Crozet Calendar Clinic: Malcolm Andrew’s Fireworks

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Malcolm Andrew’s photograph is featured in the 2019 Crozet calendar.

Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.

I’ve never seen a fireworks show I didn’t like, but Crozet’s is special. It combines the spectacle of fireworks with the intimacy of a family picnic. As Malcolm Andrews, the author of this month’s photograph, said, “The Crozet Independence Day Celebration is my favorite event in our community. I can’t think of another occasion that brings out so much of our town. I’m always impressed by the efforts of the people that step forward to make it all possible.”

The challenge for the photographer of such a celebration is to make two very dissimilar situations—the fireworks and the social scene—harmonize in one composition. In the ideal photograph both elements would resonate on their own and also ‘speak’ to one another. There would be an emotional, as well as a pictorial, connection.

How to do that? First, come to the celebration for 11 years armed with your camera, tripod and an ever-increasing knowledge about how to solve the problem.

In Malcolm’s words: “Each year I’ve tried to capture the essence of the celebration, learning a little more each time. The event does not lend itself to moving around as it unfolds quickly. And it’s dark, so one has to use imagination to pick a place to set up in anticipation of the crowd filling in. Over the years, I have found that setting up toward the middle of the crowd achieves the best result.

“For me, the best result is not to have a perfectly unobstructed view of the fireworks, but rather to have a good view of the fireworks with plenty of people in the foreground. The fireworks are awesome, but in isolation they are just lights. Whereas a shot of people gazing skyward in the glow of the fireworks captures more of the emotional essence of the event. People remember that moment of awe. That’s what I tried to achieve in this shot.

“The weather this evening was perfect for the fireworks. The only cloud coverage was a very thin alto stratus layer, so there was no reflectivity from above to wash out the light from the fireworks. Also, there was little to no breeze. The effect was that smoke from the fireworks lifted and lingered over the field.”

For Malcolm, “The fun of shooting the fireworks display is in the challenge of the camera set up. It must be premeditated (location, aperture, ISO, focus, and timing). And you don’t know what you achieved until it’s all over.

This photo was made using a small tripod, a Nikon D7100 camera and a wide angle Nikkor 10-24mm DX lens. I framed the image using a 12mm focal length (effectively 18mm given my cropped sensor camera) and set the exposure using aperture priority mode at f/4 (the widest the lens would go at that focal length) and ISO 800.

I practiced focusing on the first couple of fireworks and then left it alone in manual focus. I let the camera figure out the time of the exposure by opening the shutter just after the initial firing of the firework, but before the explosion so it would be biased to a longer exposure that would show more streaking light and reflections on the crowd. The result was a two-second exposure. The other critical part of shooting this was to watch the event unfold instead of trying to look through the viewfinder. Being part of the scene instead of just an observer helps to inform me of when to shoot.”

Too much technical detail? It all matters. The eleven years of experience, the vision of a desired result and yes, the refined camera technique. They all conspired within Malcolm to create that rarest of photographs—one that seems inevitable.

What is ‘inevitable’ and why does it matter? First of all, an inevitable image simply sings. It sings the song the photographer intended. Secondly, an inevitable image betrays no effort. All the experience, all the camera know-how, all the decisions disappear. We, the viewers, are easily invited into the image and there we stay.

I well remember the first time I saw this image. I was immediately taken in by its inviting naturalness. The composition was unforced and easy to occupy. Despite the crowd the image was uncrowded. There was drama. But also intimacy. The proportion of elements—of spectators to spectacle—seemed just right. The very difficult-to-balance light was balanced. And, as a final touch, there was magic in the air—the remnants of the luminous smoke link the dazzling explosion to the dazzled spectators. The emotional glow of awe that Malcolm wanted is in the image. It sings.

Malcolm’s blogs: aerialhorizon.photography and imaginingthetrail.wordpress.com. On Facebook: M.C.Andrews Photography. On Instagram: Dog portraits at: The_Face_of_a_Dog  

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