Let me start by explaining exactly why I chose to write this “Photographer’s guide to the Mt Hagen Show” - especially since this is not something I usually do. Believe it or not, I did not put this together because I know better or I’m a better photographer, but because after searching for months for any article, blog post - anything really - which describes what happens during the show, what visitors should expect and so on, I came up with absolutely nothing. All I found were a few vague descriptions, some shaky videos but nothing to give a photographer enough to adequately prepare for what happens.
So, I thought that now that I’ve been there, I should do exactly that. I’m not going to tell you how to visit the show (this is easy to do and any tour operator worth their salt can get you there) or how to take good pictures (that’s up to you), but I will try to prepare you on what you’ll be faced with and how to best prepare. Everything you read here is based on my experience and is, naturally, coloured by them, so ultimately small or larger details may differ when you go, but I’m sure if you read this to the end, you’ll be pretty well prepared. And you need to be prepared because the event will test you…quite a bit.
First things first…
But, lets start at the very beginning. What is the Mount Hagen show? Well, the show (which in Papua New Guinea is called a “Sing-Sing”) is a 2-day event, usually held in the middle of August, over a whole weekend, with the participation of anything between 50 and 80 different tribes from across all of Papua New Guinea and the surrounding islands. It is a truly amazing event, pretty much defying casual description, and an amazing display of the culture of the PNG islands. You don’t need to be a photographer to be in absolute awe of the colours, the shapes and the overall experience - it is simply so much larger than life it cannot but leave you speechless. If however you are a photographer and are looking forward to getting some good images during the show, then, well, there are a few things you need to know. You can find more about the show here.
NOTE: before we go into the various details, let me explain why I chose to visit during the Mt Hagen Show as opposed to the Goroka Show (held about a month later in Goroka) or the Mask Show (held earlier in the summer) in Rabaul. The former is a looser, more informal, event, specifically intended for local involvement and participation and as such, tends to be a lot more crowded, more chaotic and, as a result, more challenging for the photographer. There is a reason why there are fewer images taken at the Goroka show. The Mask Festival on the other hand, while - apparently - equally impressive, is more focused on tribes which employ masks (something which is sadly lacking in all other shows), is smaller and does not include most of the more iconic tribes of PNG. Personally I would have loved to visit the Mask Festival as well, but timing (the Mask Festival is held in the middle of July, almost a full month ahead of the Mt Hagen Show) and distance made that impossible during this visit.
A couple of notes here:
you may hear that getting tickets to the show is difficult/ you need to get them a year in advance etc. Not accurate. There is no real limit to how many visitors are allowed in the show - however, the limit does exist in terms of available accommodation for the days of the show, available guides and transportation.
you may be told that your guide cannot accompany you inside the show ground. Also not true. There are many guides who can join - there may be a small additional charge for you, but if you need someone to carry gear or help you inside the show, it can be arranged.
So, let’s break down the show and examine how to best prepare and use each day to get the best pictures. While what follows is a guide for the more serious photographer, there is no reason why any photographer or visitor should not read it - there’s a lot of useful information here - but be prepared for some technical bit here and there, so please bear with me.
Each day, officially, starts around 9am (even though this may vary, especially the first day when most of the various dignitaries etc. are due to visit, in which case you simply don’t know when things will happen) and finishes anywhere between 2 and 3pm. If the show is held in a football field, there is a chance the second day may finish even earlier (usually around 1-1:30pm) as there is usually a match scheduled for 3pm - so please bear that in mind.
Tribes will arrive at the grounds at various times, usually starting from around 7:30am, but herein lies a crucial point: the tribes do not particularly care what time the show starts for the visitors - they will arrive at different times (usually depending on how far from the grounds they live, how long it takes them to prepare etc.), sometimes even well after the official start time, so do not count on a situation where all the tribes are waiting outside the main show grounds, preparing, waiting for you to visit them and shoot pictures. Chances are there will be tribes who may arrive at 10 or even 11am (when you should already be inside the show grounds), prepare and then join the sing-sign. This may be why you should perhaps count on spending time on different places on each of the two days.
There is no general/official break during the day - so, if you want to have lunch (most tour operators have lunch organised at various times), you will need to exit the show ground (not a problem, that’s simple) and then return (equally simple), but you will lose whatever may happen during your absence. In other words, be prepared to be on your feet from 7:30am to around 2-3pm.
