Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mount Rushmore Fireworks and a farewell

For those of you thinking about where to shoot fireworks photos this year, Mount Rushmore National Memorial provides one of the most dramatic foregrounds for that kind of photography you will find.

First thing to know is that fireworks here are held on July 3, not the fourth, weather permitting. The early date began as an avoidance of conflict with other communities' celebrations in the area. It serves a secondary purpose in being one of the country's first Independence Day celebrations each year. The South Dakota Office of Tourism takes advantage of this by sending TV images out via satellite for broadcast in newscasts nationwide throughout July 4.

Large crowds are the norm for this day at Mount Rushmore, so getting there early is a must if you want to stake out a clear area for a tripod. I would suggest mid-morning for arrival and just plan to spend the day on the Mount Rushmore grounds. Taking a blanket, etc. to save your spot for the evening activities will allow you listen to ranger talks, tour the museums, explore the Presidential Trail, or enjoy the entertainment in the amphitheatre.

Throughout the afternoon, activities typically include live music, presidential reenactors, honoring ceremonies for veterans, and military aircraft flyovers.

The actual fireworks are usually scheduled for shortly after dusk, while there is still a hint of twilight in the sky. This is a bonus for photographers, because it allows some separation between the mountain and the black sky that's more difficult to capture toward the end of the show. Unfortunately, in some years the designers of the show also keep the lights off the faces until a few minutes into the show. So balancing between ambient sky light and illuminated faces can be a tricky few minutes to shoot.

I'm sorry, but I don't have a definitive white balance to tell you for the lights on Mount Rushmore. When shooting fireworks, I usually go for a warmer color balance because fireworks themselves can't really get "too red," and quite often it helps with artificially illuminated foreground objects like the carvings on Mount Rushmore.

For exposure, I typically spot meter off the bright faces, because the dark area of the picture tends to fool an overall metering into overexposing the faces. So I meter the faces, then choose an aperature that allows me a long enough shutter speed to allow three or four fireworks bursts before the camera closes.

I use a cable release so that I can control when the camera is open and closed. You can, however, also use your camera's self timer. I would set the timer, hit the button as the show starts, and just keep repeating all the way through the show. Since you don't have control over how big or how many bursts happen at any given time, it's best to just keep shooting and then delete the shots you don't like after it's over. (Isn't digital great? It doesn't cost anything to shoot 100 pictures vs. 2.)

It may take a few tries to get you camera lined up so that fireworks bursts are not out of the frame at the top or completely overflowing the sides of your frame. This shot is probably a typical size for the bursts, so you can kind of judge how much room to leave above the faces.

I want to take the space here to say goodbye to Mount Rushmore's Chief Ranger Mike Pflaum. Mike has been at Mount Rushmore for as long as I've been shooting photos there, has helped me in innumeral ways and has become a good friend. Next week he moves to other National Park Services duties in Omaha, Nebraska. Here he is overseeing the fireworks a few years ago.

Thanks Mike for all the good times, for being a willing photo subject, photographer when I felt the need to document my presence at Mount Rushmore, for the hiking trip over the mountain that I'll always remember, and just for being such a good guy. Good luck in Nebraska.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for letting us know that Mike's leaving. He also shot my favorite photos of myself atop the heads, and I'm grateful that he did was his suggestion, too. What park is in Omaha?!


Chad Coppess said...

Hi Greg,

Mike is going to the regional office in Omaha to work within the region (over 60 different parks) on establishing "Friends of the Parks" groups for fundraising and events creation types of stuff.

Talked to him this morning and he's looking forward to the new challenge.