Thomas J. Sebourn Photography | Manhattan Beach Pier Holiday Fireworks

Manhattan Beach Pier Holiday Fireworks

December 11, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

One of the greatest challenges as a photographer is to get unique images of often photographed locations. I have been working on a blog post about my trip to Delicate Arch (the most famous & most photographed location Arches National Park) about getting a unique image of that location. In order to get unique images sometimes you have to take risks, not only with your physical well-being of your person and gear, but also with the possibility that you might not get a single usable shot.  I swear I will eventually finish that post.
Last night was the Manhattan Beach Holiday Fireworks show at the pier. I realized that there are hundreds of great images of the Manhattan Beach Pier from past fireworks shows, so how the hell can I do something different?? I do not want a run-of-the-mill type and age that we’ve all seen one-hundred thousand times. My original idea was to shoot the entire firework show as I would shoot star trails (a constant succession of “x” length exposures that I will stack in Photoshop to show the motion of the stars as they move across the sky.) My “back-up” plan is to do one long exposure with my Lee ten-stop ND filter on my Samyang 35mm @ f1.4. I’ve never attempted to use a 10-stop ND filter at night, but I was guessing that the ambient light from the lights on the pier &/or the fireworks could provide enough light over the course of 10 minutes.

 I organize all of my gear regular night photography gear (see my post for complete list.) In addition, I bring a small vodka tonic (instead of beer because the MBPD is out in full force,) my 10-stop ND filter, and some cleaning solution (even on a non-windy night, ocean spray will get on everything.) I should have brought plastic trash or grocery bags to keep some the ocean spray off my gear; my 850 lumen flashlight would have come in handy to get the attention of the photographer who decided to set-up right in my shot one minute before the show began and/or to scare the wild, undisciplined, unremorseful Manhattan Beach brats away from my two cameras.

I got a late start because I could not find my REI light weight backpacking chair, which is hopefully lost in my garage. I “arrive” 5:45 PM so by the time I got close to the pier I had to park halfway between my house and the beach so I probably should have walked from my house. The walk was long but pleasant, though all of the half-drunk people everywhere make me nervous that one will knock over my gear.  I finally arrive on the south side of Manhattan Beach Pier a block or two north of 8th St. I throw down my camping stool and set my tripods out and run a few test shots and have a swig of my inconspicuous Vodka Tonic (well concealed in a Sweppes tonic bottle.)

 When shooting at night I always use a remote cable release, be it a regular remote cable release, my remote commander that came with the Sony Alpha 850, or the timer remote that I have purchased specifically for shooting star trails.  I decide to use my timer remote for no real reason other than its cool & I can see how long my image has been cooking for. After I finish taking my test shots and I get everything set up to my satisfaction, I put the remote in my pocket because I don’t want to put it in the sand. After having a couple of more swigs, I decide to stretch my legs…and proceed to drag my tripod and camera down via the still-attached remote release that is still in my pocket. I guess my suspicions about a drunk knocking my crap over were justified. Lucky for me, all of my gear avoids any permanent damage other than a little bit of extra sand in my tripod head (it is old and beat to hell anyway.)
Needless to say, there were at least 25 other photographers there with tripods and a set up that was capable of capturing great images. Though I've never taken images of fireworks before, I know how to take images of fireworks (basically all you need is a camera & a tripod.)  After taking a couple of test shots I realize that my exposure time was not going to be a long enough for a “star trails” style image because and I would fill up an entire 16 gig memory card in about 10 minutes—that and there was going to be too much light.

Did I mention that I was going to get two tries at whatever I was attempting because there were two different firework shows last night? It is the one-hundredth anniversary of Manhattan Beach so the folks at Sketchers decided they’d pay for a second display. I figured if my experiment didn’t work at the 7pm show, I could take run-of-the-mill images at the 8:30pm show.
Here's my 10-Stop ND image taken during the first firework show:

(Sony Alpha 55, 35mm Samyang @ 1.4, ISO 800, 510 seconds. The Sony it out for 55 has a very nice focus assist mode which digitally zooms in on the image & allows you to nail that manual focus. For this image, I used that feature to zoom into the roundhouse). I had zero expectations for this shot to come out, but I was very satisfied with the results given the fact that it's an eight minute exposure, at night, on a wide aperture, near ocean which always seems to throw a rogue wave my way.

The second image was more complicated to achieve because I was using my Sony Alpha 850 with my Carl Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8. To compensate for less light reaching the sensor, I had to use a higher ISO or use a longer exposure time (there are draw backs to both options.) I did my test shots at ISO 3200 to get my framing and focus correct, however I forgot to take set the ISO back to 800 before the fireworks show began, resulting in me shooting the entire 8:30 firework show it ISO 3200. There is so much to remember when doing next photography, especially when setting up two cameras within feet of incoming waves.  

This exposure is at 21mm, f/3.2 (I have no good reason why I didn’t shoot wide open,) 881 seconds, ISO 3200. I expected the noise to be much more of an issue, but upon inspecting the image on my computer it's really not that bad. It is not good enough to sell as stock, but I will make a nice & unique 18x 24 print.
In conclusion, the lesson I am trying to preach is that in order to get unique images, you need to think outside the box & not be afraid that other photographers are going to give you funny looks when you whip out a 10-stop ND filter at night.  Getting a unique photo requires a fresh idea that may seem counterintuitive to how most photographers would approach it.
My next post will be about how I post processed the black-and-white image.


Here is my favorite a55 capture from the 8:30 show:

Samyang 35mm, f/1.4, 59 seconds, ISO 100. Ideally I would have been further back, but I using a wide angle on my other camera. Next year I think I'm going to try to find a spot on Manhattan Beach Blvd. looking straight down the street (showing crowd & fireworks.)


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