Let’s talk preparation time
Many a photographer will say that the best time to take photos of the tribes is while they’re preparing. This is partly - and mostly - true, but counting ONLY on those times will not serve you well. Let me explain the pros and cons.
First the cons:
as explained above, not all tribes prepare at the same time. This means that starting from around 7:30am and going on until 9-9:30am, you will almost certainly see some of them (but NOT all of them) in various preparation stages. More than 2/3 of the tribes will arrive and start preparing after the show has begun! Be aware.
because of the size and spread of the area, you will spend quite a bit of time walking from one area to another - do not count on all the tribes be conveniently located in specific spots - and you will sometimes need to return to a tribe as they progress with their preparations. This is why I recommend getting there as early as you can, as you will need the time.
some of the areas in which they’re preparing are downright ugly: next to fences, next to food vendors, beside car parks, so don’t expect convenient or even remotely nice backgrounds. Some times you’ll find yourself trying to manage people and cars walking behind, etc, so again, be prepared.
And now the pros:
the light is usually better, softer, early in the morning, so you have that going for you. Early mornings in the mountains means cloud cover (which usually vanishes by 10-10:30am at the latest) and this means, simply put, better pictures.
the tribes are more relaxed, not jumping, dancing and moving around, and most of them are more than happy to pose for pictures (you can even, to a limited extend, ask them for a specific pose if you want), so chances are you will have both more time and more flexibility when shooting. This will NOT be the case in the main sing-sing.
You may think the cons are more, but trust me, the light situation more than makes up for anything and everything else.
What happens during each day
The sing-sing is one continuous event. Tribes come in through a gate and then, singing and dancing, will usually perform a grand circle (well, almost - usually it’s a half or 3/4 circle) of the grounds before arriving at a specific spot on the field where they will - most of them - remain for the rest of the day, alternatively resting, posing for pictures and singing and dancing. That’s it. It sounds simple, but well, it can be anything but. Let me explain:
Each tribe takes between 20-30’ to do the circle - they will pause numerous times (especially if more than 2-3 tribes enter close to each other) and at these times they will be very close to each other - sometimes no more than 3-4m between them. The tourist madness starts from the moment they walk in - there are those who will wait literally just inside the gate and will then walk backwards (with all the hilarious accidents this entails) trying to stay ahead of a tribe before side-stepping and moving on to the next. This is, obviously, completely stupid, because the chance of getting a good image this way is, well, verging on zero.
Once each tribe arrives an an empty stop on the grounds, they will stop and this will become, for most of them (see exceptions below) their main ground where they will sing and dance and pose for pictures etc etc. throughout the day. Around 2pm they will start leaving - again, don’t expect a notification or something. All of a sudden you will blink and there will be 10 fewer tribes there, with more leaving every minute.
The main sing-sing
Photographically speaking, the main sing-sing is a bit of a nightmare. Seriously. Do not count on getting that award-winning shot here. There are some interesting potential shots, but the whole event is so massive, so complex and so chaotic, that actual, proper photography is very, very difficult. Let me explain:
there will be around 100-150 other visitors, most of them with some interest in photography (you’ll see a lot of long lenses, massive cameras, ridiculous vests, silly hats, stupid fluorescent t-shirts etc etc. and lots of people who believe they own, well, everything) so pushing, shoving, cutting in front and so on is going to be ever-present! You will be lucky to have a few shots without a bunch of tourists either in the background or literally at the edge of your frame.
because of the over-abundance of visitors, securing eye-contact with your subjects will be difficult - and rightly so! After all, why is your image more important than someone else’s and why should any tribe member focus only on you? Still, trying to shoot a group of 10-15 people and having all of them looking at you - well, let’s just say you have better odds at winning the lottery…twice in a row.
tribes will dance, sing and then stop for a little bit before repeating, but capturing them while their singing and dancing is very challenging, not only due to their movement, but because there will be other tribes pretty much all around (making for a very busy environment and background) and also you will have a very limited space in which to work. Trust me, it’s not easy.
once they stop for a rest, you have anything between 5 and 15’ in which you can, potentially, get some good shots. The big choice then becomes: what focal length, which approach, etc. As each tribe is different, you need to have made that decision before they stop as you’ll most likely have moments to execute.
the light will most likely suck! Enormously. After 10-10:30 the sun comes out and it’ll mostly directly overhead, so count on having massive sharp shadows, insane highlights and all those truly horrible challenges we face when shooting in full sunlight. There will be nothing you can do, so my personal recommendation would be to simply put the camera down and enjoy. IF however you’re lucky enough to have an overcast day, then happy days! The photography gods have smiled on you so take advantage of every single second of soft light you have!!!
