Thursday, July 01, 2004

There's more than fireworks on the 4th

People watch from a gazebo as fireworks burst against the twilight sky during Richardson's Fourth of July event at Breckinridge Park in Richardson. Hundreds of local residents converged at Breckinridge Park for the city-sponsored event.

© Mark M. Hancock

Since I've seen some people with anxiety about shooting fireworks, I'll share a few tips to get a PJ through a Fourth of July assignment.

First, arrive as early as possible to stake out a shooting area and get some other package shots. Bring a good tripod and a plunger or electronic shutter release (the self-timer on the camera can also be used less effectively).

First, let's discuss the assignment. Patriotic holiday events are all about color. Find the color (flags, banners, food, blankets) and work people into it. The assignment is to cover the event. The event includes fireworks, but it's really about people. We all know the fireworks shot are the lede in a small paper, but it's only one shot. What the editors probably want is a picture page or at least a package of images of hometown folks having fun and being patriotic.

Approach the assignment like a movie. We need wide, medium and tight shots as well as a detail or two.

It's advantageous to work wide first. We don't need names for groups of more than five people, and the spectators know we're working and harmless (otherwise we look like stalkers sneaking around).

As we approach the scene, we get our wide, overall images to show the scope of the event and how many people turned out from the community. This is most easily accomplished from a high vantage point. Try getting on the stage, a building top, in a tree or a ride in a hot air balloon (I know, but if one is there, what's the harm in asking?).

Next, get some medium-range candid shots of groups of five or less people interacting. We need each name along with the ages of anyone under 18 (pets are name, age and breed) along with their current city of residence.

Also get tight, colorful detail shots of interesting items - particularly if they have some action involved. My standard detail shot on patriotic holidays is flag-painted toenails and fingernails. I try to find something new at each event, but I know I'm safe if I get this shot. These shots combine to make the inside page package with the firework color out front.

As we comb through the spectator area, look for people enjoying themselves. We'll often hear them before we see them. Be aware of how harshly local alcohol ordinances are enforced. We don't want to deliberately land someone in jail or ourselves in court (or in jail for contempt) by shooting something that could wait a second or two.

For wide-angle shots, try to layer the images. We'll need a person in the foreground, something of interest in the midground and a scene in the background.

Scope out the good background first and build your image forward. Once we have the general image in our mind, place a person's head or upper half in the image. We approach stationary subjects from oblique angles (so they don't see us). Then we get as close as we dare. They'll eventually turn to an angle we need if we are patient. I suggest placing the sun over your shoulder or to the side to make a better candid image before they freak out (better light, harder to spot you).
An alternate approach is to choose the mid and background and wait for someone to pass through the foreground. They will.

For long-lens shots, stick to the shadows (for concealment) and shoot with the sunlight at no more than a 90 degree angle. Stay near other larger objects to hide our presence and continue to be patient if spotted (A.D.D. works to our advantage). Try to shoot with a wide aperture (f/2.8 or f/4) to pull the subject off the background. Place light objects/people into dark backgrounds and don't be afraid to shoot some silhouettes on light backgrounds.

If the subjects notice us, we move our hands or say "Be yourself." Most people know the game and go back to whatever they were doing. If not, SMILE (this is our best safety net). We move toward them, kneel or squat down to their eye level, take out the notepad and tell them who we are, who we represent and why we made an image of them. Then put the pen on the paper and ask them for their name. Listen to the name and ask them to spell it. Once they spell it out, read it back to them. If it's really loud (concert) and still daylight, show it to them. Then write down the color shirt they are wearing or some other way to identify them. Make sure the description is something you would be confident showing them ("fat guy w/greasy hair" is verboten).

Andy Smothers of Hammond, La. asked about recording information on a camera's wave file. I don't use recorders for cutline information unless both my arms are broken. If something can go wrong with a tape or digital file, it will. The wave file can become corrupted and there is no way to know how much background noise is too much. Plus, there are important reasons to write the information down on paper.

PJs have nothing to hide. By writing the info down, we can show it to the subjects. They can then verify the information and make any corrections immediately. Any questionable spellings should be read back to the subject. For example: "John with an 'h'?" or "Tifini with only one 'f' and ends with an 'i'?"

