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Fireworks Photography in 5 Easy Steps

By Adam Fernandez
June 13, 2008
NYC 4th of July fireworks
Dreamstime
Everyone loves fireworks and everyone can learn to snap photographs that better capture their beauty.

Support: Be a rock (or find one)
Keeping steady is key. When pointed at nighttime fireworks, your camera will naturally reduce the shutter speed in an attempt to capture the bright bursts of light and the explosive movement. The consequence: If your hands shake even a little, you risk a photo that's a blurry mess. And once a firework is gone, it's not coming back. To steady yourself, find something stable on which to rest your camera—a fence or a rock ledge, for example—that will help reduce any movement. Better yet, spring for a small piece of equipment that will yield more predictable results.

You don't have to buy an expensive, bulky product. For about $10, you can get a pocket size "bottle top" tripod sturdy enough for a point-and-shoot camera from Amazon.com. Also consider the cute and flexible Gorillapod, whose twistable legs wrap around poles, branches, or railings (joby.com, $25). For a bigger camera, like a single lens reflex (SLR), you'll need the enhanced stability of a tabletop or full-size tripod. If you've never used one, don't be intimidated; when you're shooting fireworks, a good tripod will make the difference between a poor photo and the sharp, vivid one you're after.

Location: Serendipity happens
Before you start photographing, find your spot, ideally a space where your view is unobstructed. If there is a hill or any high ground, use it to improve your vantage point. When you shoot, as a rule of thumb, at least two-thirds to three-quarters of the frame should be filled with the sky. If you're near water, try including it in your composition, as the water will nicely reflect the color and intensity of the fireworks. (See photo example)

Other compositional techniques: Use trees or buildings to frame the image and give it more depth, or incorporate people near the bottom of the frame to create interesting silhouettes. And, of course, serendipity can work magic you never planned for, so take lots of pictures and don't be afraid to experiment.

A last bit of advice: If it's windy, try to position yourself upwind of the fireworks. Otherwise, the smoke could waft across your view and make taking the picture difficult.

Lens: Wider is better
A 50mm lens provides roughly the same field of view as the human eye, but a wide-angle lens works better for fireworks photography. If you can get your hands on a 20mm to 35mm lens, for example, you will increase your field of view—the amount of sky you see through your lens—and have better luck capturing the full effect of the fireworks. A lens that's too long (80mm to 200mm), on the other hand, will almost certainly yield photos that cut out some of the action you want to reproduce. If you are using a point-and-shoot with a built-in zoom lens, be sure to zoom all the way out, which will give you the widest possible lens setting.

Settings: Take it slow
If you're shooting digital, set your camera's film speed to ASA 100. If you're shooting film, purchase an ASA 100 roll with 36 exposures. It's a slow film speed, so the color saturation will be high, and what professionals call the "grain" (the visible particles that make a photo look fuzzy) will be low—good for fireworks photos. If you use a higher ASA, such as 400 or 800, you will increase the graininess of the film (or the digital noise in a digital file). This is distracting and decreases the clarity of the image.

Be sure to turn off your flash; the burst of bright light from the bulb will overwhelm the fireworks. If you have an automatic camera, try shooting images in both daylight and nighttime modes—and check your results as you go to see which setting yields the best results.

Timing: It's everything
Fireworks move fast. One timing strategy is to push the shutter button while the firework is still rising in the sky. The shutter will stay open longer due to the low light, so the camera should have time to capture the last moments of the firework's trail and the subsequent explosion. If your camera will take multiple images or "bursts," you may also want to try that approach. It'll increase your chances of getting the shot just right.

If you're worried about a shaking hand, use your camera's self-timer, ideally along with a tripod. You won't have to touch the camera at the moment the shot is taken. Your camera may have two time-delay settings for the self-timer, usually 2 or 10 seconds. If your camera allows for it, set it to the shorter time delay.

