like shooting sparks in fog

My phone rang on Friday a week ago. A book publisher wanted to know if I could get to Colonial Williamsburg to shoot the annual Christmas Grand Illumination events that Sunday. After some back and forth about costs and logistics, needs and art direction it was all set. I would have to leave the next day, Saturday to be there  Sunday. I was already committed to two local shoots Saturday, one at 7am and another at 2:30. That left me very little to work with flight-wise. I got lucky and found one flight left that landed at Reagan in DC at midnight.

After a night’s restless sleep at an airport hotel I got up early and drove down to Williamsburg. The drive took a little longer since it was in the middle of a winter storm named Dion. I drove through rain, sleet and snow all the way. Fortunately on a Sunday with bad weather the traffic was light. unfortunately I was afraid all the events would be canceled after I got there. 

After checking into my hotel room and dressing in more layers than an onion I headed over to meet a PR person on site. It was still raining and  33 degrees. We met up and walked over to the site of the events. Last year they reportedly had some 45,000 people there for the annual event. The biggest attraction, what I was told way my ‘hero’ shot, was fireworks in front of the Governor’s Palace. There is a lovely green the size of a football field in front of the Palace where the crowd gathers early. Today it was a sloppy soggy mess. At least the fireworks weren’t canceled. 

With little to do and hours to go I needed to feel like I was accomplishing something. All the doors of Colonial Williamsburg were decorated with wreaths. So I started doing doorways and then tight square shots of the wreaths. It was still raining, still freezing. I shot 8-10 doorways and a few costumed interpreters along the way. Image

Tired now I found a covered place out of the rain to sit and wait. It was covered but open on all sides. As dark approached and people gathered for the events my little covered spot became “the” spot for some 80 more people, a few in revolutionary garb. I chatted with people who came every year from Maryland and Ohio. I also had  a woman chastise me for taking up too much room with my cameras and tripod. Oye!

After dark, still raining, things got going on a small stage in front of the Palace. There were fife and drum corps, bagpipers, choirs from William and Mary and other musicians. They were truly dedicated performers to play in freezing temps and rain. I don’t know how they managed to keep their fingers nimble enough to sound so amazing.  The big crowds of 2012 didn’t arrive. There weren’t more than a couple hundred people there, lit only by two baskets of burning wood on six foot poles and two small lights on the stage. Image

I had a great time shooting the stage and musicians. The light, low as it was had a magical quality to it. Finally it came time for the fireworks and my ‘hero’ or ‘money’ shot. I had the camera set on the tripod and ready. This fireworks show is really special since the bursts are so close to the ground and crowd, they feel like they’re really in your face unlike the higher soaring bursts at Fourth of July celebrations. The first burst was right in front of me in the courtyard of the Governor’s Palace and the smoke from it immediately obscured the scene and continued to hang in place as each successive fireworks went up. ImageI guess it was something about the weather, the rain and temps but the smoke just hung there. I was a little freaked. It was like shooting sparks in fog. I’d been wet and cold for hours and this was the money shot? Not knowing what else to do I continued to concentrate on just getting some nice bursts. ImageIt really was a pretty and special show but hard to enjoy for me. After it ended and the crowd began to fade into the night I decided to stay and wait for the smoke to fade away too. It took about 10 minutes. I shot a few frames without having moved the camera.Image

I hoped to get home and make it work with a little photoshop. I’m not a photoshop guru but I figured out how to take two different frames and combine them to best effect so I used my ‘smokeless’ shot and tried different versions of fireworks. I think I got away with it. And just maybe I even enjoyed it.

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