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How to photograph a protest

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Demonstrators gathered for the March for Science at City Hall in Colorado Springs, Saturday, April 22, 2017. The rally and march was to promote the understanding of science and defend it from various attacks, including U.S. government budget cuts. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Demonstrators gathered for the March for Science at City Hall in Colorado Springs, Saturday, April 22, 2017. The rally and march was to promote the understanding of science and defend it from various attacks, including U.S. government budget cuts.
Protests are all the rage these days and I love to photograph them. They’re made for pictures — there's no point in protesting without media coverage.

I recently photographed the local March for Science protest at City Hall. It was well attended, with lots of humorous signs and interesting costumes. I was able to make several different kinds of pictures both capturing the crowd and certain protesters I thought were interesting to tell the story of the protest.
A series of signs at a protest can create a pleasing arrangement to the eye. This composition also isolates one of the signs using a shallow depth of field. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • A series of signs at a protest can create a pleasing arrangement to the eye. This composition also isolates one of the signs using a shallow depth of field.

There a few tips to keep in mind when taking pictures of protests:

Show up early. That way you can get a lay of the land and find out if there are any restrictions to photography. Sometimes the police or the protest organizers will make arbitrary rules for the media. Being there before the protest begins also makes you a part of the landscape — protesters and police are more likely to accept your presence.
It's important to show the scale of the protest. I crossed the street and using a long lens compressed the protesters on the steps to "stack" the composition and fill the frame with protesters. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • It's important to show the scale of the protest. I crossed the street and using a long lens compressed the protesters on the steps to "stack" the composition and fill the frame with protesters.

Carry two cameras.
 One with a long lens and one with a short lens. Use the long lens to isolate subjects in the crowd; the short lens to make scene-setters and create more layered pictures with strong foreground elements. Protests are often very busy, and if you don’t focus on a specific subject, the pictures don’t say much.

A humorous shot of a protester with her child holding a homemade sign. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • A humorous shot of a protester with her child holding a homemade sign.
Avoid unnecessary camera or equipment bags. You want to be able to move fast — photographing a protest well is all about capturing several vantage points. A bag just slows you down. You also don’t need to worry about something being stolen as you move in and out of the crowd.

A vantage point above the protest allows me to make a cleaner composition and show the signs and the people. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • A vantage point above the protest allows me to make a cleaner composition and show the signs and the people.

Set up your cameras beforehand. You don't want to have to think about your settings. Thinking about camera settings hinders reaction time. If you set your camera settings before the event, then when something interesting happens (usually it happens very quickly and is gone just as quickly) you can just point and shoot to get the shot.

Jacquelyn Quin chants during the march following the protest. A crowd of marchers can be confusing and busy. By using a wide angle lens and standing on a concrete wall next to Jacquelyn, I was able to layer the composition from foreground to background. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Jacquelyn Quin chants during the march following the protest. A crowd of marchers can be confusing and busy. By using a wide angle lens and standing on a concrete wall next to Jacquelyn, I was able to layer the composition from foreground to background.

Spread your pictures far and wide. I usually attend a protest because I believe in what the protest is about. So taking protest pictures without sharing them is pretty useless. Make sure to post the images on your social media channels, and even send them to the organizers to distribute. That 's the best way to support the cause.

I'm always on the lookout for interesting signs and people. Here I found both and made a portrait of Rosa Byun (another Indy contributor), left, and Tessa Lowenstein. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • I'm always on the lookout for interesting signs and people. Here I found both and made a portrait of Rosa Byun (another Indy contributor), left, and Tessa Lowenstein.

Colorado Springs resident Donna Scheloski had the best costume by far, but I was unable to make a picture of her during the protest. I caught her after the march and again used a wide angle to layer the composition. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Colorado Springs resident Donna Scheloski had the best costume by far, but I was unable to make a picture of her during the protest. I caught her after the march and again used a wide angle to layer the composition.

Here, I used a wide angle lens to incorporate the architecture of City Hall and used it to frame the protesters. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Here, I used a wide angle lens to incorporate the architecture of City Hall and used it to frame the protesters.


Sean Cayton is a wedding photojournalist of 19 years and operates a successful, award-winning wedding photography studio in Colorado Springs. He's also an award-winning photojournalist. Sean is happily married to the love of his life (also his business partner) and is father to three beautiful children. When he’s not working, Sean can be found outside flying kites with his kids, hitting golf balls or casting a fly rod to hungry trout.

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