This Sunday, Manhattan's Fifth Avenue will turn blue, red and loud. It's that time of the year, when the otherwise stodgy Upper East Side will be invaded by boisterous Puerto Ricans as the annual Puerto Rican Day parade marches northward along the avenue.
It's a worthy photographic expedition, at least if you can deal with the loud music and the NYPD's habit of penning people in.
The nitty-gritty: the parade starts at 11 am at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. It then goes north on Fifth until 79th Street. People line up early and if you want to actually shoot the parade itself, you need to stake out your spot so you don't have to shoot over people's heads. Keep in mind that depending on where you are at what time, the sun might be a challenge as one side of the avenue will be brightly lit and the other will be in the shade.
The security for the parade is pretty tight, as it is for all large NYC events. On top of that, after some bad experiences with women being harassed in Central Park after the parade many years ago, the park is off limits along most of the parade route. So, your movement is limited to whatever area you enter until you find a spot where you're allowed to cross into another area.
Last year, I didn't so much focus on the parade itself, as on the people along the route. I weaved through the crowd and took pictures of the people dressed up to celebrate their heritage. Most of them were eager to have their pictures taken and the atmosphere was relaxed. I also tried to capture the contrast between the regular preppy habitants of the Upper East Side and the colorful celebrants. I don't think I succeeded in the latter, at least not to my satisfaction.
This year I will have a media pass so I can actually walk along the parade route. However, I mainly got it so I can more easily move from one area to another without being limited by the policing rules for the general crowd. I still intend to mostly focus on the crowd and not on the parade. Heck, I don't even recogize the celebrities on the floats, being largely unfamiliar with popular American culture and even more with Hispanic popular culture.
If you're going to take pictures, make sure your equipment is fast. For me the ideal gear seems to be something like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 or the Fuji X-T1. They're light, fast and reliable. My Sony A7R will stay home. So will my Canon 5D Mark III. The Canon would be speedier than the Olympus, but it's also much heavier and on a hot day in a crowded area, I rather carry less.
I don't know about you, but I always buy my gear based on the last shooting experience, just like generals always prepare for the last battle. This parade is one reason I have two E-M1s. I will put the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 on one and probably the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 on the other. Both cameras will have the extra battery grip.
I will also carry water, business cards because people will ask for their photos and extra batteries and memory cards. I might take an extra lens or two.
Last year, I took the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and the Canon 5D Mark III, both then relatively new to me. The E-M5 couldn't always keep up, especially not when focusing on the parade. The Canon worked fine, but was a handful. With a heavy camera like that and a big lens mounted on it, you have to be careful not to hit people with the gear, especially not little kids who are just the right height to get whipped by that 24-70mm f/2.8. Ouch.
By the way, shooting alongside a parade is not a time to be shy. If in doubt, take the picture. Some people might look tough with their tattoos. You might think that that guy doesn't like a picture taken of his girlfriend. You might be a lone non-Hispanic white guy or woman in a crowd of celebrating Puerto Ricans. Don't let it hold you back. Shoot. Shoot more. Chances are people will come up to you and ask for more pictures. People will pose for you. They will smile for you. And if not, move on. And shoot.
By John van Rosendaal
Below some shots from last year: