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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Shooting Fireworks

Jun 13

In Books at 5:22am

Summer’s here! Time to shoot some fireworks. Below is a small instructional essay from the Life Guide to Digital Photography. I’ve shot some of the biggest fireworks displays in history, so I just kind of dove back into those to remember things I did right and things I did wrong. And things I didn’t think of at the time, or should’ve remembered to do. If you read this, or get the book, you might have an easier time than I did, being out there thinking, “Geez, I wish I had remembered to bring….”

Everybody loves to shoot fireworks. It has lots of connotations—holiday, patriotism, hot dogs, weekend, kids, family. Time to relax. Time to shoot some pictures.

Okay, make a checklist. Camera. Wide angle zoom. Telephoto zoom. Flash cards. Cable release. Spare camera battery. Tripod. Headlamp, and hand held flashlight. Watch with timer function. Black card. (More on that later.)

That’s pretty much the photo kit. What else to think of? Rain gear, both for cameras and you. You can get fancy rain gear designed for cameras and lenses, or just use plastic bags and baggies. Couple of bungee cords to keep the bags on the camera if the wind starts whipping about. Water and power bars—you’ll be out there a while. Bug repellent. Comfortable clothing and shoes. The car might be quite a ways away, and you’ll be walking a fair piece.  Advil. (Advil is always on my equipment list.)

Anything to do beforehand? You bet. Scout the location. Best to know what you are getting into, where they shoot the fireworks from, what the background will be like. How big will the display be? How long will it go for? Most fireworks displays are well over in a half hour or less, and if you are stumbling around in the crowd looking for a spot and trying to setup in the dark, you’ll just be starting to make decent exposures as they light up the sky with the crescendo and say goodnight till next year.

That’s right, next year. Most big shoot ’em ups are yearly events. Argh, the pressure!

So scout. Get your spot. Get there early. I mean early. Like, be the first car in the parking lot. Pack a soft cooler sling bag, throw an icepack in there, and know that in that bag is your sustenance till maybe late at night. For jobs like this, my Ipod and earphones are a must. Maybe a collapsible chair, and a small waterproof tarp. Think your way into this. What could go wrong? It’s a photo shoot, so the answer to that is, just about everything. Try to ensure success by envisioning the shot and the potential problems in making the shot before you walk out the door.

Like, do you need a permit to put your tripod down? Did you have to call the town about this adventure? Most likely not, but in this post 911 world, photographers are often treated as being just this side of a recidivist offender, so it might be worth a phone call.

Okay, prepped and ready. Time to frame up the shot, which is a bit trickier than you might think. First off, when I shoot fireworks, I always get my frame, plus about 20%. I can always tighten up, but I want to give those fireworks room to play up there in the heavens. Frame too tight, you’ll have tracer lines of color going right out of the upper part of your picture, creating lines of interest that will pull your viewer’s eye right out with them.

So give them room to breathe and determine whether the shot is horizontal or vertical. Remember that most fireworks pix, if they are just of the explosions in the sky, are, at the end of the day, an exercise in color, nothing more. Even something as splashy as a pyrotechnic display needs context. So perhaps you can frame up with the object that is being celebrated, such as the Statue of Liberty. Or use the semi-silhouetted crowd as a foreground element. Or boats and bridges out in the water, with the water acting as a giant reflector board filled with color.

The variations that may occur with your framing are the reason to have at least a couple lenses with you. As mentioned above, two reasonable zooms, one wide and one telephoto, should do you fine.

Metering? Yikes, how do you meter a fast moving rocket moving through the black sky? The answer is, you don’t, really. This is a situation to shut off a bunch of the auto this and that on the camera, and go manual. Also, make sure to turn the flash off. Some cameras will read the darkness in in certain modes and activate that puppy. Ever see the opening of an Olympics, where thousands of people are using point and shoots, and their flashes are going off like crazy? Know what they’re lighting? The shoulder of the person in front of them. Fireworks, unless you are trying a radically different approach, are generally a no flash zone.

