Independence Day Madness

Posted on July 5, 2015 in Blog Post, Experimental Photography, Photography



Something I’ve noticed many times now, the most stressful elements of being a photographer (or a plein air painter, for that matter), involve what it takes to get into position to take the shot. Shooting is the easy part, almost an after thought. The early rise, travel time, traffic headaches, packing and logistics, the mile-long hike through treacherous terrain carrying fragile gear to your location…not so much.


APS_9717APS_9696This weekend I set out on a mission to shoot some fireworks, as in photographs of the big event in our area. This was something I’ve actually never done before, and I wasn’t going to let another year go by without the attempt. The problem was that I had no end of things to do before I could. A headshot session on Friday, a private lesson, errands to run, an early race on the 4th, and work behind the computer. Fortunately there would be two opportunities to see the fireworks, as Milwaukee was doing their thing at the lakefront on Friday, and most of the other cities were doing theirs on the 4th.




APS_9683APS_9737Thursday I went to Veteran’s Park to check out the venue and hopefully find an ideal vantage point from which to shoot the fireworks. I noticed the park was a web of yellow tape, string and rope, as residents had begun staking out plots of land for their friends and family Wednesday morning. I talked to some of the regulars and got a sense of where the fireworks would be fired from.

Unfortunately, they moved the location this year, which put them at a point where I couldn’t get the shot I wanted. I envisioned a view of the fireworks and the Milwaukee skyline in the same frame. Without access to a boat, that wasn’t going to happen.








Plan B was to find some recognizable buildings to serve as a foreground element and catch the fireworks between or above them. The obvious choice was the Art Museum. There are certain reasons I wanted to avoid that, namely the trademark protections on that building and images of it. I had a good idea that at least some of the images I shot would be iconic, and therefore viable as stock images.


APS_9763APS_9771In the course of my scouting, I did happen to identify where the TV crews would be set up, and it was an ok spot. The question was how crowded would it be by the time I got there. Little did I know it would be so much worse than I thought.

The colored lines below the fireworks were the result of a kid walking past with a glowing toy.

The colored lines below the fireworks were the result of a kid walking past with a glowing toy.


APS_9756APS_9755Friday, after my appointments, I stopped at home for some food and to pack my gear, making some last minute adjustments before heading out. I left the door in Greenfield at 6:10 and drove like hell to get on site as early as possible. By the time I got to Walkers Point (1st and Mitchell), I found that the traffic was already backed up and bumper-to-bumper a couple of miles from downtown. This weekend was not only Independence Day, but also Summerfest was going on, which draws hundreds of thousands of people to the Lakefront.






APS_9641Add to this mix two other things: The Milwaukee County Transit System union decided that this would be a perfect weekend for their bus drivers to go on strike. That meant that during the busiest weekend of the year for this area, the amount of vehicular traffic to this area nearly tripled. With no buses to cart people around, bars had tried to set up shuttles using school buses, but most people drove. Parking was already at a premium, and if you weren’t there by that morning, you weren’t going to find a place to park.


APS_9770APS_9758Further, add the completely inept handling of traffic by the Milwaukee Police Department and I (and many, many other people) was stuck in traffic until close to 9pm. At several intersections I saw officers holding traffic directing lights standing idle while people would run red lights to block intersections just to make sure no one got in front of them in the line down to the lakefront. We’d get close to the lakefront only to see that they closed down roads to that area. There was no parking anywhere within 3 miles of the lakefront. I went back through Walkers Point and looked there and even there the streets were full, lots were full, and even the more creative parking spaces were taken. The bars on the lakefront had restricted lots for private parties, and by 9 I decided there was no point in trying further. I went home.






APS_9718APS_9740The next day I had an early race to shoot in Waukesha, then home to process and upload the images. I snuck in a great cookout with an old friend, caught a quick nap, then headed out to find a spot around 7:30 pm. I knew that if parking was bad I could always walk from my house, as I live about a mile and a half from the venue, so any closer I could get would be better. As it turns out I managed to find a great parking spot just a few blocks from where I set up.


APS_9803APS_9782The City of Greenfield holds their fireworks at Konkel Park, which is on Layton Avenue, a long and busy East-West strip of traffic. On the North side of this road is the city municipal building & courthouse, cop shop, a firehouse, a city library, and a few businesses as well as a largely residential area. I set up in front of the courthouse, which turned out to be front and center to the launch location. Just before the show, they turn off all the lights in the park, the buildings opposite of the park, and even the street lights on Layton Avenue. That was a nice touch.

11695981_10152876666277343_6853024354878894653_n This was my set up for the night. I used my Yongnuo wireless remote on my D7000 with the Tokina 11-16mm, and for kicks I set up my old Nikon Coolpix 5700 point & shoot on a magic arm at the base of the tripod. Sort of a “Pro Photographer-Cheap Camera” challenge. Surprisingly, I think I got some decent quality shots with that old unit. I upgraded to the D7000 from that years ago, and it still worked, so I thought why not?. It was oddly suited for this type of shooting. I think next time a 24mm prime will be the way to go.I started at f/8 with a 2 second exposure, ISO 100, at 11mm. I found that to get the best streaming lights, a longer exposure was necessary, so I ended up moving between f/8 and f/16 for aperture, and 8-10 second exposures for most of the show. The times when they had a lot of overlapping shots non-stop, I had to bring it down to a 2 second exposure at f/11 or the image would get blown out.

Two of the many things I had to contend with were passers-by and car traffic. The traffic was mercifully slowed for the event, I think the Police had things choked down for the show, but still a few cars went by and left lines of light across the bottom of the shot. The slow exposure was such that people passing in front of me wouldn’t appear in the image so long as they kept moving, but every once in awhile some kid would walk past holding a lit-up toy, which made for some interesting lines of color.




I tried to get a shot of the crowd on my side of the street, but it was very dark. Still interesting to see the reactions on peoples’ faces.

I shot over 280 images that night, I have yet to look closely at the ones from my Coolpix camera, I need to get a new CF Card reader as the one I had stopped working.

With this experience in my belt, I have a better idea of what my camera(s) are capable of, and what I might do in the future. My next chance to shoot fireworks will probably be in August at the State Fair. And next year, I’m going to get my shot downtown!



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