I am not trying to disappoint you or convince you not to go - you must go! - I’m only trying to prepare you. I met more than a dozen photographers who flew in specific for the show and who expected to get the shot of a lifetime with their 200-400 lenses all their other very expensive kit, so they unleashed themselves like hyenas discovering a fresh kill, desperate to make each second count - this is the wrong approach, as almost all of them found out.
No “preparation” article could be complete without a special mention to the biggest challenge of the day: other photographers (and I use the term VERY loosely here). Whatever you think you know about politeness, civility, patience and manners - well, forget it. This is humanity at its worst, a strange hell of shoving elbows, pushing and shoving, disregard of anything and anyone, without a single sign of remorse - hell, I don’t think I heard the word “sorry” once!
Visitors to the show are broadly grouped in the following categories:
phone photographers. They are there for the fun of it, they don’t really care about anything, they’re there mostly for the selfies and some videos. They will jump into your frame every now and then, but a small reminder will work. After all, taking a shot at another angle means nothing to them.
obvious amateurs. These are the point-and-shoot, entry-level SLR users, with their kit lenses and open pop-up flashes. They are usually okay, mostly I think because they’re in secret awe of the “big” boys (see below). Like the phone photographers, they will occasionally come in your frame, but they tend to be okay. Of course, exceptions do exist.
amateurs with pro equipment. You can usually tell them apart by the surrounding paraphernalia - “photographers” vests, special dual-camera harnesses, special “photography” hats, etc. They are by far the worst! They think because of their investment and some minor experience with photography they have the right to, well, everything and anything. They will physically manipulate tribe members to get their shot, snap their fingers to get attention, physically push and shove everyone else and, if they want to go closer, yes, they will step in front of everyone else without a second’s hesitation. And they will get angry when someone tells them off - angry to the point of threatening physical confrontation.
asian photographers. Please bear with me here - there is a reason they deserve special and separate mention. I don’t want to sound mean, but what the heck? I have met asian photographers all over the world and, despite the really bad name they tend to give to photography - and tourism - generally, they really went out of their way to be truly inconsiderate and all around awful throughout the two days of the show. Pushing tribes people around so they can squeeze in between them for a selfie - even while the tribes were dancing! - and shamelessly blocking other photographers if they liked a shot someone else was trying to take. Every single photographer there was angry with them - and there were only around 10 of them! In fact, because Papua New Guineans are not pushovers, at the end of the second day, two tribe members actually refused to be photographed with this particularly nasty guy, physically turning away from him and pushing his hands (which were once again attempting to push them when he wanted them) away!
Overall, it will be unlike most other events you’ve ever been to (unless you’re a celebrity paparazzo) and tempers will rise, anger will flare and do not be surprised if you see a couple of more violent altercations here and there. I have been a photographer for almost 30 years and this was humanity at its worst! You will experience people:
cutting literally in front of your frame (even if the space is 2m!) and standing in front of you
physically pushing you out of the way (usually from the back, but from the side as well) so they can grab the shot they want, regardless of whether you’re finished or not.
jumping into your frame so they can take the selfie they want with the tribe, most of the time regardless of whether there are 10 photographers taking pictures at the same time
leaving their tripods, bags etc at random places (usually because they realise that taking a friggin’ tripod there is as stupid as having a chocolate teapot!)
pushing and physically moving the tribe members so they can get a picture they want
Nobody cares that you’re trying to get a shot - their shot will always be more important. Nobody cares that you were the first at a spot or position - as long as they can physically squeeze in front of you, they will. Because most photographers there will be amateurs with pro equipment (see above) - i.e. amateurs who spend £20k on equipment and automatically think they have become professionals - do not count on maturity, planning and the ability to judge a scene, evaluate whether the image will still exist in a few mins (most times it will) or quick thinking in terms of alternatives. For them, every single shot is “the one” and they will stop at nothing - including physically pushing other photographers around, to get it.