Okay, now set up manual. Fireworks are brighter than you might think, so you don’t need to open the lens really wide, which is a bit counter-intuitive, I know, ’cause it’s dark. But my experience with fireworks wide open is that you drain the color out of them. They’ll just register as a white streak. Be careful. You can over-expose fireworks quite easily.

F8 is a reasonable starting point. Some photogs I know go even lower on the aperture scale, down to f11 or even f16. Over time, you will find which settings work for you. (I used to take notes at the end of a fireworks job, just to keep myself tuned up for next year. No real need for that anymore, as the metadata tells you what works and what doesn’t.)

Set the shutter to bulb. This mode keeps the shutter open as long as the release button is pushed. But you are not physically pushing that button are you?! No! This is absolutely a job for a cable release. Nowadays, most cable releases are simply electric cables which jack into the camera and activate the shutter. When you punch the button on the cable release the shutter is at your command, and will stay open as long as you want. And, very significantly, the button you are pushing is not on the camera or the tripod. With lengthy exposures, even the slightest jiggle or vibration is the enemy.

This is important, because at f8, the shutter will be open for a while, meaning anywhere from four to 10-15 seconds. (Remember if you have a foreground element in the picture, such as a monument, you have to make sure that lit up monument is exposed properly. In many ways, that foreground object will determine the length of your exposure.)

Again, due to the brightness of fireworks, you can work at a reasonable or even low ISO. Something in the neighborhood of 100 or 200 will do fine. The faster your ISO, the shorter your shutter speeds, which will deprive you of recording those wonderful tracers of light into the sky.

Some shooters time the launch of the rockets and open their shutter accordingly, keeping it open for, say, 8-10 seconds, then closing down. This ensures that they will record the path of the pyrotechnic into the night sky, and it’s explosion. This is a fine approach. Give it a try.

Others use a black card. A black card is just that, a black card. Nothing mysterious or fancy. It can be a piece of black cardboard, or foam core board. Or it can just be an index card covered with black tape. (Be sure it is not shiny tape. That might pick up slivers of light and reflect it back into the lens.  Use a matte black type of photo tape, often called gaffer tape.)

This way, you can keep your shutter open for very lengthy periods of time, and record multiple starbursts. You open the shutter, and shoot one explosion, then cover the lens with the card, and wait for the next. You can experiment with this trick, and produce really terrific results by layering multiple fireworks into one picture.

(Also, say, you have the Brooklyn Bridge as an architectural element in the foreground, and the proper exposure for it is f8 at 10 seconds. This limits your fireworks shooting range, right? Gotta get the bridge right, so the exposure is a done deal. But, with the black card, if you are quick enough, you can uncover just the upper portion of the sky, while blocking the area of the lens which is recording the bridge. This is dicey. You have to move the card quickly, hovering it around where the bridge ends and the sky begins. If you have ever made a black and white print in the darkroom, think of this as burning and dodging right at the camera lens. Can’t keep the card static or it will create a hard line of obvious exposure change. It has to hover, quickly jiggling around that sky bridge borderline. If you pull this off right, you can keep your lens open for several batches of fireworks, extending over 20-30 seconds, filling the sky with color. But—this is an  experiment! Back yourself up by shooting some “straight” frames.)

At the beginnings of the digital rage, this technique was a bit problematic, because seriously lengthy exposures produced a lot of digital noise. The longer the shutter is open, the longer the chip is “on” building up heat with every passing second. That sensor heat would really fray away at the quality of the digital file you would be trying to produce. Bad news. Long time exposures were the Achilles heel of early digital cameras. Predictably, advances in digital camera technology have smoothed out a lot of those problems, but it is wise to experiment with your particular model and see what its’ tolerances are. As you might suspect, the higher end models handle long exposure well, while the more basic cameras will have limitations. Get to know what your camera is capable of. In many current cameras, you can turn on a function called “long exposure noise reduction.” Hugely helpful.

