America’s Birthday – Happy 229th
I woke up to a damp, foggy Monday morning on July 4th—Independence Day! I knew that millions of people would be attending parties to celebrate America’s 229th birthday, but the grey skies and rain coming down made me feel like staying in. The intermittent thunder and lightning gave me an even bigger motivation to go back to sleep. But I had to get up; later that day, Bruce and I would be photographing the Macy’s fireworks spectacular.
I had tried to take pictures of fireworks before, but without success. This year, Bruce was going to teach me a simple way to photograph fireworks. The key to shooting fireworks, he had already told me, is the tripod. As he explained, it is critical to have your camera on a tripod so that it is perfectly sturdy and you can absorb all of the colors exploding during the fireworks display.
Bruce was picking me up at around 1 p.m. so we could get the perfect spot to shoot from near the Brooklyn Bridge. There was going to be a barge with hoses shooting out red, white and blue colors, and it was scheduled to arrive between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges at 3 p.m. That was another reason Bruce and I wanted to get there early—not to mention all of those free burgers and hot dogs the earlybirds get. Bruce and I both love to eat, and the free part makes it even more delicious!
I finally woke up again at half past 11, and now I felt refreshed. I was also happy to see that the weather was clearing. I went to get my camera and made sure everything was charged. I cleaned my lenses with a linen cloth and also made sure I had all my memory cards because today, I knew, would be a long day.
Since I was ready early, I tuned in to the replay of the Mets and Yankees subway series. I already knew the Yankees had won, but I got carried away when Derek Jeter came up to bat. The crowd was roaring so loudly that I didn’t hear Bruce’s horn. Bam!!! Jeter hit a grand slam, almost hitting a subway train in that little area behind the right field bleachers. When I finally heard Bruce honking his horn, I grabbed my camera bag and my tripod and ran out to his car. I told Bruce I was sorry I was late but I just had to see Jeter’s grand slam. Bruce understood perfectly. I slapped him a high five, and we were off to Brooklyn.
On the way to Brooklyn, Bruce got a call from his friend Todd Maisel, who shoots spot news for the New York Daily News. I’ve been out with Todd, and he is incredible! Bruce also told me we would be meeting another photographer friend at the fireworks event, Mel Levine, a sports photographer for Sports Illustrated. The magazine was doing a story on the Fourth of July event, and Mel was going to be there to shoot it. That was great news for me because Mel is the greatest.
When we got to our location, I took my tripod and camera out of the trunk. I was happy to see that Bruce had brought a cooler with drinks and fruit for the three of us. I thanked him for that. There were a few spectators but not many. Early as it was, though, Mel was already there. He explained that there had been a ceremony at noon, at which representatives from each of the fifty states got up and announced when their state had been inducted into the Union. Every July 4th they do the same thing, Mel said, and the magazine wanted him to be there for it. In any case, Mel was all set up with his four cameras—two digital and two film. I asked him why he needed all of those cameras, and he told me that sometimes fireworks come out better on film. One of the film cameras was set for a panoramic view, and the other was set for a closer view. The digitals were set the same way, one panoramic and the other for a closer view. Those four cameras must have cost a fortune. Lucky for him he didn’t have to pay for them—the magazine bought the cameras for him. That’s a terrific perk for a professional photographer!
I set up my tripod and my camera between Mel and Bruce. Bruce started to give me some more tips about taking pictures of fireworks. He said the key is to keep on adjusting the shutter speed because you never know in a fireworks show what color is next. Each color is a different shutter speed: for example, with blue you need a lower shutter speed to let in more light to brighten the picture; while for white you need a high shutter speed so that the pictures won’t be too overexposed. Bruce also said to not hold the camera: just leave it on the tripod and use your right index finger to press the flash button to shoot. He said the more you touch the camera, the more the camera will move and mess up your shot. I took a few practice shots of the bridge and the Manhattan skyline and thought I was an expert already. Ha! I also put my camera and lens on manual mode so that I would be in full control of the camera.
