Nestled in the highlands of central Mexico and steeped in history, San Miguel de Allende is a charming city to visit and to photograph at any time. During the Day of the Dead celebration, beginning the end of October, it is transformed from charming to effervescent. My holiday memories in the city are filled with images of bold colors and designs, people participating in holiday spirit, and nighttime festivities.
As you first arrive into the city center of San Miguel your eyes will pop with photographic possibilities. The colonial architecture throughout is painted a vibrant palette of yellows, reds and oranges. Doorways are adorned with colorful, handcrafted doors and knockers.
People sit and stand in the doorways or cast interesting shadows on stucco walls as they walk down the street. They sell flowers on street corners and handmade dolls from the sidewalks they sit upon. Children play in the parks and families and friends join together in the plazas to catch up on the day’s news.
San Miguel is a city to be walked, so don’t forget to pack good walking shoes. The streets are hilly with cobblestones. Get a good map and meander up and down the streets that eventually lead to the main plaza in the city center, El Jardin. There are beautiful vistas, parks, and hidden gardens and courtyards to photograph, if you look carefully to find them. Walk the back alleys that few people see. You might want to scout out sunrise and sunset locations. The San Miguel palette looks gorgeous when the sun is low in the sky.
Sit in the park and make new friends, talking to people. I met some lovely families. I barely know Spanish and met people who barely spoke English, and yet we managed to talk. I showed cellphone pictures of my dog to the kids and their parents talked about where they lived and what they did. Eventually I took photographs, and the parents were okay with it.
Walk through the markets and be open to conversations with local vendors. I met school children, whose aunt was a vendor, who wanted to practice English and were curious about how American kids celebrated Halloween. And yes, I eventually took their photographs.
As the Day of the Dead grows closer, people start appearing with painted faces, hats, wigs and costumes. Face-painters paint faces in El Jardin. Artist markets and street fairs open for business, as do specialty markets selling products for the holiday.
Altars honoring the dead are scattered throughout the city center, inside and outside buildings, and encircling El Jardin. Decorated with skulls, Catrina dolls (skeleton-faced dolls), mementos, pictures, banners, candles, food, and flowers, these colorful structures cry out to be photographed.
The streets, sidewalks and parks become very busy and extremely hectic during the holiday. Although there may be more photo opportunities, the crowds may make well-composed photographs more difficult. Slow down, take your time with your camera and remember some basic guidelines:
- Consider the light (quality and direction).
- Look for a background that is simple and clutter free.
- Check your foreground and the sides of the image for distractions.
- Change your point of view–use an interesting angle.
- Decide if you want to show the surroundings or if you want to limit yourself to a close-up. That may determine the lens you will be using.
- If you are photographing people. it may be best to pick your spot first, set your camera, and then wait for the right person or people to walk into your spot.
Day turns to night, and a different San Miguel emerges. The streets are full of people listening to music, dancing and eating from the food trucks. There are parades and staged events in different locations.
Night photography is tricky. Streets can be very dark, as the street lamp coverage may not be far-reaching. There is a lot of movement of people to contend with and no time or space for a tripod. My suggestion: practice, practice, practice beforehand. Learn what settings work best for your camera, at night, indoors and out, for different circumstances. I did, and it really made the difference.
The most challenging photography was at the Catrina parade, in the evening, when hundreds of people with painted faces and costumes, and giant puppets and balloons, descended on the main streets and El Jardin. My initial setting for the parade, using a monopod, was a shutter speed of 1/8 second, at F /1.4, ISO 800, and flash at-2. The people in the foreground of my images were sharp as they were lit by the flash. By slowing my shutter speed I allowed more ambient light into my camera and so I was able to bring in the background during the parade, which was very dark. When not at the parade, I changed my shutter speed to 1/30 second if street lights were closer, providing more light. In all cases, I consistently checked my histogram to determine any exposure adjustment I needed to make, from time to time.
Indoors, such as when I was shooting flamenco dancers, my setting, with no flash, was F/5.6, at 1/2 second and ISO 800. I specifically wanted to show movement and so slowed down the shutter speed. I was shooting at continuous high (burst mode).
San Miguel de Allende is a vibrant, alive city during Day of the Dead. It is a city that understands that death is a part of life, and that while we can, we should cherish and celebrate each day that we have.
Of course you don’t have to travel to San Miguel to celebrate special days. You can create your memories of graphic imagery, dancing people, and nighttime festivities in your own hometown.