Fourths Full of Fireworks, Family and Friends

This morning was quiet when I awoke.  The stillness wouldn’t be that unusual for a holiday morning except for the fact that this was the Fourth of July, the U.S. day to celebrate its independence. When I was a kid, that meant starting the day off with a bang, literally, as my brother and I hopped out of our bed, threw on some clothes and raced outdoors to light what would be the first of many firecrackers that day.

My son, Marshall, ready to celebrate with his string of Black Cats.

Times have changed as setting off individual fireworks have been banned in many communities, such as my own, leaving it to the pro pyrotechnicians to provide a choreographed aerial night display. For the most part, it’s a good thing although I do miss seeing kids faces light up as they swirl the glowing wands of sparklers. And I loved the ground fountains that burst up with sizzling flares of color.

But the silence of the morning made me think of all those wonderful Fourth of July holidays past here in Bellingham.

A fireworks show on the front yard of our house.

I smiled remembering nights when my own middle-school aged sons gathered up their collection of fireworks, call us all out to the street in front of our home and set them off to their own choreographed show, complete with patriotic music blasted from a boom box that had been turned up to full volume.

Then there was the family barbeques at our friends’ home who lived then on a local lake.

The kids line up for hot dogs right off the grill.

Food was plentiful, with everyone bringing baked beans, deviled eggs, hot dogs and hamburgers, salads, pies, cookies and ice cream, all pretty much considered to be ‘traditional’ American Independence Day favorites.  Moms and Dads would talk and drink beer while we watched the kids leap off the end of the dock into the still chilly lake water. A few others would hop into the kayak and paddle a short distance out from the shore where they would still be within sight of parental eyes.

The kids take a break from swimming and kayaking to eat a Fourth of July picnic.

And then, of course, as night began to fall (nearly 10 p.m. here in the Pacific Northwest), the homemade fireworks show would start with the explosions from Roman candles being directed out over the water.  When it was over, we bundled up the leftovers and our sleepy-eyed kids and headed home.

Firing off the Roman candles from the dock.

Later, when our friends moved to a home on the bay, we did the same thing sitting on the beach, watching the sun sink as he dug into the delicious apple and cherry pies that had been baked especially for the occasion. Of course, we always had a fire going so that we could make s’mores–those wonderfully gooey treat of melted chocolate and toasted marshmallow squeezed between two layers of graham crackers. And the fire also kept us warm because Fourth of Julys here can be chilly, if not rainy.

A festive pie for the Fourth of July.

I recalled the more recent holidays when our sons, now grown, were not home to celebrate or, if they were, preferred to head off with friends to watch fireworks than join the ‘old folks.’ One memorable Fourth was spent out on a boat in the bay enjoying the company of friends from the annual summer music festival and viewing that night’s light show from the water. Quite an experience. Still another found us sitting nearly directly beneath the big blast over the harbor as we sat with another couple on the terrace of a shore side restaurant, savoring the food served up for the special evening while overhead the ‘bombs’ were bursting in air.

The Fourth of July on the boat in the bay gave us a spectacular view of the fireworks show that night.

More recently, we’ve headed over to a friend’s home late in the day for a potluck on their deck.  After dessert, we settle into one of their patio chairs, usually with a blanket close at hand, and wait and watch for the big fireworks spectacle, sponsored here for years by one of our local markets. They have an excellent vantage point from which we can see it all, including the show also being staged in nearby Blaine, just up the coast and the individual efforts from the Lummi Nation across the bay.

Happy Fourth of July. Long may our Star Spangled banner wave.

While the colorful aerial pyrotechnics are fun to watch, it’s mostly the company of the friends and family we are with that really make the evenings fun and memorable. It’s that feeling of fellowship, of sharing a special day with people special to you, some who you may only see on this day once a year. And that’s what I remember most about this holiday. I hope your Fourth of July is equally as memorable and as full of family and friends as it is of fireworks.

