2016 Fireworks Pictures Guide

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ISO 100, ƒ/9, 6s, 55mm (cropped)

If you haven’t already noticed from the number of fireworks stands that have been sprouting out of grocery store parking lots (or simply because you know what day it is), July the Fourth is nearly upon us. And if you’re like millions of other Americans around the nation, you are planning on attending a fireworks display, or hosting one of your own. Pictures of the display are a spectacular way of remembering the holiday, or just taking notes on what you need to one-up the neighbors next year. Taking really good pictures of fireworks is a tricky task filled with its own landmines, but I’ll be happy to help with some free advice.

Equipment: Tripod & Shutter Release

One of the first things photographers learn to use in order to get absolutely crisp tack-sharp photos is a tripod. Keeping the camera stable and vibration-free is an absolute must here, and that’s what a tripod does. The good thing is that you don’t need the expensive tripods that most pro photographers gravitate towards, and you don’t even need a big one for what you’re going to be doing. For small cameras and cellphones, most any mini-tripod will do just fine. For DSLR’s, you have to start worrying about the weight capacity and balance of the tripod.

My favorite mini-tripod is the Pedco UltraPod II. This guy goes for cheaper than $30 and is the most simple tripod you could ever use. In addition to the three fold-out legs, it features a Velcro strap you can use to secure it to a tree, light pole, or even piggyback off of somebody else’s tripod—so long as you have their permission.

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ISO 100, ƒ/9, 51mm (cropped)

Once you’ve given your camera some legs, there’s still one more source of movement you really need to eliminate: you. When you hit that shutter, you’re going to move the camera. The only way to avoid that is to have some sort of remote shutter release. The kicker here is that not all point-and-shoot cameras will support a shutter remote (check your manual), but most Android and Apple smartphones are very happy to accommodate you. You can either pick up a Bluetooth remote for right around $10, or you can pick up a cheap headset with an inline volume control and it will do the job; all you have to do is set your camera app to take a picture when you hit the volume up button.

DSLR users will have a choice between wireless remotes that will sync with their camera or a wired remote, and my advice is to go wired. Keep reading to find out why.

Know-how: Setting up the Camera

Captain Obvious statement of the day: fireworks are bright. Like, really really bright. But when you’re sitting there waiting for the last light of day to disappear over the horizon, your camera doesn’t know that fireworks are bright. For cellphones, you’ll want to find a way to set your brightness setting quite a bit lower than what it wants to use. For point and shoot cameras, look for an ISO mode where you can take your ISO down to its lowest setting. To keep your autofocus from going too crazy, find the furthest object you can see and focus on that beforehand. If you have a way to turn your autofocus off, then do that.

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ISO 100, ƒ/9, 7s, 55mm (cropped)

If you have full manual control over your camera and are familiar with how to use it, then great! I recommend using ISO 100 and setting the aperture anywhere between ƒ/8 and ƒ/11. You’ll also want to be using a normal to wide zoom lens (18-55 lenses do just fine for crop sensor cameras, or 24-70 for full-frame). You won’t be able to easily predict where the fireworks will go off, so you’ll want to be covering a decent portion of the sky when it happens and crop later if you have to.

Problem: Shutter Lag

One of the issues that plagues many cellphones and point-and-shoot cameras is that there’s a delay between when you hit the shutter and when it actually takes a picture. This annoyance that renders all hyper four-year-olds as a blurry mess is known as shutter lag. The good news here is that there’s a way around it, but it takes a little luck, a little patience, and a whole lot of pictures. The trick is hitting the shutter at the right time to make it open when the firework goes off. That means you either have to be close enough to hear the actual firework launch, or you have to watch carefully for the burning fuse of a firework as it launches into the air, so you have a warning that a firework is about to go off. Then it’s just a matter of dialing in the timing. If you absolutely have to use this method, then you are going to wind up with a lot of missed shots, but don’t give up.

However, if your camera has a bulb mode, or even a 30-second long exposure mode, there’s another way to accomplish this…

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ISO 100, ƒ/9, 5s, 55mm (cropped)

Techniques: Bulb Mode & Flagging the Lens

Normally, hitting your camera’s shutter actually does two things. It both opens and closes your shutter. But if your camera is a little more advanced and supports manual controls, it may have what’s called a bulb mode. This mode means that you, the photographer, are telling the camera when to open or close the shutter. Check your manual to see how to find and use this mode.

