On May 27, 2012, the San Francisco bay area celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge that first opened May 27, 1937. Knowing the crowds that were likely to be at the celebration, my plan was to stay away — I can take photos of the bridge any old time, after all. That was until I read that there would be a fireworks display at 9:30 p.m. that day, right at the bridge.
As it was already late afternoon when I read this, I quickly gathered my camera equipment, and stripped out as much as I could, bringing only two lenses (24-70 f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8), one camera body (Canon 5D Mark II), tripod, and shutter release cable. I planned to hike down to Kirby Cove, a campground right along the water not far from the north tower of the bridge, on the Marin side. To get there, you have to hike a mile-long (1½ km) trail from Conzelman Road, so traveling light was the key. I would get there four hours before the start of fireworks, so I figured it would be OK, traffic wise. But just in case, I made a Plan B for Baker Beach near the south tower of the bridge in the Presidio, and a Plan C for parking at the large free lot just above the Sutro Bath ruins, then hiking the trail towards the bridge until I got as close as I could or got tired. The main festivities would be at Crissy Field, but I knew traffic and crowds there would make it a non-starter, as even if I got there early, I’d probably be shooting over people’s heads.
Coming from the east bay, I went north over the Richmond bridge instead of crossing the Bay Bridge so that I wouldn’t have to travel through San Francisco’s traffic, and I’d get directly to the Marin Headlands for Plan A. But once I got there, Plan B became a reality because SFPD had closed down Conzelman Road, the main road through the Marin Headlands — a big “Parking Full” sign mocking my failure.
I got back on the road and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to the Presidio. The road to the main parking lots of Baker Beach was also closed (though I later saw plenty of parking there, so I’m not sure why), but nearby street parking in front of very nice houses was easy to find. Baker Beach was a short hike away.
To photograph fireworks, I set up the camera with the 70-200 lens on a tripod, and the shutter release cable. Most fireworks photos need to be at least a second long to capture the trails, and just to get enough light. Initially I’d set the ISO to 800 and the aperture to f/7.1, and was ready to change it after a few fireworks. I set the camera to bulb mode, where the shutter’s open as long as I have the cable release button pushed. This gives you a lot of flexibility as the brightness and darkness changes with different fireworks.
After the fireworks started, I could see my exposure was causing the fireworks to blow out even with fairly short exposures, so I adjusted things down to ISO 200. Keep an eye on your camera’s display (yes, go ahead and chimp) to make sure you’re getting the shots you want. You’ll quickly get a feel for how long to hold the shutter open to get the exposure and effects you want.
During the show, bright beams of light sometimes turned on. These are way less bright than fireworks, so if something like this happens during fireworks shows you shoot, make sure you take that into account in your exposures. For this one, I simply held the shutter open longer to make sure they got burned into my image.
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