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Fireworks & Fun

Fireworks and the Washington Monument


Predictable as the changing seasons, some of the world's most spectacular fireworks return regularly to the National Mall in Washington, DC. They accompany the Fourth of July, Presidential Inaugurals and such special events as parades and centennial celebrations.

As much fun as they are to watch, fireworks are just as challenging to photograph. Working on the Mall gives the Smithsonian's staff photographers ongoing opportunities to capture these events on film, and to test and improve their individual photographic techniques. Although these techniques may vary, the Smithsonian photographers all have some basic recommendations.

1. Choose the correct viewing position. Photographer Eric Long advises, "Have something in the photo that's identifiable." That might be a building or, as is often the case on the Mall, one or more of the National monuments. "Having water in the foreground to reflect the fireworks also works well," he adds.

Sometimes there are opportunities that can't be planned in advance. During the Desert Storm Victory Celebration, Hugh Talman covered the fireworks at the USO show.

"At the end of the fireworks they played the National Anthem," Talman recalls. "The military personnel were saluting while the bursts were filling the sky in front of them. I got down on the ground and shot with a 24mm wide-angle lens, positioning those saluting in the foreground."

Talman waited for bursts to light the sky and shot a series of bracketed frames beginning at 1/30-second and working down to 1/4-second. He first tried using flash-fill to light those saluting. However, according to Talman, "I had trouble with the flash cord, and the flash didn't fire for one shot. The resulting photo wasn't what I originally wanted, but it was better than when the flash went off.

2. Consider the wind. Find out which way the wind is blowing and get upwind," says Richard Strauss. "Fireworks create smoke and if the wind blows it towards your position it not only blocks the shot but makes it uncomfortable to shoot. From the right position you can use the smoke to your advantage. As the fireworks program builds, the smoke reflects light and can help define the shot," he adds.

3. You don’t need a fancy camera. The kind of camera you use really doesn't matter as long as you can manually control it.

According to Eric Long, "Fireworks create a very bright light source, and cameras set for automatic exposure will miss the exposure every time. You must have manual control of both the shutter speed and f-stops."

Almost any lens, wide-angle or telephoto, that gives the desired perspective will work. Because the exposures will usually be at f/8 or f/11, a fast lens isn't necessary.

Most, but not all, of the Smithsonian photographers recommend using a slower speed (ISO 64 or 100) slide film. Some, like Talman, prefer color negative film because, "it has greater exposure latitude and contrast control."

Their preferences for daylight versus tungsten film also vary.

"I think of fireworks as an artificial light source," says Long, who prefers tungsten film. Jeff Tinsley selects his film to match the lighting on his foreground buildings. "Originally I shot only tungsten film because the buildings were lit with artificial light, which made them look more natural," he says. "But now the lighting on the monuments around the Mall has changed to several mixed sources, so I use more daylight film."

Dane Penland uses daylight film because, "it gives a warmer saturation," while Nick Parrella uses daylight film because he feels it gives him "truer color."

Exposure techniques also vary. Expect exposure times to be long, varying from just under a second to more than 15 seconds. The trick is to have the shutter open at just the right time to catch the bursts.

4. Pack your tripod & mind the shutter speed. It may seem obvious, but always use a tripod.

"Set the shutter speed to "B" (Bulb) and use a locking cable release since you will be making timed exposures," Strauss says.

Starting with a basic exposure of f/8 and 4-seconds for ISO-64 film, most of the photographers bracket their exposures during the fireworks show. Opening the lens just before a burst is launched will capture the fiery streak climbing skyward as well as the burst itself.

Tinsley locks the shutter open while covering the lens with a black cardboard card. Then he watches the sky, uncovering the lens periodically to accumulate bursts. "If you watch the streamers as they launch, you can judge where the burst will be," he says. "That way you can compose the frame so the entire sky is filled with bursts. If you really want a challenge, you can also try to compose based on the color of the bursts."

Parrella prefers to meter for the buildings, generally resulting in a 9-15 second exposure. He then times opening the shutter at the start of a series of bursts, leaving the shutter open until the exposure is complete.

Because it's almost impossible to predict how a series of bursts will look there's also a certain amount of luck involved. "You never know how good the burst will be," Hart notes. "So I usually wait until the sky goes dark again before I close the shutter."

5. A final piece of advice. Eric Long concludes that it's best to pace exposures during the show and not use all the film too soon. "The programs usually get better as they progress, building to a grand finale. Save some film for the best shots near the end."

Author: Jim Wallace

To learn more and see examples of these fireworks photos, visit the Smithsonian Institution Photo Services website at http://photo2.si.edu/firew/firew.html.