If it is correct, put a check mark next to the spelled-out name while they watch. This works even if they're too drunk to spell it correctly the first time.

If the subject refuses a name and the images are taken in a public area, we let them know the images may still be printed as "unidentified" or "refused name" because we don't make the final decision. This typically prompts them to give us their name because their friends and family know who they are and will give them grief for years over this.

Before I continue, I'll give some advice I wish I followed regularly. Shoot copy shots of notes as you finish each page of notes. Then there are index frames to identify frame order and subjects as acquired. Furthermore, if something horrible happens to our notes (blog entry to come), we have all the names within the files. This saves our butt on deadline. Nobody wakes us up to identify a person in our images. This is a priceless habit to begin as early as possible.

Finally, let's talk about the actual fireworks shots. Please read my entry about lightning to get some additional pointers. Foreground is the key to photographing fireworks. If you have no foreground, you have no front page. The foreground creates the location and scale of the fireworks.

When I prepare to shoot fireworks, I know I'm only going to get one frame in the paper. The one frame better sing if I want to see it more than 3x2 inches because I'm fighting for space against 15 of the best staffers in the world.

The mechanics are probably the easiest part, I shoot f/8 on 200 iso with a dit camera (100 iso film). I set the camera on bulb and use a plunger or electronic shutter release cable. Hold the frame open for about 4 to 8 bursts and then release.

Try to time the frames for colored firework bursts and avoid the standard white/yellow fireworks because they are at least 2 stops brighter than the other fireworks. Since I shoot digital, I can adjust exposures on the fly. If I have time, I save some frames for the big ending. However it normally has too much smoke for a good frame and is past my deadline.

If I want to get really tricky, I'll cover my lens between bursts and choose to uncover during the colored ones bursts and remain covered during the white/yellow bursts. Just remember photography is cumulative and enough of any color over the same area eventually becomes white (like paint eventually becomes brown).

Long before we set up for the fireworks, we locate the launch pad and shoot the pros as they set up their mortars. IMPORTANT: I turn OFF my flash before I approach the launch area. I also fire a test frame to make certain the flash is off. Yes, it would be fun to watch their reaction and all, but I spare them the heart attacks and broken bones as they leap off the launch pallets after they see a flash.

Once I make a few frames of them working, I get names and the name and city of the pyro company. Then ask them what they think is the most colorful sequence, and how to anticipate it.
Also ask them some good cutline questions like:
How many rounds will be fired?
How high do the rounds fly before bursting?
How much did the show cost?
Who is paying for the show?
Are they planning any other shows in the area sometime soon?

This side trip nets A) some nice frames readers don't typically see of the pyro people B) additional cutline information C) a source for future firework shows D) inside info on how to shoot the best frames.

With this information and a wind direction, I can set up for my shoot. Fireworks photos are backwards to regular images. They are built from the foreground to the background. Find a good foreground element and estimate where the fireworks should burst. Leave enough room for the fireworks to dominate the frame, but don't minimize the foreground.

When choosing the foreground, make sure it's big enough to work with the lens' depth of field. I tried to shoot fireworks through an oversized martini glass with an ultra-wide angle lens and still didn't have enough d-o-f to get it. Everything from a fire hydrant upward have worked though.

If I'm planning to use people as foreground elements (backs of heads watch lights), I'll get their names before the show begins and let them know I'll be moving real close to them during the show.

To make sure I get the shots I need, I stake my claim literally. I put up the tripod, and block off a small square with some wooden stakes and duct tape for my rig and a smaller foreground element. It looks official, so people leave it alone. Others might lay down a tarp or blanket to block off an area.

I can't say how many times people arrived five minutes before the event started and have tried to set up between me and my foreground element (since it looks like it would be a good shot). I know it's crappy to be this way, but I know I have a million eyes seeing through my lens, so I'll get territorial.

If you've suffered through this long-ass blog entry and still want more information, I just noticed photo editor Chris Wilkins had already rounded up hints and images from Erich Schlegel, Louis DeLuca and David Woo about this subject. Check it out.

Enough for now,

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