Over the next few months I'm going to be spending weekend time documenting a number of demos and rallies here in the UK. The events are to be held outdoors, during the day and may become confrontational (a number of often-violent/aggressive right-wing groups are likely to attend). There are likely to be many thousands of people attending.

When I've snapped this sort of thing in the past, I used my trusty Olympus C50 compact, but I upgraded to a Nikon D5000 + stock 18-55mm lens kit last year so this is what I'll be taking with me.

What I'm looking for is tips (equipment, technique, composition, general survival tips) from those of you with experience of shooting under less-than-placid conditions. I don't, for example know whether I should take my tripod, whether I should keep the camera in a case or just wear it all day, whether I should take a fixed lens with me, what I'll do if my battery runs out during a day's shooting etc. etc.

Can anyone advise me?

Thanks for reading.

EDIT: Just a couple more examples of areas I'm ignorant of:

  • Is there any legal stuff I need to think about when shooting members of the public, Police officers and so on?
  • Do the authorities have the authority to confiscate my equipment?

Great answers, many thanks to you all, have accepted an answer at random as they were all good and I couldn't decide.

I had a trial run on Saturday's national demonstration against the cuts to the UK's public services.

  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ "Tips for Shooting Crowds, Political Demonstrations, Rallies ...'" - I had to read it twice as it sounded a bit scary the first time around \$\endgroup\$
    – kristof
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 11:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Lol I missed that. I'd just like to confirm that I DON'T work for an oppressive Middle Eastern regime. \$\endgroup\$
    – immutabl
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 13:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Pretty close duplicate: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/2823/… \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 22:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ That one specifically pertains to personal safety and answers to it do not cover equipment and technique which is what this question also attempts to address. \$\endgroup\$
    – immutabl
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 0:03
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Mike — on that topic, see lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/… \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 11:47

7 Answers 7


Here are some easy tips from my experiences as a parade and convention photography and what I learned from a conference on war-time journalism.

  1. Get more batteries
  2. Get more memory cards, many medium sized ones are better than one large one
  3. Get a faster lens
  4. Get an outer garment that identifies you front and back as a photographer
  5. Take just the camera body, one lens, memory cards, batteries, and a cleaning cloth for the lens
  6. Do not let go of the camera unless you are falling
  7. Along with a firm grip, keep the camera strap around your neck when the crowd gets rambunctious
  8. Do not interact with the crowd but make eye contact with authorities and do what they say immediately, but do not stop shooting
  9. Do not take a tripod or monopod, the movement of the crowd makes it dangerous and the sutterspeed will negate the usefulness of one
  10. Keep shutterspeeds above 1/100 and try for 1/250 or higher
  11. Shoot at between f/2.8 and f/8 concentrating on f/8 to get the action in focus only use 2.8 when you have time to compose and really think about the image
  12. Keep moving, following other photographers around a little is cool, but your images will be more unique when you are on your own
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ n+1. Avoid walking backwards. You'll be tempted to if there's a crowd moving along and you want to get shots of them approaching, but this is a great way to fall over, taking your whole weight on the camera as you land. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 13:49
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Also 18-55 is way too short from my experience of shooting the few demo's I've covered as a student - my best shots have always tended to be ones with personal interest / facial expressions and unless you are happy to be front dead centre, potentially right in the flashpoint for any trouble then a long lens and a hi-viz are an absolute must. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 20:09
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I've occasionally gotten some good shots in stressful situations by holding my camera in a casual "not being used" sling position near my waist as I look one way and blindly shoot another. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 3:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Turn off focus assist! You generally don't need it outside in the daytime and it attracts unwanted attention. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 4:06

To answer the edits you've added:

Is there any legal stuff I need to think about when shooting members of the public, Police officers and so on?

There's been a bit of a legal tussle about photographing police officers in recent years in the UK. The Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 included clauses about collecting information that could be useful to terrorists, and police have hassled photographers multiple times using that law as a basis for it being illegal to photograph police. The British Journal of Photography has a street rights section which covers the ups and downs around these issues.

The Met (the police force in London) have photography advice on their website, though this is not always followed by officers (example). Urban 75 also have a section for legal advice for photographers, including specific advice for photographing protests.

Do the authorities have the authority to confiscate my equipment?

Possibly - see the various pieces of advice above. But ultimately, there's always the chance you'll be cornered by some aggressive cops who will seize your equipment and delete your images. This has been reported on multiple occasions and probably happened on many more occasions. You are pretty much guaranteed to get it back at some point, but not your images. If they went over the top you could take it to court and you might get some compensation, but it's a lot of work.

Edit: To answer the comment about keeping images safe, one option is to have multiple memory cards and swap them during the day. You can either secret them around your person, or give them to a friend. If they are just on your person then they may still be found if you are arrested or a full stop and search is done, but you will probably be safe if they just take your camera off you and delete the images they can see.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm curious if anyone has come across an approach for live remote backups of images, like Eye-Fi card to cellphone to website, in order to prevent loss of images in the case of deletion or damage to equipment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sean
    Commented Mar 25, 2011 at 3:09
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ If you have pictures forcibly deleted. Immediately remove that memory card and store it away. Odds are the deleted pictures can be recovered. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 4:01

When you can afford it, upgrade to the Nikon 18-200mm VR. This allows you to get good shots from further away.

Crank your ISO up enough to keep shutter speeds quick.

