Brian Wancho technology executive and photographer


How to Photograph Fireworks

Here are a few simple tips for capturing stunning images of fireworks this 4th of July.

Street Festival Fireworks


  • Sturdy tripod
  • Camera that will allow manual focus and manual exposure


  • Remote shutter release or exposure delay mode

Configure your camera for standard long exposure photos. This includes the following settings:

  • Base ISO (100 or 200)
  • Auto-ISO off
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction (if available and necessary)
  • Flash off (shouldn't have to say this)

Compose your shot to include a reference point to give the fireworks context. Photos of fireworks in a black sky are not as visually striking as photos that include buildings or land features. If you are setting up prior to the show, estimate the way the fireworks will fit in the composition of the scene. To keep things interesting, place the main point of interest off-center.

Set the focus point on the object nearest to where the fireworks will be displayed and then turn off auto-focus. This will prevent your camera from searching for focus each time you press the shutter.

Using spot metering, set your exposure based on the land features. Start with something like f/10 and 20 seconds at ISO 100 (10 seconds at ISO 200) and adjust from there. Once exposure is set, lock it so it won't automatically change based on the brightness of the show. If you are relatively close to the show, you may need adjust your aperture to f/16 or f/22 to make sure the entire scene is in focus. Adjust the shutter speed as needed to get proper exposure.

As the show starts, watch the launch point for flashes of light as the fireworks are launched. Start your exposure when the fireworks are launched so you can capture the light trails given off by the fireworks as they climb through the air. If your timing is right, you should be able to capture the launch and the explosion.

Street Festival Fireworks

As the show progresses, check your results and make adjustments to exposure, composition, and focus as necessary. Make changes to your focal length and switch your orientation from horizontal to vertical just to keep things interesting.

Post Processing Tips

Depending on your camera, you may need to use some or all of these post processing tips:

  • Increased black level (this helps remove smoke and provide contrast)
  • Noise reduction - especially in dark areas
  • Sharpening - to bring out details in explosions
Because fireworks are captured as thin lines of light, make sure you size and sharpen your image based on its intended use. Otherwise, the fireworks will appear mushy instead of sharp.

View more images from 2011 on Flickr

View images from 2012 on Flickr

Filed under: Photography, Tips

Underwater Photography

In preparation for an upcoming trip where I will have an opportunity to go on a snorkeling tour, I purchased a waterproof case for my camera.

There are a range of solutions for waterproof camera housings ranging in cost from  just under $100 to well over $1,000. When compared to the high cost solutions, the low cost solutions are rated for shallower use, do not offer as much access to the camera controls, and are less reliable. For my purpose, the low cost solution works well.

DiCAPac WP-S10 Waterproof Camera Case

After doing a little research, I selected the DiCAPac WP-S10. The product is essentially a thick plastic bag that is shaped like a camera. It has a finger insert for operating the shutter and two for operating a zoom lens.

The bag is plenty big to fit the bulky D700 as well as the smaller D90. It comes with foam inserts that can be used to position the camera in the bag so the lens lines properly. I found that putting two inserts below the camera and another folded in half on the left side worked well for the D700.

My initial plan was to use the case with the D700 and the 24-70 zoom lens. While the lens fits well in the case, the finger inserts are too far forward to properly operate the zoom ring. Additionally, because the lens extends slightly when moving above or below 50mm, and there is no zoom lock switch, I found it difficult to keep the lens set at anything other than 50mm. That being the case, I decided to just use the 50mm f/1.4 prime and not worry about the extra effort of controlling the focal length of the lens. I installed the lens with its hood to keep it from bumping against the front of the case.

Before I put the camera in the water for the first time, I followed the instructions on the case and tested it in the bathtub. Two hand weights played the part of the camera and helped keep most of the bag under water during the testing. After about 20 minutes under water I opened the case and found it to be completely dry.

Camera Controls

The bag makes it difficult to control the camera's settings once it is all sealed up. I usually rely on my ability to reach the buttons and both command dials when I shoot, so some adjustments would be necessary.

The finger insert that is used to activate the shutter can also be used to turn the front command dial with some difficulty. The rear dial, however, is unusable once the camera is in the bag. Other buttons and switches are difficult to use as well, so I recommend getting your settings right before you seal it up.

For me, pre-setting some shooting options means that I had to give up on flexibility and take advantage of more of the automatic settings  that the camera offers. Lack of access to the rear command dial throws manual exposure out as an option. Lack of easy access to the focus ring on the lens throws manual focus out as well. Other controls I was concerned about included metering modes and AF modes.