All of you with more advanced cameras: remember that shutter release I talked about earlier? I said to get the cable version. The reason is that the cable remotes can be locked into the open position, and closing the shutter is as simple as simply releasing the lock. Plus, it doesn’t depend on having batteries and it isn’t prone to wireless interference. They’re cheap and they just work.

The idea here is that while you have your camera pointed at bit of empty black sky, you can go ahead and open your shutter and wait for the fireworks to happen. You can even capture multiple bursts of fireworks that happen close together by letting the shutter stay open to see them all, and the camera will dutifully record all of that delicious light. But don’t let the shutter stay open for too long, or you might have multiple fireworks “draw” over the same spot multiple times, and you’ll wind up with spots of lost color detail. Keep your exposures under 30 seconds or three bursts at a time, and you’ll be fine.

But there is a way to get even more bursts in the image without relying on our old friend Photoshop: flagging the lens. What you need is a black hat, or you can use a piece of black foam core. Make sure that the hat doesn’t let any light through, and try with four or five bursts at a time at first. This works out great if you can’t use a bulb mode but you can set your camera to take long exposures at 30 seconds a pop. Cover the lens with your “flag” (hat or whatever else is light-tight) and hit the shutter. Remove the “flag” whenever there’s a burst you want to record. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

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ISO 100, ƒ/8, 6s, 20mm, no cropping

Tip: Framing for the Crowd

A picture of fireworks can be really cool. But they’re also really repetitive. Just ask me; I probably have a hundred different shots of just fireworks. But I discovered a little problem with them. If I get prints of them, shuffle them up, and then look at just one, I couldn’t tell you when it was, where it was, or what I was doing. It’s just a picture of a firework, and there’s no context to lend any other information to that picture. Just look at the pictures I’ve included above. Are they from Spartanburg or Greenville? Independence Day or New Year’s Day? Without digging into the picture’s data, there’s just no way of telling.

Unless you zoom out.

Just back it up a little bit. Include some of those people in lawn chairs in front of you, or that intersection, or the silhouette of that church steeple. Those little context clues might initially feel like distractions, and they’ll often wind up being blurry, but that’s all okay. They’re not the focus of the image. They’re subtle hints that will lend your photos a sense of place that makes them much more memorable.

Technique: Maximum Enjoyment

A great fireworks picture presents a fun little challenge, and if what you’re after this coming Monday is to rise to that challenge, then by all means, go for it. Haul out that camera, the tripod, the cable release, and your stadium chair an hour or two early so you can set it up while it’s still light, and then watch over it (or bribe somebody else to) until the show finally starts. It’s a rewarding experience that I’d encourage any budding photographer to try at least once. However, it’s not what I’m going to be doing.

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ISO 100, ƒ/9, 13s, 51mm (cropped)

I’ll have my stadium chair, sure enough, but I’ll be leaving the camera bag at home. I shot two displays last year, and I had fun doing it, but this year I want to be present with my friends and family and simply enjoy the time with them instead of fussing around with my camera. I know, I know, saying that after dumping a bunch of tips is like watching a movie that ends with “it was all a dream and none of this really happened.” But it’s what I’m going to do, and I believe that fellow shutterbugs should consider what they’re going to enjoy more. Sometimes it’s better to put the camera away, enjoy the event, and respect the moment.

Whatever your plans are this coming July 4th weekend, make it a fun and safe one.

Spartanburg Locations Tour: Hatcher Garden

Hatcher Garden & Woodland Preserve is situated on the eastern side of Spartanburg, on John B. White Boulevard, a short drive from the famous Beacon Drive-In. It is named for Harold and Josephine Hatcher, who started the garden in their backyard in 1969 and continued to expand and cultivate it for the rest of their lives. Today, Hatcher Garden & Woodland Preserve is operated by the Spartanburg County Foundation. Numerous workers and volunteers continue the work that Harold and Josephine started, providing a wonderful pocket of nature in our growing city. It is one of my places to visit, and I’ve spent many hours simply walking down the trails and taking pictures of the flora and fauna that call the place their home.

One of the first large structures you’ll see in Hatcher is the large gazebo situated just down the main trail from the parking lot. The gazebo is a wonderful meeting spot for large groups and it provides a panoramic view of the trails beyond. Such groups might also enjoy the observation deck near the center of the preserve. Either location has ample seating to rest and relax. Wandering through the garden, you’ll also notice that there are many side trails situated throughout the preserve, each with their own seating areas. If you’re adventurous enough, you may even find a few picnic tables hidden away from the main trails.

