Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Fort Sisseton Historical Festival

One of my favorite festivals in South Dakota is held annually during the first weekend in June in the northeastern corner of the state. The Fort Sisseton Historical Festival is a celebration of everything that made the American frontier of the 1860s and '70s great.

From mounted cavalry, infantry drills, canons firing, Native dancers in fine regalia, mountain men selling furs and other odds and ends, not to mention probably the most authentically-restored frontier fort still in existence, there are great photos to be taken at every turn.

Finding the National Historic Landmark is your first challenge. The fort is 10 miles southwest of Lake City off U.S. Highway 10, on Marshall County Road 5. The closest towns of substantial size (read "that have motels") are Britton to the west, Sisseton to the east and Webster to the south. Many people camp for the three days of the festival. The Fort Sisseton State Historical Park offers tipis and two styles of tents for rent, as well as three cabins, but you will need to make reservations very early. Roy Lake State Park near Lake City offers cabins as well as camping. Maps and full information can be found at http://www.sdgfp.info/Parks/Regions/GlacialLakes/FortSisseton.htm.
Expect large crowds, this is one of the bigger festivals all year in this part of South Dakota.

The preservation of the fort itself is amazing, with barracks, officer's quarters, a hospital, huge horse barn, a corner blockhouse and several other buildings all open for inspection.

There is so much to shoot here that you will likely end up using everything you've got in your camera bag to capture it. Wide angle to large telephoto lenses come in handy at various times. A tripod is essential when shooting inside the dark horse barn.

As with any time working around animals, be careful of the many horses that are part of the demonstrations during the festival. They are everywhere around the fort.

Scattered throughout the three days are demonstrations by infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Paying attention to the the schedule will let you know when to be at what part of the fort for the best pictures. Mounted cavalry charges across the fort's parade grounds provide dramatic action shots.

Walking through the reenactors' camps can turn up some very interesting pictures as well. I have found all the participants in the event to be willing portrait subjects. A medium telephoto and a flash or reflector help make great portraits. That extra little fill light really helps since many of your subjects will be wearing some sort of hat.

A tip that I learned as a beginning photographer is helpful at this festival. When shooting reenactments that involve guns or canons firing, compose your shot and lightly hold your finger on the shutter button. When the guns fire, you are most likely going to flinch and fire your shutter as well. After I became a professional photographer, I felt like I was smarter than that and could time things myself. I can't tell you how many times I have taken pictures a split-second before and/or after a gun going off without getting the important shot with the flame shooting out of the barrel. I learned my lesson and went back to that beginner's tip of letting human reaction do my picture taking.

I haven't even mentioned the melodrama, officer's ball, horse pulls and many other photogenic portions of this festival. Even if the weather is bad, there's always enough going on to find something to shoot.

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