I normally use spot metering along with single-point continuous focus tied to the rear AF-ON button. This allows me to select a focus point, meter it, and adjust as needed. Sometimes I grab the metering information from one point in the scene and then move the focus point to another to set focus. None if this is easy with this bag.

For my first few shots, I switched to Matrix Metering and Auto Area AF mode. These settings mean the camera will attempt to set the exposure based on what it thinks is best for the shot and it will choose the focus points automatically as well.

After a few shots, I worked my way back to spot metering and single point AF. I grew more comfortable with using the camera's buttons through the case, so I was able to move the focus point to where I needed it to be.

Waterproof CameraNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/4 - 1/8000 sec.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.4


One thing I didn't think about is how shooting underwater would affect my technique. I have certain breathing patterns that I've adopted over time which don't work well under water. Apparently, I like to take a deep breath just before I push the shutter release.

The case also made adjustments to my holding technique necessary. I felt like I had much less of a firm grip on the camera and that resulted in difficulty in framing shots.

Waterproof CameraNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/2.8 - 1/8000 sec.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.4

I think, at least in murky water, the big advantage of the waterproof case is the ability to get near-water shots that would otherwise be very risky. When I previously took pictures of my kids using an inflatable water slide, I avoided some shots because I didn't want to get the camera too wet. With this case, that is no longer a concern.

White Balance

I found it very challenging to get the white balance correct. There is no setting that will work for all photos because the white balance changes based on the clarity of the water and how deep  you are.

Underwater White Balance

The image above shows what the camera thought was a good white balance next to the adjusted image. I found a value around 8300K with a tint adjustment toward magenta worked well, but I'm not sure I am settled on the final result. I may risk it and take a gray card underwater once to get a reference shot.

Image Quality Impact

The case affects image quality in a few ways. The biggest problem I had was keeping the edges of the lens housing out of the picture. Many of my shots had a dark area in the upper left where the lens housing had intruded on the photo. Because the housing is built to expand to accommodate lenses up to 6 inches, shorter lenses can cause photos to suffer from this issue.

The other problems I had related to the impact of the extra piece of glass in front of the lens. It seems to me that the photos are a little low on contrast when compared to photos taken without the case. I'm not certain this is directly related to the case itself or if it is a function of the underwater conditions or the lens that I was using. More certain, however, is the impact of the water drops and marks that appeared on the front element. They can be easily washed off, so it isn't a huge problem - just something to watch out for. I also noticed a cloudy film had appeared on the front element after a little while. I'm certain it is related to the chemicals in the water. It contributed to a cloudy appearance to many of the photos. Like the water stains, it was easily removed.


I found the DiCAPac WP-S10 to be a reliable option for waterproofing my camera. It doesn't have many of the features of the professional cases, but it provides a cost effective solution that gets the job done. I hope to capture many interesting images near and under the water now that I won't have to worry about getting the camera wet.

Waterproof CameraNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/5.6 - 1/2000 sec.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.4

View more images on Flickr

Filed under: Photography, Reviews, Tips

The UTEP Pick Axe Sculpture – Again

I've tried to photograph this sculpture three or four times already. On my previous attempts, I arrived too late to get nicely balanced sunlight and artificial light. On my most recent attempt I arrived about half an hour before sunset so I was able to get some much better photos.

UTEP Pick AxeNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/8 - 1/25 sec.
Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 20mm

The photo above was taken with the amazing 14-24 f/2.8 lens. This lens allowed me to be very close to the subject yet still capture the surroundings. Anything shot at such a wide angle will exhibit stretching near the edges, but I think that adds to this shot by pulling the viewer in to it.

As I waited for the sun to set I was internally debating whether this was the best location or not. Part of my goal was to capture light trails from passing cars as it became darker. On my previous visits to this location I had identified four potential locations it could be shot from. The one in the photo above was appealing to me because it was at a 45 degree angle to the top edge of the sculpture. The viewer can see both the top of the pick axe and the side at the same time. Other angles do not provide this benefit.

UTEP Pick AxeNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/20 - 15 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 55mm

Eventually, I decided to go across the street. I still shot the sculpture from the same angle, but from further away. At this time I switched to the 24-70 lens. One thing I don't like about this angle is the One Way sign as well as the other signs in the lower right. On the plus side, this position allowed me to capture lights from cars as they passed by.

I tightened the aperture down to f/20 for the purpose of allowing me to keep the shutter open long enough to capture some light trails. I could have accomplished the same thing with a neutral density filter - if I had remembered to bring it.

Side note: Less than one in 10 cars that passed by knew how to navigate the traffic circle.

