I recently had an opportunity to shoot in a rare type of crowded event, and I wanted to share with you what I learned there. The event was a rare one because it was a state funeral for a deceased former president of Finland, Mauno Koivisto.

Because he was very respected president and the last presidential level state funeral was held over 30 years ago, I expected a large crowd to follow it outside the Helsinki Cathedral and the following funeral procession.

1. Know where the action takes place

I made sure to know the exact route of the funeral procession from the cathedral to the cemetery, so that I could pick up the best spots to take photos. In this case I chose a place on the square in front of the cathedral for three reasons.

The first reason was that there would be lots of people outside of the cathedral listening to the funeral service through the loudspeakers that were set up outside the cathedral. The second reason was that I could get the first glimpse of the funeral procession as it is leaving the cathedral. The third reason was that the square was only a block away from a spot where the procession would pass later on, giving me more photo opportunities.

Takeaway point for you
: Know where the action takes place and choose your shooting spots to maximise the chances of getting the photos you want to get. Take also into account that the big crowd and closed off streets might slow down or even prevent you moving from one place to another.

2. Decide what to shoot in advance

In a way this should come naturally to you. After all, you have your own shooting style and things you’re interest in, which make you shoot specific things. Then again, maybe you are like me, a photographer who doesn’t decide what to shoot before going out and takes things as they come.

When it comes to special crowded events such as this state funeral, deciding in advance what to shoots works for me better. Once I know that, I’ll know where to shoot it, which takes us back to my first takeaway point above: know where the action takes place.

I wanted to capture the people following the funeral procession instead of the procession itself. I had an idea, a hypothesis, how people would act and react once the procession would pass them: they would point their phones at the procession. I didn’t, however, know what the crowds would be doing outside of the cathedral during the funeral service but I was sure there would be something out of the ordinary taking place. Thus the square in front of the cathedral was the place I would start from and then move onto my second spot.

Takeaway point for you: In a crowded events such as this, decide what to shoot in advance so that you can anticipate where that action might take place.

3. Use a wide angle lens

Crowded event equals tons of people around you in a very close proximity. I went out to shoot that with my 35mm lens, which turned out to be too long focal length for the occasion. I just couldn’t fit everything I wanted to in the frame, and I wished I hadn’t forgotten my wide lens converter, which converts my fixed 35mm lens into a 28mm lens, at home.

If you shoot street photography where you want to be close to the things you shoot, you need a wide lens, a 28mm or wider. If you like to shoot from a further distance or are too scared to go closer to people, a 50mm or even longer focal length might suit your style better. If the latter is the case, I recommend you to get closer and almost smell the atmosphere surrounding you.

Because I wanted to stay within the crowd, I started taking photos with my phone. With its ca. 28mm lens I was able to capture photos I would have missed with my 35mm camera. In addition to that, the phone was more inconspicuous and I was able to take photos very close to the people without them noticing that they were being photographed.

Takeaway point for you: If you shoot in a very crowded event and you like to shoot an “old school” street photography close to the people, make sure you have your wide angle lens attached to your camera. If you don’t have a wide enough lens, shoot with your phone. Just remember to set the silent mode on to not attract any attention.

4. Prefocus your camera

While taking photos of the crowds, the autofocus of my camera didn’t work as fast as my mind did – it didn’t keep up with my shooting. As I was photographing someone five metres away, suddenly something interesting happened only a metre away from me, and the autofocus struggled to keep up with me.

This is a quite normal gripe among street photographers, but there are ways to overcome this. I introduce you to one way: zone focusing! I’m sure many of you have heard of this before but in case you haven’t, try it out and remember who told you about it, haha.

In zone focusing you basically set your camera to focus on a certain distance and at the same time use a small aperture so that your focus depth of field is deep, i.e. objects close and far away from your camera are in focus or at least close to it. Then you can shoot without worrying about your focus distance.

You can read more about zone focusing online but here’s a quick guide how to do it:

  1. Set your camera on manual focus.
  2. Focus the lens on a distance you normally shoot street photography, e.g. 2.5 metres or 8 feet. (Some people use duct tape to keep the lens’ focus ring in place.)
  3. Set the aperture to f/8.
  4. Go and shoot awesome street photography!

In addition, you could manually set your shutter speed and ISO value so that the high aperture number doesn’t force your shutter speed to too slow. So, set your shutter speed to, say, 1/60 second and your ISO to 1600 or 3200.

Takeaway point for you: Use zone focusing and don’t worry about whether the autofocus keeps up with you.

5. Photography is photography and life is life

One thing I realised shooting this state funeral was that at times I felt uncomfortable to take photos of some people. This was partly because I’m not always comfortable of taking close by candid shots of people, but also partly due to the fact that people were there honouring someone and even mourning him. Is it right to take advantage of this situation even in the name of photo reportage?

One of my favourite street photographers, David Carol, said in an interview that one of the most important things he learned from his former teacher, the famous Lisette Model, was that you should respect your subjects.

Maybe at times it also would be good to experience the moment yourself, to live it, and remember it that way instead of trying to capture it on a photo. After all, photography is photography and life is life, and without life there wouldn’t be any photography. Deep, huh? Haha…

Takeaway point for you: You don’t need to take photos all the time. It’s okay to experience life around you without the camera.

Second takeaway point for you: Check out David Carol’s street photos and listen to his great interview by Michael Meinhardt’s podcast. You will learn some good stuff about photography.