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Behind the lens: Allen J. Schaben shoots fireworks

Behind the lens: Allen J. Schaben shoots fireworks

By Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times

When I shoot an assignment, I want the reader/viewer to feel what it was like to be there. I try to put the reader in a place where maybe he can’t be and do it in a way that adds mood or feeling to the photo. Covering fireworks on July 4 is no different: I try to figure out a way to bring readers to the event in a way that shows the mood.

Because so many people photograph fireworks, there is pressure to come up with something surprising. There is an old saying I live or die by: Chance favors the prepared mind. I ask lots of questions of my comrades who have done this before, make phone calls and do Web research to help improve my chances of getting a nice shot. I first explore what visual opportunities exist at various fireworks shows in Southern California. In both of the photos shown here, I chose locations near water: the Huntington BeachPpier and Newport Dunes Waterfront  Resort. After frequently surfing “magic hour” sessions at dawn and dusk at the Huntington Beach Pier, I understand that the ocean reflects low light in interesting ways. Newport Dunes is somewhat protected from the wind, which is ideal. Less wind means a better reflection and less residual smoke, which can obscure the fireworks.

My friend, Joel Sartore, who shoots for National Geographic, taught me a lesson I use on every assignment: look for the stage that has nice light and background, then wait for the actors to arrive. He also taught be that great photos are made with these key ingredients: light, background, interesting subject matter, mood or emotion and composition. So my second key ingredient is finding interesting subject matter.ocfourth

I usually look for faces and capture the emotion of someone’s face, but haven’t found a way to show people’s faces and have the fireworks behind them. Note to self: Maybe if you can find two fireworks shows that are close by, that would make it possible.

In the case of the Huntington Beach Pier shoot, all the surfers were kicked out of the ocean for safety reasons, so as the fireworks started, I had no interesting subjects at the water’s edge for the first several minutes. Talk about sweating bullets. I kept running down the beach, trying to be respectful and staying out of people’s way, and frantically looking for someone sitting close to the water or in the water. And then my prayers were answered and I found a surfer sitting on the beach who would be occasionally surrounded by water as the high tide peaked. To  make things more difficult, the current and tide were strong and would move my tripod and sand around the legs every time the water rushed up the bank.

The key was to not shoot with a shutter speed too long where the surfer would be blurred by the tide pushing him around, and my camera that was constantly getting moved by the water, yet long enough to record the ambiance of the show with a few bursts in the air and reflected off the water. In the end, I had only a couple of photos that were sharp and had a nice burst and reflection in the same frame.

My starting point for exposure shot with a cable release is: 200 ISO, F8 aperture, 20 seconds shutter speed, shot on RAW to make the best possible image. Every show is different, so exposure will be different. Thank God for the ability to instantly see your results. Most people sit at the same level at fireworks shows, but I like to find someone slightly elevated to make the composition more interesting. Before the show started at Newport Dunes, I saw a lot of kids sitting on top of this whale on the sand and I knew it had good potential. I set a second camera up on another tripod as a backup with a Pocket Wizard remote control and fired it at the same time from a different angle with a different exposure setting: aperture priority. The photos worked out nicely from that camera, but didn’t have the interesting composition of the one with the kids sitting on the whale. Being on a tight deadline, I set my computer up and transmitted rapidly.

This year, I’m excited to be working out of my mobile Los Angeles Times office, a used RV that my wife got me for my 45th birthday. However, I’m already feeling the stress of how I will pull it off all over again this year.

Top photo: Children watch fireworks explode over the lagoon at Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort & Marina in Newport Beach during celebrations July 4, 2011; lower photo: Mark Allen, 21, of Huntington Beach sits in the incoming tide in his wetsuit to watch fireworks July 4, 2004, in Huntington Beach.


  1. July 4, 2013, 4:25 pm

    Wow!!! Nice photos 🙂

    By: juicesaar
  2. August 30, 2013, 11:17 am

    Hi Allen

    My name is Tony Herrera a freelancer photographer I was doing media coverage for last weekeng FYF MUSIC FEST and I saw your photo on of Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the calendar cover of LA Times on Monday August 26 I was impress of your talent that picture you took give a lot of hope so I just wanna say thank you.


    Tony Herrera

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