County fairs are shooting galleries for photographers

I was excited to read in the newspapers back home that the Yavapai County Fair was returning to the original fairgrounds in Prescott, Ariz. After the fair had been moved out to a new site in Prescott Valley and later run into bankruptcy, it was resurrected with the help of dedicated volunteers who have now brought the fair home.

I’ve always enjoyed county fairs. Growing up, I enjoyed seeing the sights of the fair — the animals, the projects, the collections, the entertainment and especially the food. When I moved to Shawano, Wis., it was great attending a county fair again and cover it for the newspaper. This past weekend, I stepped out on my own to shoot the Shawano County Fair and show just how amazing fairs can be.

IMG_3688_MG_3815 The biggest part of Shawano’s fair, space-wise, consists of the animal entries. In Shawano County, cattle are the most common animals raised, and they take up three barns at the local fairgrounds. If you stick around long enough in the barns, you can see some pretty cool stuff.

IMG_3697I didn’t get the chance to see many sheep when I lived in Arizona, but once my mother moved to Wisconsin, she started raising sheep on her farm in Birnamwood. They’re fun and friendly creatures most of the time, and at the county fair, they really love seeing people, even climbing on their hind legs to greet people. They take up most of a single barn, sharing the remainder of the space with goats. When I went this year, the barn was particularly cool from a combination of fans and lower nighttime temperatures than normal.

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Then there are the pigs, which take up another barn. Didn’t get to see too many pigs growing up, but I always like to stop by the swine barn and check out the pigs. Most of them are usually resting, but some of them perk up at the sight of visitors, especially visitors with cameras. I snapped a really cool photo of one pig who was eager to look picture perfect and inquisitive, almost like something out of Charlotte’s Web. I also got some fun photos of pigs resting in groups and one darker-skinned porker looking up at visitors.

IMG_3736On the way to check out the smaller animals, I saw several ducks wandering on the grass outside, and I just couldn’t help but snap a few photos. It’s always an interesting challenge capturing photos of fowl on the move, but if you take as many photos as I do, you’re bound to catch a good shot.

IMG_3750Chickens were among the things I entered in the county fair back home, so it’s always fun to capture pictures of the winged stars of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The challenge here usually is making sure the focus tunes in on the animals instead of the bars. I got a really cool shot of one this year with an egg. So the question is which was placed in the cage first?

IMG_3756Among the chicken cages were a few with pigeons. They’re pretty quiet creatures and easy to photograph, as long as they don’t blink and as long as you can center the shot so the bars don’t blur the focus.

IMG_3762I knew there were bantam chickens — even raised some when I was a kid. However, this year I was a little surprised to learn there was such a thing as a bantam duck. Bantams are smaller versions of fowl, and I captured a shot of a couple of short stuffs for my collection.

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IMG_3677Another animal I grew up with on the farm in Arizona was the rabbit. They’re very gentle creatures, and when I started covering the Shawano County Fair, they were yet another fun animal to capture for posterity.

Of course, fairs aren’t all about the animals. There’s food, too. I’ll get to the edible fun shortly, but in this curious hexagonal barn, living things are exhibited— fruits, vegetables, plants and flowers. When it comes to vegetables, I like to capture the unusual, like a two-colored bell pepper and gourds with faces on them. For me, the more bizarre the item, the cooler the picture. It’s just how I roll.

IMG_3862 Over in the junior fair building, one of my favorite food items to capture are the decorated cakes that 4-H members create. It’s amazing how they’re so young and yet so creative.

IMG_3868Of course, with pie slices, it can be a different story. Some slices look like they survived an earthquake.

IMG_3880In the commercial building, the Shawano County Fair showcases a variety of food items. This year, I saw a really cool gingerbread house creation that symbolized another common farm in the county besides cattle — tree farms.

IMG_3997 Once I got done shooting pictures of food, it was time for me to enjoy some food, as well. In Shawano, there are plenty of commercial booths on the midway featuring cheese curds, pizza, fry bread and all kinds of other stuff that’s usually bad for you but a must for any fair visit. For most people, including me, no trip to the fair is complete without a cream puff. Loads of whipped cream, not very healthy, but it’s oh, so good.

IMG_3986However, I made sure to eat other stuff first. Besides the commercial booths, there are a number of booths operated by nonprofit organizations. One of those is Gresham Community School, and they sell food for the cheapest prices. I got a pulled pork sandwich and soda for only $4.50, and considering the cream puff alone cost $4, that’s a good deal. I also got the luxury of enjoying blue raspberry soda from Twig’s Beverage, one of my comfort items here in Shawano.

IMG_3895Food is not the only thing that’s good to photograph on the midway. Once the sun goes down, the neon lights come up, and it’s a party. My favorite fair photograph is of the Ferris wheel all lit up. Five years ago, I snapped a good photo of the Ferris wheel after sunset as it was getting toward nightfall, but instead of clear, black skies, there were some dark storm clouds that gathered around it to give the photo a warm, yet ominous feel. Since that photo, I’ve tried to capture the Ferris wheel from different angles. This year, I got a “pink” shot with the cotton candy booth in the foreground.

IMG_3921IMG_3922IMG_3930There are plenty of other places that look good at night on the midway — the pizza booth, the rides and much more. While I love the cover of rural darkness, it’s nice to bathe in the neon light of the midway at least one night of the year.

While most of the sights of the midway are familiar. I did notice one unusual addition to the fun zone of the fair. There were giant old-style barrels with windows being used to sell soda. I couldn’t help but snap a picture.

I’ve gone on and on about specifics, and the truth is I could describe more about county fairs, including arts and crafts, but I think I might be droning on too long, so here are a few more photos showcasing the Shawano County Fair.

I guess it’s safe to say that county fairs really are a shooting gallery for photographers.  You can also say that all’s fair in love and photography. When you go to your county fair, make sure you capture some memories however you can.

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