UTEP Pick AxeNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/16 - 15 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 55mm

As the sky darkened and artificial lights turned on, the scene changed significantly. When setting exposure I found it was helpful to meter near the windows on the bookstore in the background. This helped me pick the right settings to get a well exposed scene.

After the sun fully set and I was satisfied that I had a few good captures from the my current location, I walked over to the nearby parking garage and climbed almost to the top floor.

UTEP Pick AxeNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/10 - 20 sec.
Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 140mm

I wish I had started out in this location. This is the composition I was looking for.

I switched to the 70-200 lens, to make up for the distance I had moved from the subject. This has the side effect of making the subject and background appear closer to each other than they would if I was closer to the subject using a shorter focal length.

The next time I get a chance to photograph this sculpture I will start from my final location and I also hope to take a few photos from the pedestrian bridge seen in the background in the image above.

View the set on Flickr

Selected images are available for purchase on

Filed under: Photography, Tips

Food and Event Photography – Mother’s Day Brunch

I took some photos of the Mother's day brunch at The El Paso Club for use on their facebook page and website. Here are some samples along with my notes on how I approached this task.

My approach involved making several passes through the event with a different focus and a different lens. Each pass would attempt to capture a different aspect of the event and the food that was being served.

Step 1: Wide Angle/Environment

I started with the 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. This lens has the ability to capture the scene in an entire room at once. The images it produces can be very dramatic or they can look cartoonish due to the wide field of view.

El Paso Club Mother's DayNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/8 - 1/5 sec.
Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 19mm

The first thing you may notice is that the people on the other side of the table are blurred. This is due to the slow shutter speed, which is a function of the aperture setting of f/8 and the amount of available light.

Because of the slow shutter speed, I had to use a tripod. Another notable setting was the use of Exposure Delay Mode which delays the exposure a bit after the mirror flips up to minimize the impact of vibration on the image.

Chilled Salmon
Nikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/8 - .4 sec.
Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 24mm

A characteristic of this focal length is that it shows you the environment of your subject. Not only do you see the fish on the platter, you see the space behind it.

Step 2: People/Actions

The goal of the second pass was to capture service as it happened. I was looking for scenes of people getting their food, chefs making it, etc.

For this pass I used a combination of the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 50mm f/1.4. The 24-70mm was useful to capture scenes that were happening quickly because I could adjust the focal length quickly.

El Paso Club Mother's DayNikon D700 - ISO 2000 - f/2.8 - 1/60 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 62mm

Some notable changes to the settings during this phase are: Increased ISO to 2000, opened aperture to f/2.8, set shutter speed at 1/60. Now that I moved from using a tripod to handheld, I had to compensate for the need to have a faster shutter speed. The combination of the wider aperture and higher ISO make the faster shutter speed possible.

SeafoodNikon D700 - ISO 320 - f/2.8 - 1/60 sec.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm

The wider aperture of f/2.8 (as compared to the first pass at f/8) allows me to control the focus of the viewer by showing them what is important while also giving a sense of context. In the photo above you see that the seafood in the foreground is the focus, but the people in the background and the hand on the right let you know that this is a real event and not just a staged photo of food.

Cropping the scene with the heads of the people in the background was intentional. Their identity is not important to the scene and they likely did not attend this event with the expectation that their face would appear in promotional items for the club.

Step 3: Details

For this step I used the 50mm f/1.4 exclusively. My goal here was to capture some of the details of the presentation at the event. I wanted to focus on an item and have everything else be blurred out. The wide aperture on the 50mm lens makes that possible.

Fruit SculptureNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/1.4 - 1/200 sec.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.4

The shallow depth of field allows me to control what you pay attention to in the scene. Even the tray in front of the fruit is out of focus in this image shot at f/1.4. Additionally, the wider aperture allowed me to put the ISO back down to 200 and still get a shutter speed of 1/200 sec.

DessertNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/1.4 - 1/100 sec.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.4

The photo above is another example of how an extremely shallow DOF allows the image to communicate a sense of priority to objects while still leaving the subject in context. You know that the objects in the foreground are forks, lined up like they're ready to conquer that chocolate cake, but their shape and shiny-ness doesn't compete with the cake because they are out of focus.

El Paso Club Mother's DayNikon D700 - ISO 2500 - f/1.4 - 1/60 sec.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.4

View the entire set on The El Paso Club's Facebook page
Selected images on Flickr

Filed under: Photography, Tips

Using Tonal Contrast (Clarity) on a Portrait

Tonal Contrast in Nik Software's Color Efex Pro is similar to the Clarity adjustment in Lightroom. It adjusts the image by adjusting the contrast in the three areas of shadows, midtones, and highlights. I believe the clarity adjustment in Lightroom is mostly focused on midtone contrast.