Other bits and pieces: Don’t shoot all night long at one exposure. (If you are on bulb, you definitely won’t anyway.) But this is an occasion for bracketing, and shooting as many frames as possible. Also, shoot right away when they start! Fireworks displays can build up a lot of smoke over a series of explosions, and if you are smack in the wind pattern that blows that smoke towards your lens, you can end up thinking you’re shooting a war zone. So shoot immediately, and fast.

Have a good 4th of July. Try some of this out, and have a hot dog on me. More tk….

Finally, A Book That Has Everything You Need To Know

Feb 22

In Books, Friends at 9:48am

Well, at least about getting your pictures up on the web effectively. Which, if you’re going to have a voice, a presence, a personality, and a chance of survival in the roiling  sea of photogs out there, is simply a necessity. Especially now, as the click of keys has replaced the roar of presses, shooters and scribes are no longer ink stained wretches, but pixel pushing, web browsing, self publishing lords of the internet. To compete nowadays, you have to get in the game, and this book is the playbook. Here’s a link, Get Your Photography on the Web, by RC Concepcion.

Hell, I wouldn’t know HTML from a dashboard plugin, and I’m enjoying reading it. It is so concise, logical, and simple, it demystifies the hydra-headed monster known as the internet, and paves the way for you to just go do it. I liken the book to the tunnel leading onto the playing field. It is a directional, no frills, easy to negotiate one way street. You keep going, and the dark recedes, things get brighter and brighter, and you hear the muffled roar of the crowd. Then–BOOM! You are in the light, on the field, the people are screaming, and it’s on! Game time! Website! Blog! Portfolio! Your pictures are no longer in a box under the shelf at the back of the closet. They are on the world wide web, and anybody can see them, and say anything they want about them. Heh, heh! Be careful what you you wish for.

There’s a personal note to all of this for me. I’m just so damn happy for RC, who is one of the most giving, ebullient, warm hearted people on the planet, not just our industry. Down at the Kelby Camp, they refer to him as the Swiss Army knife of the internet–he can do anything and everything with a computer, including rebuild one with spit, glue and well, maybe a Swiss Army knife. He also the author of one of the sweetest dance photographs–ever.

RC shot this of his lovely wife Jen, who is a magnificent ballerina, with the adorable Sabie, their daughter, looking up from mom’s pointe shoes. I have been blessed to work with Jen a couple of times, capturing her in flight.

Jen’s a typically perfectionist ballerina. I brought her out on the sand, and she was saying, “Ooh, I won’t look good on this surface. I won’t be able to leap, or jump, or anything!” Then she goes off like Superwoman in pointe shoes.

What’s even cooler for me, personally, is that I was standing right next to RC when he shot the cover of the book, which is a wonderful frame of Central Park in NYC. I called my friend Rita, who lives in a building with one of those views, and she asked a neighbor for a few minutes on their porch. We went up, shot some pix, and then she treated RC and I to borscht, bread, cheese and vodka. Definitely a New York night.

Whether you’re just starting, or thinking about ramping up your web presence, this book is the bible…..more tk….

LIFE Launch…

Oct 19

In Books at 7:43am


Today is official release of a book I wrote for my alma mater, LIFE magazine. What a long strange trip photography is. I shot my first job for the magazine in 1984, and managed somehow to survive editor changes, shifts in format, style, and even the change of the physical size of the magazine to keep shooting for them right through the nineties. Just about 1995 they asked me to become their first staffer in 23 years, which also meant I became the last staff photographer in the history of the magazine, as it is no longer publishing. As I always point out, being the last in a series of 90 staff shooters at this illustrious picture magazine probably means that someone writing the history of this field will probably associate my name with the death of photojournalism:-)

It was an honor to write, given the fact that my editor was Bob Sullivan. Sully and I have done stories together over the years for LIFE, Time, and Sports Illustrated. As I always say about him, he is one of those editor/writers who know more stuff about more stuff than just about anybody I know. He gave the book coherence and structure, and a sense of the English language that my location influenced photo dialect falls far short of. He can switch hats from sports to news to music to celebrities in a heartbeat, which has made him the perfect editor at LIFE, which was about all that and more.

