February 12th, 2012

Popular Photography Magazine’s “Your Best Shot” Contest

In one of my previous blog posts from yesterday, I told you guys about the lame situation where I wrote quite a bit about my photo that won 3rd place in Popular Photography Magazine’s “Your Best Shot” Contest. They wanted me to describe my experience and answer a while bunch of questions which weren’t easy to answer briefly. After I sent them the somewhat lengthy response that I had wrote, I was informed that they only have space for about 75 words to go with the photo.

I wish they had told me that before I wrote this whole thing. Anyways, instead of letting this go to waste in the depths of my hard drive, I figured i’d share it on tumblr. 

I’ve never really told anyone about how I went about doing this before, until now. I realize I don’t go into great detail about how i went about the performing technique, but It wouldn’t be any fun to give out step by step instructions!

So here it is. one of my favorite shots that i’ve ever taken, and an article to go along with it. Enjoy!

"Abstract Explosions" by Nick Benson

"Abstract Explosions" By Nick Benson


"Hi Nick,

Your photo “Abstract Explosion” has been selected as the third prize winner in the April 2012 edition of our Your Best Shot contest. If you could fill out the questionnaire about your photo, it would be greatly appreciated; your words will be paired with your photo when we publish it. Feel free to send any questions or concerns. Thanks!”



Hometown (Where you are currently living):

Have you photographed fireworks before? 

Where did you get the inspiration for this shoot? 

What dictated your lens choice?

What kind of edits (if any) did you make in post?

What software did you use?

The exposure (2 sec) is quite long, did you use a tripod? Any other accessories?

Do you have any experience with long exposures?

Why did you choose it for this shot?

What challenges did you face in this shoot?

What is your favorite thing to photograph?

Please use your own words to describe the shoot in detail:

Name: Nick Benson

Age:  24

Occupation: Photographer/Current Student at Hartford Art School

Hometown: West Hartford, CT

Independence Day drew near in 2011 and I decided that I wanted to try photographing fireworks for the first time. My first attempt was a few days before the fourth of July in the town of Fairfield, Connecticut. I set up my tripod and a Nikon D7000 equipped with a Nikon 18-105mm lens, and I tried to prepare for the unknown. The town of Fairfield’s fireworks display is usually quite extravagant, and that interested me. Luckily Fairfield’s fireworks show is also considerably lengthy, which gave me plenty of time to make room for mistakes in the learning process. Once the show started, it didn’t take long to realize that in order to freeze a frame with the fireworks as I was seeing them, I had to close the aperture of the lens as much as possible (which I kept at about f22-f29). I also used a high ISO (between around 800-1000), while adjusting the shutter speed as needed so the shot wouldn’t over expose. I used a Nikon ML-L3 wireless remote trigger to fire the shutter and I was continuously changing the ISO, shutter speed, as well as the aperture to find the perfect combination of the three. Unfortunately, I noticed that the different types of fireworks had their own unique characteristics. The fireworks emitted various levels of light, had extreme differences in their peak position in the sky, as well as an unpredictable size of their combustion. This made it extremely difficult to prepare for the next firework about to rocket into the sky. The challenge involved was probably what made me enjoy the task so much. When I got home to edit the raw files, I realized that I had a good handful of “keepers,” as well as a handful of “test shots” that were destined for the recycle bin. Even while shooting between the focal lengths of 85mm-105mm on my 18-105mm lens, I had to crop many of the photos in tighter so the fireworks didn’t look so far away. One thing I learned for the future was to use a long-range telephoto lens.           

In my next attempt I waited a few days and visited a good friend of mine who lived a few miles from Beacon Falls, CT, to give it another go at another town’s fireworks display. I positioned my tripod and camera, this time using a Nikon 55-300mm lens to avoid any unnecessary cropping in post-production. It was also a crucial choice to use a telephoto lens because I was much farther away from where the fireworks were being launched. I wanted to avoid any chance of miscommunication or delay between the remote and the camera, therefore ruling out the use of my wireless infrared remote again. Instead I played it safe and I used direct plug in Nikon MC-DC2 shutter release cable to fire the shutter. To my surprise, there were multiple fireworks being shot off simultaneously almost every time, instead of the single file line of fireworks going off one after another. After a few had been launched in their unpredictable and random pattern, I felt like I had gotten the hang of photographing them and nailed a technique; but I was starting to get slightly bored. I wanted something eye popping and jaw dropping to separate the shots that I had already taken, apart from something that I, or quite possibly even the public, had ever been introduced to before. This is where things took a twist, and I decided to get a bit experimental.

I have been working on a series of photographs pertaining to “Motion and Movement” that I would like to make into a photo book in the near future. A lot of the photos in the series are photos taken over a longer than normal exposure time, of situations, things, places, and concepts that aren’t so typical. As the artist, my goal of the series is to completely distort the viewer’s perception of reality and question what they are seeing to make them think more deeply about what is actually going on. I am a firm believer in creating inventive images through a camera and not faking them through Photoshop, or other programs commonly used in the post-processing procedure. However, I am highly fond of taking creativity to a new level and experimenting with ideas and concepts through abnormal lighting techniques, longer shutter speeds, and so forth.

With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to try to add to my growing series of “Motion and Movement” photos. I began by holding the shutter open for a few seconds longer than I normally would, by releasing the trigger just as or right before the firework had been set off. I was getting some very interesting results, some of which that had me in complete awe. Next, I thought it would be a little more exciting to zoom in closer to the center of the fireworks, and completely fill the frame. I paid close attention to the position where most of the fireworks were exploding at, then manually focused the lens right towards the center of where most of the fireworks would start exploding at. After I had the camera properly aimed and focused, I counted the average amount of time that it took for each firework to travel from the ground and reach it’s maximum height right before it exploded. On average I figured each firework would take about 2 to 3 seconds to explode after leaving the ground. I started the firing the shutter 1 second after I saw the fireworks leave the ground, and I let the shutter stay open for about 2 to 3 seconds at an aperture of f10, while maintaining an ISO if 100 for optimal quality. I was pretty happy with the abstract designs the different fireworks were creating, but the photos I had taken still weren’t what I was looking for. I continued to shoot with the same settings and I started slowly zooming the lens outward as the photo was exposing, therefore resulting in some extremely interesting photos; but still… I hadn’t found what I was looking for. I took the experimentation a step further by playing with the focus ring as the photo was being exposed, and the idea hit me to combine the two methods that I had just explored. By slightly zooming out the lens, along with slowly turning the focus ring in two gradual steps while the shutter was being held open, I was able to create some abstract and extremely unexpected results. After shooting a few frames, an extremely colorful and striking set of similar fireworks appeared on the LCD screen of my camera. At that moment I was absolutely ecstatic. I knew that I had finally got the shot that I wanted, and then some. It was shocking to see that the firework had a perfectly focused center point accompanied by a complementary firework in the background. Both fireworks were characterized by a soft and gradual outward blur - which resembled something that I had created as a kid using a spin art machine.  I processed the raw image file using Lightroom 3 and I was more than pleased with the photo as it was, straight out of the camera. There was no manipulating, cropping, or any major changes necessary to be made.

This unique and abstract technique of shooting long exposures has brought fireworks to the top the list of my favorite things to photograph, among (in no specific order) conceptual ideas, abandoned places, commercial and product work, landscapes, and travel/adventure photography.

(Look for the very compressed version of this in Popular Photography Magazine’s April Isssue!)

(Source: )