More people began to show up. The day was starting to get muggy again. At 2:30 there was a big charcoal barbeque set up next to us with burgers, hot dogs, chicken, and even lobsters. It smelled outrageous. Unfortunately, that food wasn’t for us: it was for a large family coming at 3 p.m. There was a long line for the free food, which also smelled great. I waited in line and got Bruce two hot dogs and Mel two burgers and one of each for myself.
At 3:30 the big barge arrived, and people began gathering around the water to watch the red, white, and blue water arc up and shoot down into the East River. It was some view! I have never seen anything like that before. I put my camera on the tripod and shot just the way Bruce had told me to. It seemed simple. The shots appeared to be very nice, but then all pictures look nice on a screen that is smaller than the width of my wrist.
The show couldn’t have lasted more than fifteen minutes, and I must have shot thirty pictures from all sorts of angles. After the show I took my camera off the tripod and took pictures of the hundreds of people lying down on the perfectly mowed green grass. Some people had spread out blankets, and a few were strumming guitars. People were also playing Frisbee on the grass. There were about ten people barbequing chickens.
People of all races, religions, and ages were there, from Jews to Buddhists, including Puerto Rican and Caribbean families. Everybody was showing up to see the fireworks show. I took an action shot of all the people with the Manhattan Bridge in the background. Children were having fun skipping rocks and shells into the East River while the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline. The sprinklers were spraying mist into the sultry air. Kids ran between the rays of water. That gave me a flashback to when I was a kid and did the exact same thing, which was great fun. Adults were playing games like Boggle and cards with their friends. It reminded me of my grandparents, who love games.
At 7:30 p.m. four helicopters passed over the East River. Bruce told me that it was a tradition: every year helicopters fly over the river to celebrate America’s birthday. As it approached nine o’clock, the whole park was filled. The sky was almost pitch dark, and neon lights from all the buildings were sparkling. I put my camera back on the tripod and set all of my modes. A few other photographers showed up who Mel and Bruce knew from the New York Press Photographers Association. They all had their long lenses and tripods and were shooting away. There must have been a thousand people at this park to see the fireworks.
In fact, it was getting a little claustrophobic. Luckily, when the Verizon Wireless building clock hit 9:19 p.m. the fireworks started. I did what Bruce had told me to do, pressing the flash button continuously and checked and rechecked the shutter speed every few shots. The bursts of fireworks were amazingly colorful. All the oranges, blues, whites, purples and greens looked so nice with the Brooklyn Bridge in front of it. Smiley faces lit up the sky along with the sound of firecrackers. Mel went back and forth shooting with his film and digital cameras. I personally thought the white fire bursts looked the best against the Manhattan skyline.
During the fireworks I had to change my memory card because I ran out after one hundred fifty pictures. As each boom announced another burst of fireworks, kids screamed with delight and a collective “WHOO!” followed when the sky filled with another fantastic sight.
While fireworks spectaculars are now controlled by computers, the fireworks themselves are almost all still made by hand, just as they were 1,000 years ago when the Chinese invented gunpowder. Most of the fireworks are combinations of a few shapes with names like Roman candle, peony, chrysanthemum, weeping willow, palm, and fountain. The first ingredient in all fireworks is birdseed. I’m not kidding—it’s sterilized rapeseed to which a black powder is added and then different chemicals to make the colors. Each firework shape is prepared according to a “recipe” and packaged in a cardboard-like shell.
The fireworks show lasted all of thirty minutes and was beyond expectations. When it was over, the crowd cleared almost immediately. What a great day it had been, and I got a lot of great shots. I had learned how to shoot fireworks. Bruce was right. The key to shooting fireworks is the tripod. You absolutely cannot shoot fireworks without a tripod.
I also learned a few other lessons from this event, one being that old saying, “The early bird catches the worm.” Even though I made Bruce wait while I watched Derek Jeter’s grand slam, we got to the event early enough to get a good spot right in front of the bridge. This is true for everything. When you get where you need to go early, you are also much more relaxed and more organized. And if you’re taking photographs, you can do a better job.
This is a chapter from the book: Apprentice! Lessons Learned on the Frontlines of Life by Richard Liebowitz. A nationally recognized copyright attorney Richard Liebowitz fights for the rights of photographers around the world. Learn more about his firm at https://www.LiebowitzLawFirm.com and how their copyright lawyers may be able to help you.