I have a case that will fit my Nikon with that lens attached. Both the case and the camera strap are around my neck all the time. I don't always close the case, but I will drop my camera in the case to move quickly.

I use a bungie cord with hooks fastened to the eyelets of the case around my chest to keep the case from flopping around.

In the case is a new plastic bread bag. If it starts to rain, I tear a corner in the bag stretch it over the opening of the lens, wrap it around the camera, and tape in place.

Don't be picky. Take lots of shots. Shoot loose - that is, shots that will need to be cropped a bit.

Don't know if your Nikon has this feature, but if I tell mine to bracket exposures, and put it in Continuous mode, then it will shoot bursts of shots. The only reason to bracket is if the demo runs into dusk.

Shoot raw. Makes 90% of your exposure mistakes fixable.

Play with your focus modes ahead of time.

Practice ahead of time in easier conditions. Try outside a mall, or a park.

Stay late. Get people when they are tired.

Look for sub-groups -- several police talking together, several of the demonstrators talking together.

Look for who's in charge in each group.

Look for support activities. You may be able to get your self a hot cuppa part way through. They will have an interesting point of view.

Go wired. Lapel mic and a pocket recorder. Talk to it while you take shots.

Whenever you do a major move, take a 'landmark' shot that will help you later to position the people shots. This is quick: Wide angle, snap, resume.

Study the light. Where's it coming from? Check faces. Diagonal side lighting is often dramatic, particularly on people starting to have wrinkled faces.

Study faces. Who's angry? Who's sad? Who's bored?

Study hands. Who's holding hands? Pics of hands can be dramatic. White knuckles on a sign. Cop playing with the butt end of his truncheon.

Look for interesting things happening on the fringes.

Look for places to get above the crowd. Balconies. Fire escapes. Trees. Some lamp posts have a base that will give you a couple feet of view.

Take a friend and get pictures from a knee cap height. (You need the friend to guard you against getting stepped on.)

Don't use a flash. It attracts attention to you.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for getting above the crowd, you can get great wide shots from above, and shooting around the fringes. \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeW
    Commented Mar 25, 2013 at 19:01

You are better off with a zoom lens of some kind as you will want to be able to switch from wide-angle to zoomed-in relatively quickly. You don't mention whether you have other lenses; the 18-55 will do in most circumstances but something longer would be very useful to avoid having to get too close to any unsavouriness! An 18-300mm or thereabouts would do the job nicely - you can pick up a reasonably good Tamron 18-200mm for £180.

Unless you are lucky enough to have a safe position overlooking the whole area, a tripod will be pretty much useless. Demos and protests are fluid, fast moving events, and you will need to react quickly - breaking down a tripod is not a fast process.

For the same reason you will probably want to keep your camera out of the case at all times. There are several products that can make this a more comfortable situation. Hand grips are a cheap and useful way of keeping hold of your camera, and they allow you to keep your neck strap in place as well. Assymmetric straps like those supplied by Blackrapid are more comfortable than a neck strap but are a bit pricey (around £70). Or you could get a belt clip system for arond £60.

Battery life should be ok; I have used my D5000 on entire holidays without charging the battery once. However, if you are firing off lots of shots or plan on using your on-camera flash, it might be wise to invest in a second battery and keep that in your pack.

As for technique, that's a creative choice. Manual mode is too slow to be of much use, so you will want to use either A or S priority (the latter to freeze action or facial expressions). Consider even using P mode, which will let you just capture the action without worrying about settings too much.

You will probably want to get a mix of overall, wide angle scenes showing the amount of people involved, the clash of protesters vs. police (unwanted but inevitable unfortunately) etc, and close-in shots of placards, shouts etc. This is why a versatile zoom lens would be really useful. You may need to get some elevation to get the wide angle shots; try to avoid climbing on lampposts and the like. Instead see if you can get into surrounding buildings (ask permission of course).

In terms of safety, exercise common sense, don't get caught between conflicting groups, and don't get so caught up in the viewfinder that you find yourself surrounded by violent idiots. The best shot in the world isn't worth getting smacked about. Oh, and you may want to get a cheap UV filter to protect the lens from anything being thrown about.

Good luck!

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't have another zoom, was considering getting a Nikkor 1.8D but the responses here re: not bothering with manual focus have changed my mind (1.8D won't autofocus on a D5000). Do you think there is any point in me looking at a prime/fixed lens for this particular mission? I might save up for one for later in the year though for shooting family, kids etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – immutabl
    Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 13:56
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ A prime is a good investment, but I don't think it's very useful for this particular situation. You need flexibility. A prime is fine when you are wandering around a town on holiday and you can take the time to get in the right spot, but during a demo? You're better off with a zoom. Try your 18-55 on your first trip and see if it does the job. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2011 at 15:05

One more tip: Don't assume that because it's a mass of people that you should focus on masses of people. The best shots of crowd events are often of individuals or small groups within the crowd.


Maintain high situational awareness. Always know who's around you, what the mood of the crowd is.

Stand on the side of the protesters, not the cops. That's because at least the cops won't be throwing rocks and bottles.

Carry a bottle of water and some paper towels to wipe your face in case you get teargassed or pepper sprayed.

Google around for "how to photograph a riot." Lots of great practical advice out there.




Shoot low. A low angle increases the drama. Alternatively, shoot high to get a wider view.


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