I love watching fireworks displays on the 4th of July, and I love seeing the epic photographs of them after the celebration. Who doesn’t? But I haven’t had much interest in shooting photographs of fireworks. To get the best shots, you probably need to get to your preferred location hours ahead of time, stay glued to your tripod, and hope that you’ve planned appropriately for the wind and the launch site. That’s not all that bad. But even then, you’re contending with hundreds of other photographers and videographers for the same shots. Sometimes it’s better to leave the camera at home and spend time with friends.
But a few days before the big celebration, I read Amadou Diallo’s ‘How to Photograph Fireworks Like a Pro‘ in the New York Times, and I decided to give it a shot. Sort of. I live in Seattle, and the main fireworks are launched from a barge in Lake Union, not far from Gas Works Park. Everything I read and heard suggested that Gas Works Park was going to be a madhouse, especially in terms of getting home. I decided to find a location near my apartment and work on some basic techniques.
Diallo’s article was quick and helpful. Before I read it, I think I just assumed you’d want a fast shutter speed. I’m not sure why I thought that. The article points out that in most cases, you want to get a slow enough shutter speed to capture “the trail of light as fireworks stream up into the air and then explode.” Get to your spot early, adjust the manual settings and the manual focus, and then have at it.
The best part about the article was its emphasis on location. I agree with the article’s point that while an image of exploding fireworks might be cool, it’s the setting or background that makes for incredible images. I knew I wouldn’t get that in the location I’d chosen, so I settled for practicing with the slower shutter speeds and a tripod.
Because of the late sunset, the fireworks were scheduled for approximately 2215. I joined the masses on Capitol Hill’s Lakeview at about 2130. It was packed, and initially I gave up the plan to set up my tripod. But at about 2200 I started walking north, hoping to find a better vantage point. It was a great night to be out. I got nostalgic thinking about watching the fireworks displays with friends and family as a kid. It’s such a thoroughly American thing to do.
At the risk of getting too sentimental, it’s generally a night we can put aside our political differences and pretend we’re all on the same page in terms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Doesn’t always seem that way these days. That’s not unique to our current circumstances, but I can’t remember things having ever felt this intensely divided. (I came along after the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, and for a long time I was fairly ignorant of just how divided the country must have always seemed for a lot of people.)
Back to the photography. I had a serious case of house envy as I made my way north along Lakeview. Huge, beautiful houses line that portion of the road, most with incredible balconies perfect for 4th of July parties. If I’m still in this area next year, I need to work on getting an invitation to one of those places. The opposite side of the road was good old fashioned Americana. People lined the sidewalks, and last minute arrivals were hoping to miraculously land a parking space.
I spotted a group of six kids sitting on top of an SUV. I was surprised to see that they were all wearing jackets. But for smaller bodies who weren’t walking around with a bunch of camera gear, I reckon it might have been a little chilly. I took a few photos of them. It wasn’t hard to imagine their sense of anticipation for the fireworks. I saw who I assumed were the parents hanging out, reaching into the vehicle for a chair or some snacks. Most of my friends have kids now, and I was able to appreciate how much work must have gone into getting those kids there (and home) safely.
I continued on and eventually found a spot with some room to set up. The fireworks were due to go off at any minute, so I debated setting up the tripod. I decided to go for it. Sure enough, in the dark, I managed to completely unscrew one of the legs. That seems like a design flaw to me. I managed to get the leg back on and the tripod set up before the show started.
I didn’t go about the shots systematically. I just switched up the settings here and there. The location proved worse than I thought it would be. The western sky (my backdrop) was still fairly light, and the smoke from the fireworks was drifting in my direction. From a technical perspective, if I were to do it again, I’d try to pay more attention to when the trails of the fireworks were nearing the peak of their ascent. But the lesson I really took away was realizing or confirming that I am most interested in shooting photographs of people. Once I found those kids, I should have camped out there and done whatever it took to get an image of them, faces skyward in awe as fireworks exploded overhead.