Celebrate Dia de los Muertos with four photographers and try their favorite tips for capturing the essence of the Day of the Dead.
The Día de los Muertos has been celebrated for thousands of years, beginning with the Aztec and Toltec people. This year, on November 1st and 2nd, people throughout Mexico and the world will carry on the tradition by welcoming the spirits of those they’ve lost back into the world of the living.
The festivities will take place in homes and cemeteries, as marigolds (cempazuchitl), colorful sugar skulls, and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) mark the occasion for all to see. The historic “calavera Catrina,” or “elegant skull,” made popular by Diego Rivera, is sure to make an appearance as well.
Image by Stacy Arturogi
Added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008, the holiday is known and cherished throughout the globe—though the parades in Mexico remain the most vibrant of all.
“The whole country gets prepared for it,” photographer Ilan Derech tells us. “There’s a warm vibe and a joy that takes place in every corner. When the day finally arrives, everyone goes out into the streets in their most amazing costumes to honor the dead. It stops being just a fantasy, and, for a day, it becomes your reality.”
Image by Ilan Derech
We spoke to four talented photographers, all based in Mexico, to get their top eight tips for creating timeless photographs of this magical day. Along the way, they also shared some of the stories behind their captivating photos.
Image by Atonaltzin. Gear: Unknown. Settings: Unknown.
Antonio Sampayo: “This photograph was part of the creation of a documentary video titled Semillas (2016). We took a multidisciplinary approach by collaborating with a group of artists. The documentary focuses our attention on the concept of ‘oblivion’ as the only true death, so the memory of our ancestors, our culture, and identity is the only way to keep them alive. The character of ‘La Catrina’ represents the dead that refuse the darkness of oblivion and demand to be remembered.”
Image by Atonaltzin
Connect with the community.
“As an anthropologist as well as a photographer, I believe that the most important thing for a photographer to have is an understanding of the cultural and spiritual significance of the celebration within Mexican society,” Antonio Sampayo (Atonaltzin) tells us.
“In the case of documentary photography, it is important to have approached the community you want to photograph prior to the holiday. That way, you can establish trust and have access to the celebration within the most intimate spaces—such as cemeteries and homes.”
2. Chepe Nicoli
Image by Chepe Nicoli. Gear: Canon EOS Mark III camera, Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/1600 sec; f1.8; ISO 100.
Chepe Nicoli: “Visiting Tepoztlan, a magical town near the City of Guadalajara, I found a street market that sold these skulls. I always liked to buy them (and eat them) as a child, and when I saw them, in addition to those childhood memories, I immediately thought of photographing them. I wanted to highlight the brightness of the eyes and the glossy paper that is used to make them—using the maximum aperture on my lens allowed me to achieve an adequate depth of field to do so.”
Image by Chepe Nicoli
Study the history.
“Knowing the tradition of Día de los Muertos is an essential part of creating images that really reflect the spirit of it,” Chepe Nicoli explains. “Although it is known worldwide, there are many details that I am sure are unknown to most people.”
Look into the preparations that are made before the big day, and take the time to understand the significance behind each of them (the flowers that adorn the tombs, the cut paper, the bread, etc).
Ilan Derech also emphasizes the importance of doing research and understanding the heritage of the day. “Having read so many myths, visited different states in Mexico, and even asked historians about the theme, I can never get enough of it,” he says.
Image by Chepe Nicoli
If you don’t know the meaning or the history behind an event or object, ask about it. “Approaching people is very important,” Nicoli continues. “They love to share the tradition, especially with foreigners, and they like to be photographed when they are dressed especially for the celebration.”
Get the mood right.
In addition to understanding the stories and traditions, it’s equally important to grasp the intention behind the holiday. “The Day of the Dead is a celebration, so instead of being gloomy, gray, or sad, the images must be cheerful, with lots of color,” Nicoli advises. “It’s a party! The dead, those who have left, return to visit us, and we receive them by offering up their favorite dishes and their most beloved possessions.”
3. Ilan Derech
Image by Ilan Derech. Gear: Sony A7Rii camera, Carl Zeiss Loxia lens. Settings: Focal length 50mm; exposure 1/500 sec; f2; ISO 50.
Ilan Derech: “I was in the middle of the Día de Muertos festival in Mexico City, running back and forth looking for interesting attendants. All of the Zocalo (main square of Mexico City’s downtown) echoed with laughter and voices from the performers and spectators, and the streets were paved with flowers.
“Suddenly, this man started walking towards me, dressed up in a blood-red suit with golden embroidered skulls and diamond details. He was screaming at the top of his lungs, drawing everyone’s attention. When I finally approached him and met his eyes, I pulled the camera in front of me. In a split second, my whole journey was summarized in one moment. The shot I had been looking for had been given to me.”
Think on your feet.
One thing many of these photographers stress is that the Day of the Dead can be full of surprises—so remember to embrace that sense of unpredictability. “Personally, I don’t like to plan out how I want the shots to be because, in a certain way, that limits my creative possibilities towards what can happen,” Derech explains. “My technique would be to sort of ‘go with the flow’ and improvise.”
Image by Ilan Derech
“A timeless shot is one which speaks to others so powerfully that they feel submerged in the moment,” Derech tells us. “For me, one of the secrets to a unique Día de Muertos shot is to never be afraid of being too close to your subject, since that’s the only way to observe the details and movements. In order to achieve that closeness, of course, you always have to be humble and respectful. Establish eye contact with your subject, and make it a collaboration between the two of you.”
4. Stacy Arturogi
Image by Stacy Arturogi. Gear: Canon EOS 6D Mark II camera, 24-105mm f/4 IS II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f10; ISO 100.
Stacy Arturogi: “For this image, I worked with a makeup artist, and we used a mood board to conceptualize it. We talked about how significant the feast of Dia De Los Muertos is, and about how important it was that the whole body of the model was seen as a skeleton and not just the face. La Catrina has no human skin, so we had to apply makeup to the whole body.
“I wanted the picture to be a little bit scary, but at the same time, I was curious to understand what death had to say. The aim was to convey this duality—good and bad—so I used two lights at the back with colored gels, one red and one blue, to represent those contrasts. I used a couple more lights to fill in her face; however, it was important that the eyes were deep, so great care was taken to not illuminate them too much or give them too much ‘life.’”
Bring a tripod and a flash.
“I advise anyone photographing the Día de los Muertos to take a tripod with you to this holiday,” Stacy Arturogi tells us. “Since the climax of the event occurs at night, the only light in our frame comes from candles, which illuminate parts of the image and leave others in the shadow. Have a portable flash available too to fill in the light in the image.”
Image by Stacy Arturogi
“You need to have a lot of tact with the people you’ll be photographing,” Arturogi stresses. As she explains, it’s a religious and cultural event, and people are celebrating loved ones who have passed away. If someone doesn’t want their photo taken, respect their wishes. Put your humanity first before thinking about “getting the shot.”
Top Image by Ilan Derech.
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