Monday, July 08, 2013

On the 4th of July -- just this one time -- I turned all my creative decisions over to "the mind of Nikon"

Point-and-shoot on Autopilot
Over the years I've tried many different ways of shooting fireworks, with many different approaches (usually involving a DSLR and a tripod) and different camera settings, with various degrees of success. Often the fireworks are secondary, because I tend to focus more on people frozen in the strange, unearthly light.

But this year was different. On the Fourth we went on a long bike ride in the afternoon. I was tired and didn't feel like lugging a lot of gear, and decided to limit myself to what I could do with my Nikon Coolpix P7100. As a fireworks documentary machine, it has its limitations -- most of the settings I would normally use are not accessible through the auto or manual metering modes. But it did have something called a "fireworks" scene mode, in which the camera calls all the shots.

I'm not fond of "scene" modes. In fact, until the other night I never used any of the automatic "scene" settings. I like to have more control over my photography. By the same token, when shooting fireworks I usually use a DSLR and set it on a tripod. But I had already ruled that out. That left the scene mode. What the heck, I thought, why not try it out?

As it turned out, it worked pretty well (if you're curious what settings the "fireworks" mode selected, it made sure the flash was off, set the ISO to 100, and shot at 4 sec. and f/7.1). This setting was perfect for capturing the puffs of smoke in the bright light of the bursting shells and then following through with the flower-like light trails as they spread outward. If I'd had brought a tripod, the trails would be smoother, but I sort of like the impressionistic effect of the jagged light trails due to my hand-holding the camera for the 4-sec. exposure. It made me wonder momentarily if I should just start delegating all my creative decisions to "the mind of Nikon," but the notion soon passed -- I'm way too much of a control freak to make this a general practice.

By a strange coincidence, I ended up shooting with settings very similar to those used by a very talented New York photographer who also shot the fireworks in a new way this year. His name is Vincent Mounier. He blogged about his experience, and his photos of fireworks stretched out along the Hudson River with the New York skyline in the background are truly spectacular. The titles are also whimsical and poetic. Be sure to check them out.

Interesting how we arrived at almost exactly the same place by very different routes:  He used a Canon DSLR, a tripod and a "Bulb" shutter setting. I left the tripod at home, used a Nikon point-and-shoot and relied totally on the camera's automatic fireworks scene mode. Yet our exposure settings were virtually identical.

I'm not about to turn over my decision making to my camera on a regular basis, but this does give me a new respect for the practical intelligence -- or at least a good simulation of practical intelligence -- built into modern cameras.