Having a Blast in the Big Apple

My memories of the Fourth of July are mostly of awakening to the sounds of firecrackers popping off somewhere in the small town in Kansas where I grew up.  As soon as I could get myself dressed, I’d be out there too with my little brothers lighting a string of Black Cats, setting off sticks of sparklers, or watching a jet black pellet, sold as a ‘snake’  grow into a delicate twisting cylinder of carbon ash when a match was held to it.   But three years ago, I was treated to a different kind of Fourth of July, an aerial spectacular staged in the largest city in the U.S.–Fourth of July New York City style.

I arrived in the city with my husband early that morning on a flight from London where we had been visiting friends.  My cousins, Terry and John, who live in Manhattan, asked us to join them for their holiday celebration that evening if we weren’t too jet-lagged.  One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to experience how other parts of the country or the world celebrate holidays.  So when my cousins extended their invitation,  I was going to be there. By flying in the early, we could go my son’s apartment, shower and clean up and then grab a nap in order to be awake for the festivities that night. Falling asleep wasn’t hard, as neither of us had dozed much on the seven-hour flight across the Atlantic.  Waking up in time to go to Terry and John’s was harder.

Old Glory hung from the balcony faded by the sunset and offering a glimpse of the high rises behind.
Old Glory hung from the balcony faded by the sunset and offering a glimpse of the high rises behind.

But by early evening, I was ready to party. We hopped a cab across town to my cousins’ apartment building in Chelsea. They had recently moved from the first floor to the tenth floor. One side of their three bedroom apartment faced towards the Hudson River, where the fireworks show was to be that year. Macy’s, the department store that sponsors the big event, rotates the show every other year between the East River and the Hudson River, so as to give New Yorkers living on both sides of the island a fair chance to see it.  Terry and John’s place couldn’t have been a more perfect place from which to watch that year’s extravaganza.

The colors of the sunset itself against New York's skyline rivaled that of the fireworks that were to come on this Fourth of July.
The colors of the sunset itself against New York’s skyline rivaled that of the fireworks that were to come on this Fourth of July.

Folding deck chair filled their little balcony so everyone could sit for the show. At one end of the balcony, John was manning the grill where hot dogs and hamburgers were sizzling hot.  This was a backyard barbecue, Manhattan style. Terry, who’s a great cook, had all the trimmings ready as well as some tasty side dishes and a dessert just in case you got hungry later. When you stepped in off the balcony to ‘dress’ your dog or burger, you could still catch the pyrotechnic spectacle being broadcast live on the living room’s big screen television. That option also included live performances by various entertainers that took place on Liberty Island before and during the big show.

From the balcony, we could see a steady stream of people heading down towards the river hoping to stake out a good observation point.  Their arms were loaded with picnic baskets, bags of food, folding chairs and ice chests as if they were camping there for a week.  Thousands of excited kids and their parents scurried down the streets, looking like, from our vantage point high above them, little ants in one of those clear plastic ant houses.

 

Sky rockets burst around a New York high rise like a halo of light.
Sky rockets burst around a New York high rise like a halo of light.

Excitement mounted as darkness descended over the city’s skyline. The first of the big fireworks went trailing high into the sky and at its pinnacle burst into sparkles of color.  Our little party all ‘oohed’  together as people always seem to do when watching fireworks en masse.  Five or six barges had been anchored in the middle of the river and loaded with nearly 30-minutes worth of sky rockets, giant cones and Roman candles that sped high over the skyline when ignited before exploding into bright, chrysanthemum-like bouquets against the black sky.  Each subsequent explosion seemed bigger and better than the last and elicited even grander expressions of delight from our balcony full of celebrants.  I couldn’t imagine anyone not being thrilled by this cosmopolitan Independence Day display.