When used in a moderate to heavy way, this adjustment has the potential to make an image almost HDR-like. This is why I frequently use this adjustment on landscape images.

I had never considered using it on a portrait until I shot the image below.

The texture in the brick is a little flat and boring. I wanted to see if adding some midtone contrast would help.

I was really pleased with the results. The bricks on the wall and ground have much more texture to them. The subject's hair now has more highlights and the photo has a much better feeling of depth.

I think I'll be using this adjustment much more frequently in the future.

Filed under: Photography, Tips

Photography Lessons from a Middle School Track Meet

Here are my photography notes from my daughter's recent track meet. I used the opportunity to test a few techniques that I had used in the past as well as some new ones.

Key techniques:

  • Pre-set Focus
  • Manual Exposure
  • Continuous Shutter Release
  • Composition
High Jump

The first event I photographed was high jump. The peak of the action in this event happens in one location, so this is a great opportunity to practice pre-setting the focus point.

High Jump at Track MeetNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/2.8 - 1/3200 sec.
Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm

The photo above was taken by pre-setting the focus point on the center of the bar. I use a technique called "Back Button Focus" to separate the activation of auto-focus from the press of the shutter. This lets me pre-set the focus and know that it won't change when I press the shutter release. Without this technique, the camera would likely have gotten confused and focused on the viewing stands behind the action.

The second challenge in the photo above is getting the exposure correct. Normally, I would use spot metering in aperture priority mode so the camera would adjust the shutter speed as it feels necessary. I use spot metering because I find that it eliminates some issues when scenes are back-lit as the viewing stands effectively do in the photo above. However, because the scene is very high contrast - from the black of the track to the white of the viewing stands, I found it best to use manual exposure. I found that the gray on the mat was very close to 18% gray, so I spot metered the mat while I set the exposure. I found somewhere between 1/2500 and 1/3200 with an aperture between f/2.8 and f/3.2 produced well exposed images.

The final challenge in the photo above is catching the action. I found that the best way to catch the action was to take advantage of the "Continuous High" shutter release mode on the camera. My configuration lets me take up to 8 shots per second when the shutter release button is pressed. I would watch through the viewfinder and hold the shutter down as soon as I saw the subject enter the frame.

High Jump Event at Track MeetNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/3.2 - 1/2500 sec.
Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm

Another challenge I wanted to try was to vary the composition of the photos. I did this in two ways. First, as is obvious in the photo above, I took some vertical shots of this event. I like the fact that the vertical shots show the entire story from the ground to the sky. Also, as you can tell from the very bottom of the image above, I was very low when I took this photo - I was actually sitting on the ground. I've found that sports photos taken from low positions tend to give the best results.

Another aspect of composition is the viewing angle from which I took the pictures. Looking at the two photos above, you can see that I moved more toward the side of the event for the second photo. I like the perspective the second position gives the photo. I took a few other photos from behind the front edge of the mat as well.

1600 Meter Relay

The next event that provided a learning experience was the 1600 Meter Relay. Unlike the high jump, the location of the action is not known in advance, so the pre-focus technique will not work here. Using Back Button Focus, I was able to press the AF-ON button continuously during the photos below to ensure that the camera maintained a focus lock as the subject was moving.

1600 Meter RelayNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/3.2 - 1/1600 sec.
Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm

As with the High Jump photos, manual exposure worked best because of the potential for automatic exposure to be tricked by the wide amount of contrast in the scene.

1600 Meter Relay - Final LegNikon D700 - ISO 200 - f/3.2 - 1/2500 sec.
Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm

There was a fence around this portion of the track so I couldn't get low to the ground like I would have wanted. I did, however, vary my composition to create the image above. I always have to force myself to give the subject room in the composition. I tend to want to capture as much detail of the subject as possible, so that means I try to always zoom tight. A photo like the one above is more about telling a story than conveying detail. The empty space in front of the subject gives you an idea that she has a place to go - a path ahead.

Filed under: Photography, Tips

Photography Lessons from the Monster Truck Show

My family and I went to the annual Monster Truck Show in Sun Bowl Stadium. We've attended this event each year for as long as I can remember, but this is the first time I brought my camera to the show.

Monster Jam 2012

Equipment Choice

I decided to bring the Nikon D90 and 18-200 lens because I didn't want to lug the larger camera body and lens and I wasn't anticipating taking any photos that would be for anything other than personal use. This combination introduced a few challenges that I wouldn't have had if I had brought my better equipment.

