July 22, 2012  •  Leave a Comment


Fourth of July Fireworks. They are launched upward, with a thud, lighting up the night sky in streaks of red, white, blue, green and yellow. Creating booms that will live on in our memories while the streaks of colored light faded from sight, even as the explosions continue to echo off of the nearby buildings. Then, as the last echoes finally fades, the major fireworks celebrations are finished for another year. Sure, there will be other shows, maybe at Christmas, car shows, state fairs or a town's founding celebration. Yet all pale in comparison to what is watched, admired, oohhhed and aaahhhed over on the 4th of July. There simply is no comparison.

I happen to live where two great Midwestern 4th of July celebrations are performed each year in the cities of Saginaw and Bay City. There may be bigger cities with very good displays, but they won't run as long as either one of these two, about 45 to 50 minutes each. Yes, these bigger cities will have some great foreground elements for fireworks photos. Not every city can have structures like the Washington Monument, or have New York City skyscrapers, but Saginaw and Bay City can easily match them in the number of shells launched and the show's duration.

Saginaw's display is on the 4th and is shot off mainly from Ojibway Island, along with the Holland Street Bridge. For various reasons, I have always shot these from the Court Street Bridge. Yes, I know it was renamed years ago, but nobody ever uses the new name, so I am using the one that works. I usually use one camera body for this display, with different lenses. Once, I used the infrared camera just for the fun of it. I try to get there early enough to set up in the middle of the bridge on the sidewalk, next to the guardrail and between any street lamps. A lens hood is used to help block out any light from the street lamps. Never let the tripod touch a guardrail because it will move when people lean on the rail or bump it, causing camera shake. From this location, you command a complete view of the river, which is full of boats bobbing around and with the fireworks creating colorful reflections and shadows. Sometimes streaks of colors are captured in the darkness, as if the boats are moving while the shutter is open for these long exposures. I use a cable release for these shots. To change up my Saginaw fireworks photos, I used a different location this year, setting up in a parking lot near the bridge. The concept was to capture the streaks of light with buildings and some restored neon signs as foreground elements. It worked, and I think I'll be back next year with a two camera set up.

Now Bay City, being well, Bay City, will do things a bit differently than everyone else by having a three day fireworks celebration, generally starting right after the 4th. Two short 15 minute shows, one each on the nights leading up to the big 50 minute finale night! I try to shoot at least one of the short shows and the big blast, but from different locations. I have found Bay City lends itself nicely to shooting its fireworks from many locations since there are three shows. A co-worker has invited us to use her father's place a few times for the grand display. Great location, very near the water and a nice distance from the launch sites. Yes, I said sites. Both sides of the Saginaw River are used along with a barge in the middle. In 2012, for it's 50th anniversary fireworks celebration, the Veterans Memorial Bridge was used.

I don't like to use the same location for too many years in a row; things might get a bit stale. I will mix up the sites used in the past, returning to them and trying a new camera or lens. As an example, this year, to shoot the short show, I set up near the launch site on the west side of the river, right at the very edge of the safety zone with two cameras. I used a 5D II/16-35mm f2.8 combination and my Lensbaby with it's wide angle attachment on the 5D. I had not been there for a few years.

Let me stop here for a second and share my camera set up information. I always shot in RAW with 8 GB cards. White balance is set to Auto, ISO to 100, aperture at f8 and the camera on bulb. The shutter speed will vary from 3 seconds all the way up to 20 seconds. If I'm tripping the camera remotely, I tend to set the shutter to 3 or 4 seconds and never change it during the display. If I'm using the cable release I can change the shutter speed with the release, never needing to touch camera and possibly adding vibration. Most of the shots that make the cut seem to be taken from around the 3 to 6 seconds range. For the fun of it, I'll go crazy and take a few at 10, 15 and even 20 seconds but this can cause some to get blown out and the sky to become bright. Last, a few days before the show I check the batteries to make sure they all are fully charged because of the long exposures, a full charge is definitely needed. If the charge is low, I will have time to get them charged. Of course, I'll take spare batteries. This is what works well for me. As for the composure, I use the 1/3 rule with the bottom 3rd showing the water or land. The main elements to capture are the fireworks with foreground elements needed to add scale to the shot, boats, building, etc.

Ok, now back to live action. This is only the second year I have used two cameras at the same time. The Lensbaby camera was tripped remotely with a Pocket Wizard and the other camera with the cable release. My cable release is the Canon TC-80N3 and it can do many things, self timer exposures, interval timer exposures, long exposures and has an exposure count setting. Along with all of these individual functions, you can set a combination of functions. Someday I'll learn how to use all of it's power.

This year's shooting location for Bay City's grand finale was in Bigelow Park. I had tried this location last year for one of the short shows, using the 5D II/70-200mm combination and the 30D infrared camera with the 50mm attached. I found the 50mm was a nice lens for this distance. The 70-200 was set at 70mm, and that was a bit much. Another lessen I learned was how much fun it is trying to keep up with two cameras that are set to two different exposures lengths that are seconds apart in duration. Fun was had though hair was lost!

Be not a feared for me, my follow shooters and readers. When it comes to capturing the grand display with two cameras, the lovely Kath is there to help! Here is how that night unfolds. It starts with a few enjoyable hours with the lovely Kath and about 500,000 other fireworks spectators. Finally, with a camera bag and tripod in hand and about 20 minutes or so before the start, I climb over the rocks, weeds, boards, broken glass and anything else that has washed up on the river's edge to place the tripod near the water. From there, I can get some good reflections, using boats and their silhouettes as foreground elements. After all is leveled, secured, focused and aimed, I get to stay there, guarding the rig and using the cable release. There is almost never a nice way to stand or comfortable rock to sit on. Of course, there are the little flying bugs that like to flit by and check out what I'm doing. Some will even buzz right into my ears and whisper to me that I'm not doing anything right, and how they would be doing things completely different. While I'm “enjoying” this part of my hobby, up on the bug free, flat, grassy area, the lovely Kath will be tripping the other camera using the Pocket Wizard all the while sitting comfortably and having a nice cool drink. [1]

After the show is over, I pack up my photography toys in the darkness, all the while hoping I'm not leaving something behind. Climb back over the rocks, weeds, boards, broken glass and anything else that has washed up on the rivers edge with the weak legs I developed from “standing” in an unnatural position for nearly an hour. While I'm doing the this feat, the lovely Kath has come to my rescue again by already getting everything from our camp site packed up and ready to go. We then proudly walk out of the park and back to our truck, along with the other 500,000 fireworks spectators, pack it up and pull into the departing traffic. Because we will spend more time stuck in traffic then Bay City's grand display was long, we will get to witness many little fireworks shows to pass the time. Too bad my camera is packed up, and all I'm thinking about is getting home, going to the bathroom and reviewing the photos or I would be taking shots of all these impromptu displays of pride, lights and noise as well!



My Bay City Fireworks Galleries

My Saginaw Fireworks Galleries

The Bay City Fireworks Web Site

The Saginaw Fireworks Web Site


[1] The Lovely Kath here--Yeah, all the while wondering if I'm trying to shoot too fast, or if I missed the shot and got the tail end of the firework explosion rather than the full glory of the explosion--yeah, I'm just casually sitting there tripping the switch without a care in the world.


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