Fireworks have fascinated me since I was a kid. I love the explosions of color, the shapes, the chemistry (I’m a former engineering major who studied lots of chemistry, physics and math) so I’m fascinated by the amount of work that goes into leaving us ooh-ing and ah-ing while celebrating the holiday.
I scout locations ahead of time. I had a friend take me up the Salesforce Tower to see the view from 1000 feet above the Embarcadero, but the view was partially blocked. Last year I spent weeks talking to the U.S. Coast Guard and officials on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay before deciding on a vantage point over the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge with the skyline of San Francisco off to the side.
But this year, I chose a spot I had had some luck with many years ago by looking through the Bay Bridge from a park in Oakland with the skyline behind one of the bridge towers. Special arrangements had to be made since the park is closed after dark. Luckily, the security guards and park management were willing to help me.
It was tricky since I had to use a 400mm on a tripod from across the Bay with a 2-second exposure. But I’ve had luck using a magic arm to brace the camera from a second support point on the tripod. As a backup, I also set up a 200mm (also braced) for a looser shot since the show included a second barge in the Bay. I’ve also learned to use remote cables or PocketWizard remotes to prevent the camera from shaking when I’m making an exposure and it really helps!
I shoot RAW and JPEG. I can transmit JPEGs quickly and RAW will give me more latitude to save a picture if the skyline and fireworks are out of sync in exposure. I try to keep the shutter speed at about 2 seconds to give the fireworks burst a chance to bloom without getting too streaky. I try to keep the aperture around F8 and ISO around 200-400, depending on the ambient exposure of the skyline. Typically that works for our displays and skyline here. Your results may vary, so test, test, test before the show starts and check after a few frames to make sure you don’t need to make adjustments.
If you’ve ever been to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area, you know that weather can change in a heartbeat and can be your worst enemy. Typically, a Fourth of July fireworks display here looks like pink cotton-candy blobs in a fog-filled sky, and you never know when it’s going to sneak in. I’ve spent hours looking at a clear sky only to have the fog show up minutes before the show starts. That was no different on this New Year’s Eve as I watched the fog coming over the skyline partially obscuring some of the buildings. But my luck changed when the wind stopped and I thought, “Great!” only to realize that the smoke from the fireworks wasn’t dissipating and it was blocking some of the bursts in the later parts of the show. So the best photos happened early in the display, and the finale was all but completely obscured from my vantage point.
Who’d have thought I would have needed to learn to predict the weather to make great pictures? Maybe I should have studied meteorology instead of engineering. ■