20160626_IMG_0024There are multiple stone and wooden benches situated in areas around the preserve, and just about any one of them provides wonderful natural vistas that can serve as a backdrop for beautiful portraits. These are especially suitable for couple’s photos, nature lovers, and children. During the spring and early summer, there are many different kinds of flowers in bloom. From fall to mid-winter, the foliage and ground leaves create a wonderful autumnal ambiance. If you’re considering this for a portrait location, or simply to wander around and take your own pictures, you’ll find that there are numerous spots which would be beautiful for photographs worthy of your living room wall.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a purely outdoor location. On hot summer days the water levels are reduced, so mosquitoes and humidity aren’t quite so problematic. But the garden is bordered by a natural stream, so these pests can’t be entirely avoided. Also, while much of the preserve is shaded, if you’re arriving on a hot day, you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of ice cold water on hand to keep you cool and hydrated. If you wear comfortable walking or hiking shoes, you will be more able to enjoy the trails after your photo session.

Hatcher Garden & Woodland Preserve is a wonderful place to have your portraits taken. The best times for taking photos here are during spring and fall months, especially towards sunset where the light creates nice highlights and long shadows. People who find that they especially enjoy Hatcher Garden should visit their website to donate, or purchase an engraved brick or paver. Their website also has details on the history of Hatcher Garden as well as services they offer. Contact me to schedule a free consultation to plan your portrait here or many other locations available in the Spartanburg area.

A Portrait Philosophy

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Between the rapid growth we’re watching happen in Greenville and Spartanburg’s downtown revitalization project, there’s very little wonder why we seem to be seeing new businesses getting on their feet every month here in the upstate. I can tell you from the recent experiences of trying to get the feet of a photography business off the ground, there’s a lot of people out there who are ready to lend a hand in navigating the red tape from first concept to first client and beyond. But in order to actually be successful, I have to be more than just a guy with a camera and a few lighting stands. Knowing my way around a shutter and an umbrella isn’t enough to stand out as a person you might want to hire to update your family portraits.

The most common way I see people overcoming this is by dropping their base prices. They’re monetizing their hobby, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except that they could be undervaluing their own talents. In the end though, there’s nothing different about their end result that any student or apprentice couldn’t give you. That’s not how I want to differentiate myself, nor how I want to define myself.

In short, I am not a photo booth. I am not satisfied simply with taking your picture. The sum of who you are is more than a photograph. Sure, a picture might be worth a thousand words but I can tell you as a writer that a thousand words isn’t a lot, really. Me, I’m aiming for three or four thousand. I don’t want to simply take your picture. I want to capture an image that’s closer to how you want to see yourself. This might mean incorporating objects that are meaningful for you, or going to places that you hold dear. It might even mean forgoing the traditional say-cheese-smile altogether, because an honest glance is much more powerful than any forced smile ever could be. Doing that relies on more than my technical knowledge of a camera, and more on my instincts as a storyteller. If you want a formal portrait taken, then I can do that, but that’s not why I’m running this business. I want to help create an image for you that encompasses who you are.

Getting Started: First Post

My name is Burnnie, and I am a photographer and writer.

If you’re looking at this page within a few weeks of it first getting posted, what you’re looking at is more or less the website equivalent of a nice big room with a bunch of unpacked moving boxes stacked in the corner. There’s a lot to consider. I’ve already changed the theme a half-dozen times. Which would be what, comparing paint swatches on the wall? Maybe. What you might be looking at now isn’t quite complete. Building out the framework of how I want this site to work is going to take time, and that’s something I don’t have very much of in between fatherhood and a full-time job. I need to get a few posts (like this one!) up and set up a bio page.

And add pictures. Photographer’s website: there should be pictures. There will be pictures. I think they’re in one of these boxes.

What you’re going to see here in the future is more than just a placeholder for advertising my writing business. I’ll be blogging about photography, writing, and some of the great locations available in upstate South Carolina and the surrounding areas. If you’re just dying to find out more about me or you want to set up a portrait session (I’m not doing weddings — not yet, anyways), please choose “About” in the above menu or just email me and I’ll get back to you.