From the romantic architecture and Old World feel to the charisma and color of our residents, New Orleans is a fantastic setting for both professional and amateur photographers. It is easy to get beautiful photographs of the mansions in the Garden District or the wrought iron of the French Quarter. Getting a decent picture during a Mardi Gras parade, however, is quite tricky. We interviewed photographer Cheryl Gerber to get her tips on how to get that beautiful shot on the parade route.
Cheryl is a native New Orleanian and has been photographing the city since 1991. Today, she is a regular contributor to The New York Times, the Associated Press, New Orleans Magazine, and has been a staff photographer for Gambit Weekly since 1994. During the past two decades, Cheryl has won several awards from the New Orleans Press Club for her work on social issues and news photography.
First off, what kind of camera do you use?
I have photographed New Orleans since 1991, using Nikon. Today I use the Nikon D750 and the D700.
Any tips on how to get that perfect Mardi Gras shot?
When I’m working for a news organization, I carry a tall ladder to Canal Street at St. Charles Avenue the night before Mardi Gras and lock it to a light post. Then in the morning, I can climb up the ladder, get above the crowd and catch the parades coming down St. Charles with crowds on both sides. It’s a sea of people. Of course, this is not practical if you are traveling light. In that case, I’d suggest carrying a monopod with a chord to trigger the shutter and you can hold the camera high above the crowd. Many digital cameras can be control from your cell phone. You can always hold the camera high over your head keeping the camera level, and you might get some great shots without even looking. Bring the widest angle lens you have. I find that the 24 to 70 mm lens is great, but the 14 to 24 mm is best for getting a lot in the photo.
When I’m traveling light, the key is to get into the crowd and get low and close with a wide angle lens. People love to show off their costumes and will stop and pose for you so you can take your time to get a great shot. The architecture in the French Quarter is amazing when framing the background but try to avoid traffic signs and and other distractions like cell-phone towers. You’ll find that the best costumes can be found in the French Quarter where there are many walking krewes. You can’t go wrong! Just follow the music!
I also like to shoot uptown on St. Charles because there are no barricades like there are downtown. If you are respectful, you can quickly jump in the middle of the street when there are pauses in the parades and snap a few shot of the floats or bands coming down the street. However, NEVER jump into a band. They will not like that and you may get pulled away by a police officer or a band member. And never cross the street between band members. Police officers will signal you when you can cross. Also, when on the sidelines, don’t get too close to the bands because you might get hit with a bass drum stick. They don’t mess around!
What make photographing Mardi Gras so special?
Shooting Mardi Gras is surreal. There are so many different ways to celebrate Mardi Gras so there are many ways to shoot it. My favorite way is to catch the Krewe of St. Anne in the Marigny early, usually around 9:30 or 10 a.m. when everyone is fresh and the light is best. Then walk to Canal Street to get some parade shots, including Rex and Zulu, then wander around the French Quarter for the great costumes and music, then drift off toward Treme, the African American neighborhood where you’ll find everyone barbecuing and Mardi Gras Indians. It’s kind of wild, so be careful and wear the best walking shoes you can get. Each one of these neighborhoods is totally different and all within walking distance. You’ll swear you are in a different country if you make it to catch Zulu in Treme. I catch Zulu around the Claiborne over pass at Basin Street. Under the overpass is a whole other party. Feels like Carnival in Brazile. And its loud so maybe have earplugs.
If you would rather a more family-friendly Mardi Gras, head uptown around Napoleon and St. Charles. It will be difficult to do uptown and downtown in one day because it’s impossible to get around and cross Canal so it’s best to make your plan early.
Any tips or recommendations for the solo traveler coming to Mardi Gras?
When traveling solo, be careful of pick pockets on Bourbon Street and stay with the crowds. I’ve never had any problems as a single female during Mardi Gras, but people are drunk and stoned and it’s easy to get stepped on and pushed. I personally avoid Bourbon Street these days but it definitely should be experienced at least once. Like I said, beware of pick pickets and gropers. Also, bathrooms are an issue. If you are uptown, some churches and schools will sell you toilet tickets for $1 or $2. Worth every penny! Downtown has port-o-lets on Esplanade Avenue, but the later in the day, the smellier the potty. Bars will let you use the bathroom if you buy something. I personally like Pat O’ Briens on St. Peters for bathrooms.
It’s a long day, so pace yourself and have fun!
Cheryl has published two books on New Orleans. Click here to purchase.
Photos by Cheryl Gerber