Having said all the above, I get why they act the way they do - I really do: they are there for 2 days, just like you, they paid good money, just like you, and they want their money’s worth. Does that excuse their behaviour? Absolutely not, but they will behave like animals nevertheless. Unfortunately by the end of the first day, this behaviour will have you also seeing red and tempers will rise - after all, you can only be shoved out of position 50 or 100 times before you push back. You can only have another photographer literally move in front of you while you’re trying to shoot, blocking your shot, 20 or 30 times before you decide to, first voice your objection and then, seeing it will make no difference, start reclaiming your space. This place is the one place in the world where counting on someone else’s better nature makes you the absolute sucker. It’s as simple as that - sad as this may be.
I am not proud (both to have done it and to confess to it now), but I had to literally shout at people 5-10 times and in 4-5 situations, I literally had to physically push back. There was this amazingly annoying short Portuguese woman who, well, let’s just say, thought she owned the place and that gave her the right to do whatever she wanted…you too will come across people like that and while I cannot tell you how to (re)act, try not to be a pushover.
Equipment and settings
I actually don’t like giving gear and settings advice - after all, neither gear nor settings guarantee a good picture - so I’ll try and keep it simple and straightforward:
think two bodies, one with a long zoom (say a 70-200) and another with a medium or wide zoom (think 14-24 or 24-70). Counting on one body and one lens (see also below) is not a good idea and will severely limit your options and images
leave all this snobby nonsense of “I only shoot primes” crap at home, next to your social media altar - it does not work here. Your subjects will be moving ALL the time, forcing you to move with them and you need the flexibility of a zoom lens - you absolutely do. I saw a couple of photographers who showed up with their Lieca’s and a couple of hipsters with their “I only carry a 35mm” mantra and boy did they regret it! Not only were their pictures way too busy, but they ended up so frustrated the first day, one of them did not show up the second!
rapid fire is your friend. This must be the one place where the ability to shoot many frames per second WILL help you get the images you want. I’m not a usual advocate of spray and pray, but this is the one place where you will need it. Depending on your camera, you might want to use continuous autofocus (in conjunction with rapid fire shooting) to adjust for the constantly moving subjects
learn to use auto-ISO (don’t expect to learn there - learn and experiment before - you need to know how to adjust minimum speeds and max ISO as lighting conditions change). Set a high minimum shutter speed to start with (think well above 1/100th) and make it happen.
this is not the place for the “sunny 16” rule. You need as wide an aperture as you can afford, otherwise your images will have everything in them sharp (remember, your subjects will be close together, front to back, so an aperture of 6.3 will result in all of them being sharp, losing any focal point you may wish to have!) and this sucks! I shot at between 2.8 and 3.5 almost the entire time, most of the time wishing for 1.8!!!
you may see the occasional moron with a reflector or an off-camera flash (the first one is REALLY annoying for the tribes people, the second is practically pointless). Do not fall into this trap - they are absolutely useless AND have the added issue of requiring someone else to carry and deploy them for you, making things even more convoluted. And considering it will most likely be sunny anyway, neither will be of much help. Instead invest on taking a breath and framing better…;-)
Oh, a couple of smaller points:
Yes, you will need your lens hoods - do not leave them at home because they take up space.
a backpack is utterly stupid and completely impractical! It’s stupid and impractical every day, but twice there. There is no time to put the damned thing down, open it and access the contents. Every photographer I saw with a bloody backpack regretted it bitterly! Oh, and those of you already thinking sling backpacks, keep dreaming - equally impractical, plus they make you a nuisance for every member of the tribe as you try to squeeze between them and you end up bumping onto them with the stupid hump you’re carrying.
count on taking upwards of 1,000 - 1,500 images per day. Seriously. So, have enough cards with you - I met a French “photographer” who ran out of memory space by 12:30pm on the first day!
Finally, something quite important: if you are a little like me, and like to make connections with the tribes (and succeed), they will want to shake hands, hug you etc. This means you’ll end up covered in colours, mud and all sorts of other things. It’s okay - let it happen. It makes you a part of the show, a friend of the tribe. Don’t be a snob - it felt truly amazing to see people within the different tribes I had met during the previous days throughout my trip across PNG, for them to recognise me and to greet me like a friend! I loved being included in their little group, albeit for a few moments, and to hell with the fact I ended up covered in 10 different types of colour pigments and muds. You expect those people to let you in and allow you to photograph them - you also need to let them in!
