After rather a long hiatus due to vacation and publishing a book of photographs from the holiday via Blurb, I am happy to be back working on the last section of the AoP course: Narrative and Illustration. In the meantime I have also enrolled in the People and Places course, so will soon be starting a new blog covering this course.

The city I live in, Munich, is synonymous with beer and festivals.  Almost any event/anniversary is an excuse to put tables in the street and start serving copious quantities of beer.  Germans don't worry about binge drinking, beer is life and fundamental to their culture.  It is even enjoys a taxation status equivalent to bread, i.e. it is a staple food and not subject to duties or increased VAT.

We enjoy 3 major beer festivals, the Starkbierfest (Strong Beer Festival) in February,  Fruehlingsfest (or Spring Festival) in April/May, and the grand daddy of beer festivals, the Ocktoberfest in September/October.  Added to this we have 3 Auerdults spaced through the year, actually markets, but serving a lot of beer.  The final point in the festival year is the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market), not at all a beer festival, but they do brew a special beer even for this activity.

All of these are a great opportunity for a photographer, however, it is the Oktoberfest that is the greatest spectacle and the one that I am going to plan in this blog entry.  Sadly it is many months until the event, however, I have photographed it many times, including images for this course and so will illustrate this blog with typical shots that can be made. Following is my guide to photographing the Oktoberfest.

The Munich Oktoberfest

The Oktoberfest lasts for two weeks, finishing on the first Sunday in October - many years ago the fest was moved into September to enjoy better weather.  The only exception is that since the 3rd October is a public holiday in Germany, if the 1st Sunday is on the 1st or 2nd of October the fest will extend to the 3rd.  Sadly this year the 3rd October is a Sunday so no day off and no extension of the Fest (the commonly used term in Munich and one I will use from now in the sake of brevity).

The Fest takes place on an open stretch of ground in the South West corner of the city, called the Teresienwiese, but locally called the Wiesn (pronounced Veezen). In a typical year around 6 million people visit the fairground, averaging 500,000 per day.  Half of these will drink two or more liters of the Fest beer.  Fest beer is a special brew for the event, stronger than normal (after all people will drink more of it, so the logic is make it stronger) at 6% alcohol and only served in liter glasses call Mass (not Stein - a glass mug is called a Krug or Mass, it is only a stein if made from pottery). The beer is served in 14 different "tents", actually 2 story prefabricated buildings that seat up to 10,000 people.

Surprisingly violence is rare, but I have seen the impact made when someone smashes one of these glasses into anothers head - not pretty.  The Fest is fun, but you need to be vigilant, petty theft is not unknown and there are a lot of very drunk people wandering around.  Care needs to be taken to protect any camera equipment and patience is needed as drunks think annoying photographers is very amusing.  For the faint of heart, be warned that anybody with a camera near a drunken man wearing a kilt is likely to be asked to provide photographic evidence at the lack of undergarments. Having said all of this, the Fest is great fun and in 16 years of living hear, I have never had a problem or know of anyone having a problem.  In fact that greatest danger is falling asleep on the train home an ending up goodness knows where in a very befuddled state.

Tactics for Photographing the Event

I have created a map showing the location of the Fest and the routes of the accompanying parades.  I have numbered the key locations and will use these as reference points in my dialog.


The Fest starts with two parades on the Saturday and Sunday, both are excellent subjects.  On Saturday is a parade of drays pulled by teams of heavy horses, each dray carrying a mixture of local celebs, waitresses from the event and basically anyone in with the breweries.  They are covered in flowers and usually sport a large number of beer barrels, some of which are tapped and free beer can be obtained by running alongside and grabbing a glass - the glass is then returned and shared with others, so take care.  Intermixed in the parade are coaches carrying the city mayor and other dignitaries, plus marching bands.  The parade gathers at  location (1) on the map, in a network of back streets.  This is by far the best location for taking photos, as the teams are preparing and great candid shots can be made.  Once the parade begins the police push everyone back behind barriers and it can be difficult to get a vantage point, unless you have two SLR's around your neck and some self confidence - somehow I am always able to duck past the police and walk into the parade to take shots (respectfully of course).  At this stage the best lenses to use are fast zooms, I use a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS for close ups and a 17-40mm f/4 (not ideal, but don't have the f/2.8).  In my kit I also carry a couple of primes, but rarely use them.  I use fill flash, but am careful around the horses, however, they are very docile and used to crowds.

