The Star Spangled Banner

Fireworks show from years past...

My 4th of July weekend was a little different than I had anticipated, but it was still great.  I’ve spent the last few 4th’s worrying about getting firework photos.  They’re fun, easy and actually quite relaxing to do, but I have enough of those photos already.  I wanted to instead focus on getting great shots of the family at our BBQ before the show started.  I really wanted to get some memorable shots and tried to employ the techniques I gave for doing child photography (you can find those at  Shiny firework explosions make for nice pics and they’re something different to do, but years from now I’ll be much more grateful for the family pics than some purple star burst.

Taken at a safe distance thanks to my trusty zoom lens. The great late afternoon light gave me great blur free results.

It took my niece quite the bit of effort to climb up the slide.

The light was perfect and made taking photos easy and worry free.

I've been trying out some different Photoshop techniques for portraits.

The BBQ was outside so I was excited to give my 70-200mm zoom lens a go around.  I wind up taking so many of my photos of the family indoors that I don’t get to use it as much as I would like.  The tight quarters and low light make it near impossible to use the zoom lens indoors.  You have to be careful with zoom lenses.  The farther you are zoomed out the greater risk you have of camera shake and coming out with blurry photos.  I try to use the rule of thumb of not shooting faster than the distance I’m zoomed out.  This means if I’m zoomed at 200mm I have to shoot at least 1/200 of a second to get a decent shot.  There a lot of other factors that go into camera shake like technique and the crop factor of the camera, but in all it’s a good general rule.  It was great to be outside and be able to stand back on the other side of the yard and take sneaky ninja photos of everyone running around.  I got a few shots of adults at play that they would probably not have let me take without their consent or knowledge.  The best part is they don’t know until I post them online for everyone to see 🙂

Thought I'd get a little artsy with this shot. I love how the sidewalk lines continue through the whole frame.

After waiting 3 excruciating days the kids finally got to play on the new swingset in the backyard.

My sneaky zoom lens caught this grown up at play 🙂

Then once the sunlight started to dim I swapped out the zoom for the good ol’ 50 mm f/1.4 and I was able to keep on shooting until the night was over.  My favorite photo of the night was when I had that lens on and the night was fast approaching.  It was finally dark enough to pull out the sparklers and the kids lit up their giant sparkler wands on the front yard with great anticipation.  There is a pretty steep slope at the front of the yard that let me lay down and shoot up as the kids waved their America sticks back and forth.  I had the lens opened up pretty much all the way at 1.8 and my ISO set at 400.  This gave me barely enough light to get the shots I wanted.  There is nothing that this lens can’t do (see my love poem to it at  It was a perfect situation where I pushed my lens and camera to the limit and didn’t have to use flash to get the shot.  The sparkler was giving off just enough light to illuminate the kid’s faces and using flash would have ruined it.  It’s the kind of shot that only a really fast lens can get you.

My favorite shot of the night. The 50mm f/1.4 could just barely handle these conditions getting me this priceless shot.

The sparklers gave off just enough light to illuminate their faces.

Ran this one through Photoshop and added some dramatic flare 🙂

Sparklers are fun and can make for interesting photos.  I didn’t get the chance to play with them this year, but last year I set up the camera on a tripod and did some light painting with the wife.  It’s easy to do and the possibilities are limitless.  You need a remote shutter release cable and a lit sparkler.  Prefocus the camera by autofocusing on your subject and then switching the camera to manual focus so the camera won’t change the focal plane (if it’s dark shine a flashlight on the person so you can focus easily).  Now for the setting on the camera put the camera in manual mode with an f-stop of 8 and the shutter speed to ‘bulb’.  You get to the ‘bulb’ setting by moving your shutter speed all the way to the slowest setting possible.  This setting is simple to use, as long as you hold down the shutter button the camera keeps taking the photo.  When you’re done just let go.  This is where the cable release comes in handy.  If you’ve got your hand all over your camera for a 10 second exposure there is no chance it will come out sharp and plus it’s just more comfortable.  Once the camera’s set just have the person light the sparkler and hold it in position.  I did a count down and once I said “Go!” my wife would start to draw the shape she wanted as I pressed and held the shutter release.  Then my wife would paint away and when she was done she would yell out and I would stop taking the picture.  It was tons of fun and actually quite challenging trying to write legibly in the air with a burning stick.

It's harder than you think to write your name with a sparkler in the air.

My wife is a much better artist than I am.

In the end I was happy with the photos I got this 4th of July weekend, but I did have one regret.  I’ve got some ordinary fireworks photos from years past, but I really want to get an extraordinary shot.  I dream of finding a nice lake to reflect the glowing display or taking photos of fireworks over some interesting landmark.  I’ve tried in the past, but it’s never worked out and this year was no exception.  My work schedule didn’t allow me to go anywhere except the front yard for the major fireworks show in the area.  I read online at a supposedly reputable news website that there was going to be a firework show the next night at Antelope Island State Park.  It’s an island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake where wild buffalo roam.  I convinced the wife to make the 45 minute drive there only to come upon all the cars driving up to the park entrance and turning around.  When we got to the entrance we were greeted by a park ranger standing next to a sign that read “There is NO firework display tonight!”  My dream was shattered yet again.  Looks like there was some major miscommunication and there was never going to be a fireworks show there.  The ranger made sure to stress that there would NEVER be a fireworks show there, ever.  The search for great fireworks photos continues.  We wound up taking sunset pictures instead as we were eaten alive by literal swarms of bugs gnawing on our exposed flesh.  In the end though I had a great photo weekend.


~ by Rick The Stick on July 6, 2010.

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