LIFE of course continues in electronic form as one of the most popular photo sites of the web world. is a treasure trove of the current pictorial news of the day, as well as a rich mix of images from the archives of the magazine, many of which never saw ink on paper, and are only now just being published for the first time. I’m the guest editor at the site right now, and I had a wonderful opportunity to ramble a bit about my favorite LIFE shooters and their images. Check it out here. Also do a stint on holding cameras, and a section called “dynamic photography.”

The LIFE Guide is just that–a guide. It can take a newbie right from opening the box containing the new digital picture machine right through composition, light, lenses, and color. Predictably, given the author, it is not a dry, nuts and bolts account of f-stops and shutter speeds, but more of a mix of basic information, leavened with 30 years of field experience offering notions of when it is appropriate to bring that information into play, and fly by the “rules,” or just chuck the manual and go with your head and your heart.

It’s got lots of stuff….





Not to mention a fairly bent set of tips…..:-)


They did the smart thing of making it with a semi-hard cover, flexible but tough, and of a size that is fairly easy to stuff into a camera bag or backpack. I plow through basics such as aperture and shutter speed, rule of thirds, lens use, light and color, and even a bit about flash. It is, well, soup to nuts:-) Hoping to make the basics fun, and to keep folks who already have those basics tucked away in their noodles entertained and intrigued with field strategies, and lessons from a whole bunch of hard won (and lost) assignments.

More tk…..

Dang…Double Dang….

Oct 7

In Books, Friends at 5:17am


Just caught up to this column by Ashley Gilbertson in the NYT, all about Tim Whelan pulling the plug on his tiny photo bookstore in Rockport, Me. Dang. Above is a portrait I did of Tim in his shop a number of years ago, with his beloved pooch, Maya. It is one of my favorite pix, understandably, ’cause the combo of the little shop and Tim’s company was irresistible.

It was a rite of passage as an instructor up at Maine Media Workshops. Finish your class, get paid, and go and leave a chunk of the check behind at Tim’s store. A wander (make that more of a shuffle, the place wasn’t very big) through the shelves and the stacks just made you feel good. It made you think, it made you wonder. It always ramped up my sense of curiosity about somebody else’s visual take on the world. You felt hemmed in by paper and ink, and that always felt good. And then there was Tim–easygoing, conversational, knowledgeable.

To say it was like taking a step away from the madding world is a bit redundant, because if you are in Rockport, Me., you’ve already taken that step. It was, however, quiet time, which is always in short supply. Contemplative. Dare I say, kinda like going to church–but much more fun.

I would take my classes there all the time, and, per above, Tim was always a willing and wonderful subject for a lighting demo. Ironically, I put this pic in a new book I just wrote for LIFE, as an example of an environmental portrait, a face in a place.

I can’t feel bad for Tim. He ran a wonderful shop, and I’m sure, has great friends and memories that stem from doing so. From the article, it seems like he is making a sensible move to greener economic pastures.

I just feel bad for the rest of us. Ever walk down the street in a howler of a storm, winds pummeling you like you’re a speed bag, rain flooding your glasses, stinging your skin, ruining your clothes, and just making misery out of everything? (If you’re a freelance photog, you take this walk everyday, even if you don’t know it.) You get inside, close the door, the winds abate, the noise recedes, and you just stand there, thankful for the quiet? (Except of course, for the sound of you, dripping on the carpet.)

That was Tim’s shop, to me. An easy place, apart from the storm. In a way, his photo bookstore was like a good photo. Gave you pause. Made you think. Welcomed you in. Started a conversation, at least in your head. His shelves were filled with reminders of why we do this. I’ll miss it.

More tk….

