MerleFest is fun for an event photographer. Unlike some music festivals, MerleFest is photographer-friendly. There are restrictions, of course - no admittance to the backstage areas, no selling of your photos without express permission from both the artist and from MerleFest. But those don't matter to the music fan taking photos to cement his or her memories.
Here are some general tips for photographing musical events:
With so many stages to choose from, there are always opportunities to photograph. Each venue is different, with it's own photographic advantages and challenges. The Watson Stage features the headliners in the evenings, and the evening stage lighting makes for great photos. However, unless you have a pass for the reserved seating area, you can't get close to the Watson Stage after 5:00 pm. The Cabin Stage is adjacent to the Watson Stage, but there's no convenient area for a photographer to shoot from. The Watson Stage and the Hillside Stage both are fairly high above ground level, so photographing from up front is a challenge. It's often better to be a bit further back and use a lens with a long focal length.
The Creekside Stage and the Americana Stage are easily approached. One big challenge at Creekside is avoiding bright spots in the background from tour busses and equipment. Often, the best photos at Creekside isolate individual performers against darker backgrounds. The Americana Stage offers a different challenge. Since it faces west, afternoon light can be rather harsh and contrasty. The Plaza suffers from similar harsh light.
Little Pickers, Traditional, and Dance are all tents, so the difficulties of dealing with sunlight go away. The Mayes Pit, the Austin Stage, and the Walker Center are all indoor venues.
The Pickin' Place is an area where anyone is welcome to bring their own instrument and join in the music. There's good music there, and a chance to get up close. Keep in mind that jamming musicians typically sit or stand in a circle. You'll be photographing over someone's shoulder.
One final, but important thought, don't forget to photograph everything else. It's easy to get carried away taking pictures of performers. When you get home and go through them, you may realize that your MerleFest experience was much more than what you captured. Keep your eyes and mind open to all of the visual opportunities around you - the crowd, the Shoppes at MerleFest, the scenery, the craftsmen. Take lots of photographs of things other than the performers. If you're using a digital camera, electrons are free. Use them up.