Next Stop: New Year's Eve

December 28, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

FIRST NIGHTFIRST NIGHTAs the chapter closes on one year, the fireworks show at Portsmouth, New Hampshire's annual First Night celebration helps to ring in the next. The Holiday Express is making its way toward the season's final two stops.

If it weren’t for the fireworks on New Year's Eve, I’d have punched my ticket through Christmas and exited the train by now. Pyrotechnics are involved, though, so I’m still on board.

Maybe there will be a show near you Sunday night. Will you and your camera be going?

If so, this might be a good time for a refresher. After all, fireworks aren’t something we have an opportunity to photograph frequently.

New Year’s Eve fireworks displays in northern climates typically don’t last as long as those you’ll see in July on Independence Day. It’s cold! Accordingly, you need to know what you’re doing and be ready to hit the ground running. There won’t be much time for trial and error.

Before heading out, make sure to include a sturdy black card in your kit. I’ll explain later why you’ll want this. Use a piece of cardboard or foam core: anything solid. My card is roughly 6” x 6”. If you don’t have black construction paper just print a black square and affix it to whatever you’re using as the base.

The other two “must haves” for this outing are a tripod and remote release. 

It always helps if you’ve seen a previous show at the venue in question. There's nothing like first-hand scouting to find optimal locations from which to shoot. Sometimes more sleuthing is required than you might expect. (It took me a few years before I finally figured out the best spot from which to shoot the city of Chicago's Independence Day show - and shortly afterward they ended up cancelling it due to budget woes. A story for another day.)

I prefer to provide context to my fireworks shots. It’s one thing to photograph bursts in the sky, but it’s more interesting to include additional information. That could mean identifying the location via the skyline or nearby buildings, or including trees or hillsides, or incorporating silhouettes of people in the crowd watching the show.

In addition to thinking about the composition from a contextual perspective, also consider where the shells will be launched, which direction the smoke will drift, roughly where in the sky the fireworks will explode, and what the conditions will be like during the show i.e. breezy versus calm.

Show up early enough to secure your spot. I load up on chemical warmers in my boots and gloves and target a few hours ahead of launch time. If you're in a big city you'll more than likely need to add additional cushion. Better safe than sorry.

Once you’ve settled on a composition, lock the camera in place and take care not to move it again. If you’re including foreground elements or buildings (especially any structures that are illuminated), before the show begins make a photograph properly exposing the scene.

Settings

Set the camera on full manual. If you try to use autofocus the camera will go on a hunting expedition and you’ll miss shots. Depending on your composition, you can probably set the lens to infinity and it’ll be good to go for the duration. Set the shutter to "bulb." I recommend starting at an ISO of 100 or 200 and an aperture of f/11.

Turn off automatic noise reduction; you don’t want to lose any shooting opportunities waiting for the camera to process the second clean black image. Using a low ISO will manage noise.

Once the show begins, experiment with the length of time you keep the shutter open. Check the first few shots for detail and exposure and make adjustments based on what you see. 

Capturing Multiple Bursts

This is where the black card comes in handy. It’s another method to capture multiple bursts and a better way to manage which burst segments the camera is seeing (in my experience, the best way).

Keeping the shutter open via the “bulb” setting, simply place the black card over the front of the lens between bursts, removing it for successive explosions. They need not be consecutive. You can tell with some shells on the way up that they're going to be duds, or maybe not the kind that'll fill the sky. Wait for the next one. Check what you’re creating as you go along and make adjustments accordingly. 

Be careful not to touch the lens with the card (remember, the shutter is open!). Also keep in mind that you’re cumulatively adding to the exposure each time you remove the card so don’t go overboard with too much light.

Alternatively, you can make multiple exposures in-camera or combine bursts in post-processing. 

There’s more than one way to arrive at the same result.

Odds and Ends

The shots you make earlier in the show are likely to be superior to those nearer the end since the sky will be clearer of smoke.

If you’d like to experiment with different compositions (for example zooming in tighter), wait until late in the show to try it. By then you’ll have captured everything you need to create your wide shot, and the inevitable additional smoke will be less of an issue.

You might also play with intentional camera movement: for example, try zooming in or out during a burst.

Whatever you do, make sure to take some time to enjoy the display with your own two eyes. I know it goes by quickly, but don’t be so glued to the LCD and/or viewfinder that you miss experiencing the event for yourself. The camera is locked into place on the tripod; once you've checked those first few shots you shouldn't have to spend much time looking at the back of the camera anymore. At that point you can be operating the remote release and manipulating the black card while still watching the show.

As for that image you made before the show started, you’ll make good use of it in post-processing. Because of the exposure differences between the fireworks and other elements of the composition, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to correctly capture it all via one single photograph. It might also be the case that exterior lights on some buildings are turned off for the duration of the show. Overlaying that first image along with the fireworks via layers and luminosity masks will give you a nicely balanced final product which includes appropriate detail in the surrounding elements. 

The whole point of doing this is to have fun - so by all means have some fun! Don't get so wrapped up in the technical aspects that you forget to enjoy the show.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here's to a creative and productive 2024.
 

About the Image

Made on my last New Year's Eve before leaving New Hampshire, this photograph is an example of multiple captures. The first, made prior to the beginning of the show, properly exposed the North Church. This was crucial: there's no image if the church isn't correctly rendered. Then I merged three fireworks bursts and combined them with that initial photo. 


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