Further along the parade route as it goes along Schwanthalerstrasse (2) a high vantage point would be necessary as the crowds are dense - there are grandstands for a fee, but that rather limits mobility.  Another good point arises for shooting as the parade moves through the Teresienhoehe (3), the crowds are thinner and the space is broader.  I came upon this by accident once, just heading in for the opening.  The key to photographing the parade is to get there early at 9am during the preparation and then shoot until around 11:30 when the parade goes into the Wiesn.  At this point the crowds are huge (think Wembley and multiply by 4-5) and anything other than close up grab shots is not going to work.

On the first Sunday is a second parade, starting at 10am, and this is the Costume and Riflemans parade, a traditional event during which groups from outlying Bavarian villages comes into the city to celebrate their culture and have a drink or two.  A good point to photograph this is near the Hofgarten (6), although again the crowds are very dense and so bringing a stepladder might be a good option.  I rarely see this parade as I normally go to the Fest on the first Saturday and 10am on a the following Sunday is not good for me!  However, last year, we did not "do" the fest and so was able to enjoy the parade and get some good shots.

The Wiesn

The Wiesn (4) is a huge open space dedicated to holding large events, the Fest is just one of them.  Although the Fest is most famous for the beer tents and drinking it is also the largest fair ground in Europe and hosts a number of spectacular rides as well as more traditional attractions.  During the day it is filled with families and children going to the fair, at night it is an insane kaleidoscope of light, noise, and drunken revelry.  Wandering around offers great image potential, from the social documentary of passed out drunks to the speed and colour of the rides.  A tripod is essential for natural light shots, but care must be taken to find a spot not heavily traveled, drunks are not good with expensive kit.  In this environment a mid-range zoom is best, I use a 24-105mm f/4, and a flash gun.

An alternative is to get above the throng and head up onto a small hill at one end of the Wiesn, dominated by the statue of Bavaria.  From here it is possible to create vista shots or using a telephoto focus in on details, my choice is my 100-400mm or 300mm prime.  Again you will receive much useful advice and good natured interest in what you shoot.  Here there are many photographers as this is a prime location.

In the tents

After shooting the parade and getting some great positional shots from outside, it is time to head into a tent.  This is not as easy as it sounds, recently the Fest has overflowed with people, cheap travel and rising incomes, particularly in Eastern Europe have greatly increased the number of people going to the event.  I normally go on the first day of the event, to enjoy the traditional first tapping of the keg, however, this means queuing up at around 7am in the morning.  The doors open at 9am and then it is a long wait until around 1pm to get served. The advantage is a chance to get some interior shots in relative safety.  Otherwise it is wise to avoid the weekends and go on a Monday or Tuesday evening - it will still be packed and mad, but it is then possible to just turn up around 5pm and walk into a tent.  The tents open at about 9 or 10am and close at 11pm, serving beer all day and full all day.

There is no problem with people objecting to photographs, people are having a great time and often will simply not notice you. In this environment a wide angle lens is best, although shooting with a mid-range telephoto from one of the second floor galleries can be be fun.  I typically do not take my SLR, choosing instead something smaller and cheaper.  A lot of beer is served and much of it ends up on the floor, tables, on each other.  In the UK binge drinking is termed as drinking more than 3 pints of 4% strength beer, 1 liter glass of 6% Fest beer gets you close to this and most people drink far more than that, my record is 7 liters (don't ask) and I know some who will drink 10.  The message is that there are a lot of messy drunks about and beer sloshes from badly held glasses.  Either go and just take photos or if drinking, take shots early and then place your camera somewhere waterproof.  Never, ever, accept an offer by a stranger else to take a photo of you, many cameras are stolen every year in this way.

Shot List

Narrowing down to a shot list (and before I look in my library for good shots) this is what I would choose to illustrate a narrative of the Fest:

  1. Parade - People getting ready to march
  2. Parade - Close up of the horses and their decoration
  3. Parade - Complete dray with horses and people
  4. Parade - Marching Band
  5. Wiesn - Bring out the sheer size of the event
  6. Wiesn - Illustrate the size of the crowd attending
  7. Wiesn - Abstract of a moving fairground ride
  8. Wiesn - Colour, capture the lights and brightness
  9. Tent - Illustrate the size of the crowds
  10. Tent - Capture the colour and tradition
  11. Tent - Bring out the level of drunkeness
  12. Tent - Chaos
  13. Detail - Glasses or Food - try to capture the level of consumption
  14. Detail - Waitresses
  15. Detail - The Bands that play at the event
In my next entry I will try and find an image to illustrate each of these elements

No comments:

Post a Comment