For me, it was a very different venue from anywhere I had been.  I had watched fireworks erupt over the empty ball field in my home town, seen the shows spread out all over Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley from a friend’s hillside backyard and watched the late night pyrotechnics over Bellingham’s bay. Now I experienced the Fourth set against a backdrop of skyscrapers silhouetted by the bursting embers of light that drifted slowly down into the Hudson.

The exploding sprays of revolutionary red fireworks silhouetted the water tower atop one of the nearby buildings during the Fourth of July spectacular.
The exploding sprays of revolutionary red fireworks silhouetted the water tower atop one of the nearby buildings during the Fourth of July spectacular.

I photographed what I could, steadying my camera on the balcony railing and shooting through the fine mesh protective screen that enclosed my cousin’s balcony. It wasn’t the best of shooting conditions but it was definitely the best of evenings.  When it was over, we cheered and watched as exuberant spectators below headed home or joined friends to continue the festivities elsewhere. The mood was definitely as bombastic as the show we had just witnessed.  This was a Fourth of July that I have cataloged as one of  my most memorable.  For what could be better than celebrating our national holiday with family, friends and fireworks in such a great city and setting?

Shooting Fireworks

It’s inevitable.  Every Fourth of July I see someone watching the big fireworks display pull out their point and shoot camera from their pocket or purse, aim it skyward and fire, hoping to capture the pyrotechnic  pageant.  More often than not, they are disappointed with the results.   I’m here to tell you how not to let that happen that to you should you decide that you simply must record the spectacle visually.

First off, turn off that flash!  Can’t tell you how many people don’t and what they end up with is a lovely view of the person’s head sitting in front of them.

Secondly, dial-up the ISO setting on your camera if it has that ability.  The higher the ISO the better chance you have at capturing the explosions as they appear rather than as big blurs that aren’t quite identifiable in the night sky.  A higher ISO will allow you to shoot the fireworks at higher F-stop and shutter speeds but know that the higher the ISO, the more “grain” you’ll get in the final image.

The fireworks display over the Hudson River in NYC was a brilliant spectacle of light. I had the perfect vantage point from my cousin’s apartment balcony!

Of course, results will also depend upon the type of camera you’re using.  Some new digital point and shoot cameras have incredible resolutions (not always related to the number of pixels it can capture) and will produce amazing results regardless.

If you’re using a single lens reflex, and you’re not a steady at hand-holding your camera with a telephoto lens, then use a tripod.  And a shutter release cable.   Years of shooting weddings requiring existing light exposures gave me the ability to get pretty good hand-held results when shooting at speeds as slow as 1/15th of a second (used to be able to do a passable job at 1/8th) but those images would never meet publication-quality standards without a tripod.

In fact, the two images I’ve posted here were made without the use of a tripod although I most likely braced my camera on a railing or something else solid that was handy.   One was made a couple of years ago of the display over Bellingham Bay while sitting at a nearby outdoor restaurant.  The other was made last year from my cousin’s apartment balcony of the incredible fireworks spectacle over the Hudson River in NYC.   It was just too good an opportunity to pass up even though I didn’t have a tripod with me.

Slower shutter speeds will yield the motion of the exploding fireworks as they drift downward.  That can be a pretty dramatic effect in the final image.  I personally like that look because it makes the fireworks look more like fireworks and not just some strange constellation.

My seat at the outdoor restaurant gave me a great view of my city’s annual fireworks extravaganza and provided good framing for a image of the giant bursts.

Also, frame your shot with something in the foreground if you can, but not with the back of someone’s head.  I say that, but if  a couple is sitting in front of you, for instance, you could back off your shot to include their full bodies with the fireworks appearing in the sky above them.  Might look good.

In my shots here, I used a lamppost and the point from where the fireworks were ignited in the Bellingham view and the NYC skyline (what could be more perfect?) for the other.    That will give your image some perspective and context and be much better than just simply dots of light against a black background.These are just  simple tips to help you get better results of this year’s big bang!  Let me know how it works out.