Please impress on your guide that you want to be on the grounds around 7:30am. Unfortunately most operators think everyone is a tourist needing a nice breakfast until 8am and will count on getting you to the show by 8:30-8:45am, so make sure you communicate that clearly the night before - do not trust an email exchange you made 4-5 months ago when you booked everything. Also, if you’re unfortunate enough to be stuck travelling with a group (something I thoroughly recommend against), you MAY run into a situation where only you (or maybe another member of the group) want to head to the show early, so be prepared to have to organise an earlier transfer (this will, however, cost you extra, unless your operator plays nice!)
Most organisers/tour operators will have a tent set up outside the main grounds (literally on the other side of the fence) where you may have a short break, sit down a bit and have a drink of water. I would not trust my equipment there however - whatever you will need, you should count on having with you throughout the day. Some operators are better/more organised than others and will have staff permanently manning the tent - this will help in some situations.
You need sunscreen, even if it’s completely overcast! Trust me, I made that mistake - you’re at 2,700m altitude and the sun’s rays WILL burn you even through the cloud cover. So, take it with you and apply repeatedly throughout the day.
All tour operators provide lunch. Don’t imagine something fancy - sometimes you get a simple boxed lunch others a basic buffet of local dishes. However I would recommend - humbly - to not count on having lunch, certainly not on the first day. There are way too many things happening, way too many tribes out there for you to meet, experience and photograph, that spending 45’ in a lunch queue and then eating is, frankly, a bit of a waste of time. But again, entirely up to you.
The Paiya Mini-Show
Not usually what I do, but I kept the absolute best for last - just to check you’re still paying attention! And I’m talking about the Paiya mini-show. Usually down-played in favour of its larger brother, the mini-show, which is held the day BEFORE the main sing-sing, at a small village about 50-60kms away from Mt Hagen, is an absolute gem for photographers. If you ask me, 8 times out of 10, you will get better images during the mini-show than you will get at the big one! Intrigued? Keep reading!
So, the mini-show is, as the name suggests, smaller. You will perhaps see 20-30 tribes all in all, but the more impressive ones will definitely be there - the Huli, the Mudmen, the Skeleton Warriors, the Suli-Muli - will all be there, albeit in smaller numbers. So, why is the mini-show so good? Well, a number of reasons really:
because of the smaller area in which it is held, all tribes pretty much prepare in the same place, giving you much better access to them during the entire process.
the tribes are in a better, more relaxed mood and, as a result, friendlier and may even accommodate “posing” requests a little bit more than in the main show. You will see more laughter, informal mini sing-sings happening as two tribes meet each other etc.
the location is, mostly, wooded, meaning even in harsh sunlight, there is plenty of shade to ensure you get good light. Furthermore, the main preparation area is facing a small valley and mountains across, so depending on the weather, there may be some excellent background for you (I wasn’t lucky because it was a blindingly bright day, but the chances are there!)
the main show-ground is smaller and surrounded by trees - again, allowing you, if you position yourself cleverly, to capture the tribes against a less distracting background as they enter and perform.
there are two (2) Spirit Houses behind the show-ground which you can visit. If you are lucky enough to develop a rapport with a tribe (or some members of it) you might even request them to join you for an impromptu photo shoot. Word of caution here: while you may get away with a few things, the Spirit Houses are sacred to most tribes so please be respectful - I saw a photographer trying to get into the Spirit House to get a better shot and this was met with a lot of negativity from the tribe members. Also, even if you go through all the trouble of organising the tribe members for the shoot and everything, do not be surprised if you end up with 4-5 other photographers attempting to shoot over/under/next-to your shoulder at the same time.
because the event lasts fewer hours, after the main sing-sing, the tribes are still happy to work with photographers, pose for pictures etc, something which is infinitely more challenging in the main show.
To be 100% honest with you, the mini-show experience is so amazing that I would have been more than happy to just attend that - I think I got better pictures there. Also, because of the smaller number of tourists (yes, there are tourists who fly into Mt Hagen the morning of the show and leave immediately after the end of the second day), you won’t get as many morons.
So, this is it. I hope you found the information above useful and practical. If you have any specific questions, please just reach out and I’ll try and help as much as I can.