On LIFE, and Loengard

Aug 30

In Books at 6:07am

LIFE is strange, right? And wonderful.  It is, “Life Its Own Self,” as Dan Jenkins once famously wrote. I shot my first job for the venerable picture magazine that was once everybody’s TV in 1984. Became a staff photographer in 1994. Last one in a series of 90 staffers. Now, 26 years after my first frame, I just finished another project that, I’m proud to say, goes to print sporting that famous red and white logo.picture-3

Never written a guide before. Yikes. Lots of stuff to think about. There’s tons of info in it gained from 30 years out there with a camera in my hand. I’d sit down to write, and have this mental image of my brain as a dump truck, complete with backup warning, starting to pour stuff into my computer. Having done that of course, it would need to be shaped and formed, and I would somehow have to take my photo lingo shorthand and turn it into English. The book starts with the moment you open the box you just got, the one with the digital camera inside, and goes from those super basics right through lenses, light, color, composition to photo terms and concepts, and shooting strategies that make pictures better. Along the way, I drop in little blog like essays that relate field strategies and expertise in a fairly amusing and irreverent (hey, it’s me) way. The result is a guide that covers the basics, with anecdotes about how those basics save your butt when confronted with a photo situation that is decidedly not so basic.

Started on LIFE’s path years ago via being assigned by John Loengard, perhaps the most visually intelligent editor I have ever worked for.


A legendary shooter in his own right, he went from location work to the editor’s desk with impact and influence. (Not all shooters can do this. Many have tried, only to find they should have stayed on the street, and continued to do that which they were good at–shoot pictures.)

Not so John. He’s equally formidable with a camera, or a loupe. In his role as picture editor, to say he was provocative is to understate the case. He got you wired up for the assignment, made you nervous (at least he did me), and dropped incongruent and startling picture notions into your noodle. In short, he got you to think.

Thoughtful pictures are his forte. His book, Pictures Under Discussion, is a must for anyone who might want to do this seriously.




There are gifts that accrue from hanging in there and doing this nutty thing for as long as I have. One truly astonishing one–John wrote the forward for this book. His writing, just as intelligent as his photography, becomes a link between the historic LIFE of film times, and nowadays, with pictures as ones and zeroes. I followed suit in my writing. The book is all about digital shooting. But there are some film pictures in it. Why? Because none of the underpinnings of shooting good pictures have really changed. It remains, then and now, a situational, improvisational, nail biting, uncertain thing to do. It is first and foremost an art and craft powered by your head and your heart, and your sense of the world. The machine in your hands is immaterial. But–this powerful new digital machine can be mysterious and needs explaining. Hence the book.

I can say it has been a truly wonderful LIFE. I was a bit of a fireman for the magazine. Ever the generalist, I got  sent to cover all manner of things. In Russia, I bounced around, weightless, in pseudo-space.


Spent time with Leonard Bernstein as he composed.


Went to Rwanda after the genocide.


Took the clothes off the Olympic team in ’96.


Did a portrait of Kim, “the napalm girl,” and saw how someone’s entire life can spin on the snap of a shutter.


And, in a decidedly dad moment, put my kid on the cover. (Hey, I saved the mag some dough. No model fee. How’s that for a nice, juicy rationalization?)


In short, had the privilege of seeing and recording lots of different bits and pieces of life as people live it. Learned a lot of lessons. Tried to hold up, as best I could, the tradition of vibrant storytelling that was the indelible imprint of the magazine. In this book, I talk a lot about the how to. That’s a given. “How does this thing work?” is explained and re-explained. I also offer up notions about the “why for?” the “what if,” and the “you might just want to.”

In short, I talk about being a shooter. How you do it, and why you do it.

Many of the LIFE photogs were heroes and mentors to me. I was offered a small space in the book for a dedication. See below.

This book is dedicated to those who went before. To what they saw, and how
they saw it. And to the fact that, sometimes at great peril, in impossible
conditions, with all odds against them, they shot it well and beautifully,
and shared it with us. Their work is the stuff of all our memories.

More tk…