Challenge #1 - Getting Proper Exposure

Monster Jam 2012The lighting conditions at the stadium were very complex. The range from dark to light was present in very close proximity. The trucks themselves had many black components as well as reflective surfaces that would become very bright at certain times. This type of scene can cause the camera's metering system to produce very inconsistent results. This problem is amplified if you shoot in spot metering mode because whatever you are focusing on will be metered and the rest of the scene be affected by that single point.

When I have found myself in this situation in the past, I would evaluate the lighting in the room by pointing the spot meter point at various light and dark spots and then choose a manual exposure setting that will work well under the conditions. Minor adjustments can be made from that base setting and I don't run the risk of a stage light catching the meter's attention and throwing everything to black.

In this case, however, I had the 18-200 lens, which is not constant aperture throughout the zoom range. This means as focal length was changed, aperture would also change, making it necessary to adjust exposure. It is possible to just set the aperture at f/5.6, which is the widest setting at the longest focal length, but that would have caused my photos taken at shorter focal lengths to not take advantage of the widest available aperture of f/3.5. In this dark setting, I needed all the light I could get.

Solution - AE Lock and Auto ISO

Monster Jam 2012I have my D90 configured so that the AE/AF Lock button acts like the AF-ON button on my D700. This means that pressing the shutter does not activate the auto-focus system. When the shutter is pressed half way, the exposure is locked based on the current scene and metering mode. In this case, I found that locking the exposure based on the dirt on the field gave good results.

Another challenge related to exposure is getting a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze a moving vehicle while still letting enough light in for proper exposure. On my camera, I have the option to allow the ISO to automatically increase in order to get a minimum specified shutter speed. This means that the camera will shoot at the configured ISO and only increase it if is necessary to get a shutter speed that I specified - up to a maximum ISO. The setting that I found worked well was a minimum shutter speed around 1/200 with a maximum ISO of 3200.

Professional photographers will cringe at suggestion of the use of Auto ISO - but this scenario is not about getting publication-quality photos - in this case, Auto ISO is a tool worth using.

Challenge #2 - Timing

This type of live event can have unexpected events. I hadn't fully considered this until I missed a few photo opportunities. I was focusing on catching the trucks as they jumped into the air, attempting to frame the trucks in a way that showed how high they were flying. Having attended these events for many years I should have already known that it's when the truck lands that can give the most spectacular scenes. I'm not sure why that didn't immediately click in my mind, but it became reality when I missed the first crash on landing - and it was the headliner truck.

Monster Jam 2012

Solution - Keep Shooting

After I realized this, I made an effort to photograph not only the jumps, but also the landings - and any potential impact with anything on the field. This resulted in many photos that were nothing special, but it was better to catch a few crash landings and have lots of images to delete than to miss all the crash landings.

Monster Jam 2012

Challenge #3 - Stationary Position

Because I attended the event as a spectator and not as a photographer, I had no ability to move around the venue to get different angles. This is quite limiting, but not a deal breaker.

Solution - Vary Composition

Although I couldn't vary my position, I had full control over composition. The 18-200 lens provides a very wide range of focal lengths. I also used different composition techniques to vary the placement of the primary subject and framing elements.

Challenge #4 - Composition

I took the opportunity of being limited in my position to work on my composition skills. Some of the techniques I used in conjunction with the rule of thirds were - "where is it going?" and "where did it come from?" - with these techniques, the primary subject is placed on one of the intersections of the rule of thirds lines with the path of motion in front of or behind the subject.

Another composition challenge was the relationship between foreground, middle-ground, and background. During the first portion of the show I found myself putting the subject near the bottom of the frame in an attempt to have the audience serve as the background. Later in the show, as the trucks jumped higher, I took a few shots with the subject near the top of the frame. I found that this gave much more dramatic impact in showing just how high the trucks were jumping.

Monster Jam 2012 Monster Jam 2012
 Poor Composition
Viewer has no idea how high the truck is
 Better Composition
Viewer can see the ground as reference point

Challenge #5 - White Balance

When I previewed some of the images on the camera's screen, I noticed that they looked pale and a bit blue - an obvious problem with the white balance chosen by the camera. Because I shoot in RAW mode, changing the white balance later is no problem at all.

When I processed the images in Capture NX 2 I adjusted the white balance until I found something that looked pleasing and as I remembered it. The setting was somewhere near daylight, but more on the cool side.

Once I found the right value, applying it to all the files was simple.

View the entire set on Flickr

Filed under: Tips