My son Thomas and I look for all kinds of opportunities to shoot pictures together. Over the summer we planned on taking a crack at shooting fireworks for the first time. Neither of us had any idea how to go about doing this so we consulted our photography mentor and friend Rick O. as to what would be the best way to handle this new and difficult photographic situation (see his website link below). He told us the best way was to;
*Shoot at an ISO of 100.
*Close down the aperture to around f10/f11.
*Take long exposures…..~5-6 seconds to get each firework’s entire trail and explosion.
*Manually focus on the first firework’s center when it goes off and leave focus at that setting.
*Obviously use a tripod and a remote shutter release!
*Try both vertical and horizontal compositions and compose the shot/zoom in or out using the first couple of fireworks so that you get a full frame of activity.
*Try to time the shutter release with the launching of the firework.
So, with this game plan in hand, Thomas and I took the Vespa scooter up to the Weston, CT middle school with our camera gear slung around our shoulders in the late afternoon of July 4th, 2012. I wondered briefly at the time if taking the Vespa was a good idea because there was a chance of rain later that night. But at the time the skies looked perfect and taking the Vespa would be fun. We arrived early enough so that we were able to get a prime spot on the middle school field. Typically, the Weston (very small town) fireworks draws such a large number of people that every patch of the field ends up being used. If we didn’t get there at a certain time we would not have had such a good spot to shoot from. So, we established our shooting location, set up our tripods and waited. I took this shot with my iPhone of our vantage point:
Eventually it started to get dark so Thomas and I started to prepare our cameras. As the nine o’clock hour approached Thomas said to me that he was nervous. I asked him why and he said that since this was a new photographic experience and we were using a combination of camera settings that we hadn’t used before he didn’t know what to expect and hoped that we would get something decent. I sensed that, more than anything, Thomas was excited because Rick O. had shown us some fabulous fireworks he shot with the above settings and with any luck we’d get a few.
As 9:15 approached it stared to get really crowded. I mean REALLY crowded. So crowded that people were setting up their blankets and chairs very close to us. As luck (not the good kind) would have it a family with little kids set up within inches of my tripod legs (UGH!!!). I actually had to ask them to mind the camera and even after that one of the kids kicked the tripod inadvertently a couple of times. I’m happy to say that the mom was in tune to what I was doing and she did her level best to prevent it from happening which was greatly appreciated.
At 9:20 the first firework was launched. Both Thomas and I peered through our viewfinders to set our focus and frame of our shots. For some reason I noticed that the skies which were once beautifully clear started to get cloudy and the wind was picking up a bit. Over the course of the next several fireworks, as I wondered about the weather, we discovered by reviewing on our cameras’ LCD monitors that Rick O. gave us fantastic advice because our shots looked like they had good potential. Here is one of them that I took:
So for the next 10 or 15 minutes Thomas and I were busy clicking our remote shutter releases over and over again. We’d click, wait the 5-6 seconds, and click again…..each time looking to see what we captured and getting progressively excited and looking to see the other’s shots. You would offhand think that we had the same shots but we didn’t because we weren’t in sync with our shutter release timings. By now not only was the wind picking up some more we also started to hear distant thunder. We could see the skies flash with lightning in the distance beyond the fireworks. It became quickly apparent that a storm was approaching us from that direction and our cameras were pointing directly at it. All I kept saying to myself at that point was “hold off until the fireworks were done”. Well, it didn’t. Lightning started to strike closer to us but still safely in the distance and it did start to rain a little. The lightning became very exciting because the position that it was striking was behind and just off to the side of where the fireworks were shooting off from. It was apparent that we had the potential of getting some nice lightning shots and, if we were lucky, we’d also get fireworks in the same image. We kept pressing our shutter releases and kept getting disappointed because the timing just wasn’t right….disappointed like a baseball player hitting a home run ball only to have it go foul. Then it happened. We both clicked our shutter releases and during the ensuing 5-6 seconds a firework went off as well as several lightning strikes giving the sky a very cool purplish color. When the shutters closed and our respective images came up on our LCDs we both said “I got it!”. Somehow luck was with us and we captured a dream shot. Here is how mine came out (Thomas’ was composed at a slightly different angle and, as a result, his didn’t capture much of the lightning):
I absolutely love this image. I love how many bolts of lightning there are and the subtle direction of the wind revealed by the shifting of the fireworks in flight to the right. I will admit that I got lucky. But even so…without having the camera, the desire to try, and the proper camera settings no amount of luck would have gotten this shot. So, I will take a little credit (with much of the credit going out to Rick O.) and leave the rest for being in the right place at the right time and pulling the trigger, so to speak, at just the right moment. I submitted this shot to the local paper and two days later it made the cover in full color. One of Thomas’ other fireworks shot made the publication’s online version of the paper.
Now for the rest of the story. We really didn’t know how good our shots were at the time. You can only get so much information from the little LCD on the camera. Plus, we were frantically busy taking picture after picture while the fireworks continued. Eventually the fireworks finale came……and, at the same time, the skies opened up and started to pour down on us. We snapped away until the fireworks ended and quickly packed up our gear and ran to the Vespa. Ugh! The Vespa!!! I forgot that was our mode of transportation. We hopped on and sped away as people were running to get to their cars and the cars they were in were trying to get out of the parking lot. By the time we got home we were both soaked through our clothes. Thankfully, we only had to ride a half mile away but that’s hard to do at night, in the pouring rain, water soaked goggles, and camera gear (protected with rain shields by the way) around your shoulders. After we made it home and dried off we downloaded all of our images to the computer and were blown away at the number of excellent quality fireworks shots we ended up with aside from the above “money shot”. Check out Thomas’ fireworks gallery on his website listed below (crestedgeckoexposures). I particularly like the one that looks like a green flower with a yellow middle. I would say that in the future Thomas doesn’t have to be nervous about taking photographs of fireworks anymore! He actually ended up with many more great shots than I took. You can see mine by clicking above on Galleries and then choosing the “fireworks” collection.
Sometimes with photography you just get lucky!