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Travel Tips

The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel

1. House-Sitting Take up residence in someone else's home Instead of waiting for your rich aunt in the Hamptons to go away and ask you to watch over her place, look into a service that lists house-sitting opportunities. If things work out, you might be chilling out at a Caribbean villa or caring for cats and hens in an adorable French farmhouse. Since retiring as a university administrator 10 years ago, Grant Thomas of Edmond, Okla., has kept an eye on houses (and pets) in Seattle, Santa Fe, and San Rafael, Calif. "House-sitting has opened up new worlds to me," he says. "I get to know a place much more in-depth, and my experiences have given me a new circle of human, canine, and feline friends across the country." Before signing on for any assignment, ask questions. Namely, who pays the bills? Many homeowners state upfront that house sitters pay for utilities, at the least. If there are pets, find out how many and what their special needs are. If there's a garden, ask how big it is and how much attention it requires. At some point, the work may make the "free" lodging not worth the trouble. Also, ask the owner for the names and contacts of previous house sitters, and grill them about the experience. Where do you find these gigs? Caretaker.org posts more than 1,000 house-sitting openings per year, most of which are in the U.S. ($30 per year to see online listings). At last check, housecarers.com listed 298 opportunities, including 117 in Australia ($45). There's also housesitworld.com, where homeowners can search for registered sitters with availability and skills that match their needs ($40). And sabbaticalhomes.com is a site where the houses are all left behind by academics on teaching assignments (free for house sitters, from $35 to post a home online). —Sophie Alexander 2. Hiking Trail Volunteers Get fresh air without paying for it Most volunteer vacations charge participants for the chance to do grunt work without pay. A few regional trail associations, however, gladly welcome anyone willing to work on hiking paths and don't ask for a dime. As thanks for volunteers' hours of sweat spent clearing debris, building rock steps, or reconfiguring switchbacks, the associations provide free campsites at a minimum. Cabins, bedding, food, and transportation are sometimes included, too. The Continental Divide Trail Alliance runs two-to-seven-day trips with catered meals at A-list national parks such as Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Glacier (303/838-3760, cdtrail.org). The group's goal is to complete the trail it's named for, which is about two thirds of the way done. Some programs run by the Pacific Northwest Trail Association—which focuses on a path leading from Washington's Olympic Mountains into Montana—are free (877/854-9415, pnt.org). From Maine to Georgia, volunteers can join one- or two-week trips organized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (304/535-6331, appalachiantrail.org). At some locales, workers sleep in cabins with cots and electricity. —Nick Mosquera 3. Sister City Exchanges Spend time with family you never knew you had With a primary goal of promoting cultural understanding, Sister Cities International is a nonprofit network that partners hundreds of U.S. cities with international "sister" cities that have similar climates, industries, or populations (sister-cities.org). The local governments of sister cities might exchange ideas about health care, traffic circles, or playgrounds. There are also opportunities for residents to visit sister cities—sometimes totally on your hometown's dime. Every year, several Tempe, Ariz., high school students are selected to go on five-week trips to sister cities (towns can have more than one) such as Lower Hutt, New Zealand; Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France; and Zhenjiang, China. All expenses are paid, including airfare. "Within a few hours of arriving in Ireland, I felt completely at home," says Sara Bernal, a Tempe high school senior who went to Carlow, another sister city, last year. "I'd give anything to have another experience like it." Sister city visits aren't just for high school kids. Every year hundreds of groups from U.S. towns head overseas to foster bonds with international "family." Participants are expected to be active in sister city projects and host counterparts when they come to town. Travelers should expect to run fund-raisers for trips—most cities don't foot the bill, at least not entirely—though room and board are usually covered by local hosts. —Laura MacNeil 4. Workampers Use your RV to get from one job to the next Millions of RV owners are on the move year-round, and an estimated 750,000 of them couple their travels with short-term work. The wages are enough to get by (typically $8-$12 per hour), and gigs sometimes come with free places to park, including free electric hookup and other perks. The folks on the move are called workampers, and may find themselves checking in guests and overseeing ice cream socials at KOA campgrounds, or dressing up as Donald Duck at Walt Disney World. At last check, more than 700 employers posted summer jobs aimed at RVers at workamper.com, the online home of Workamper News, which has been around since 1987. Jobs tend to be at state and national parks, seasonal vacation spots, and big events such as the Indianapolis 500. Most workampers spend fewer than 20 hours per week on the job, so there's plenty of opportunity to relax and explore. —Lisa Rose 5. Driveaways Go on a road trip in someone else's car Don Jankiewicz, a 34-year-old actor in Los Angeles, has hopped behind the wheel of around 50 cars, none of which were his. He's neither a valet nor a thief. Ever since reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road in college, Jankiewicz has volunteered for driveaway duty whenever he could. A driveaway situation arises when a car owner needs his vehicle moved to a new location and either can't or doesn't want to do the driving. Rather than pay to ship the car, the owner signs his ride up for a driveaway program—essentially giving a free car rental to a volunteer. "You encounter places you never knew existed, and meet people with the most interesting stories," says Jankiewicz. "It's cheaper than any other kind of travel. No one believes this even exists anymore." Drivers usually need only to fill out an application form and present a valid driver's license and references, though some situations require that you be fingerprinted or submit a driving history (available through your DMV). For insurance reasons, drivers probably need to be at least 23. Once approved, you're handed the car keys and given a free first tank of gas. All other expenses, including gas and lodging, are yours. With 43 U.S. locations, Auto Driveaway is the country's biggest player, listing about 150 opportunities per month (800/346-2277, autodriveaway.com, $350 deposit). Some offices will even take requests for specific routes and call you if there's a car that's a match. Start inquiring a month in advance of when you'd like to hit the road, and continue checking in. Don't expect to have a completely unrestricted, carefree joyride, however. There are limits on mileage (point-to-point road distance plus 15-25 percent extra), driving time (with Auto Driveaway you're not supposed to be on the road between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.), and trip duration (negotiated, but most people must average at least 400 miles per day). A driver on a typical 3,000-mile cross-country road trip is given seven to ten days to complete the journey, with a maximum of 3,500 miles logged on the odometer. To eliminate headaches and maximize the opportunity for fun, Jankiewicz carefully maps out his routes ahead of time, checking the Internet for construction delays and weather forecasts. —Michele Schwartz 6. Hospitality Exchanges Crash on couches and make friends along the way To most people, the idea is crazy: heading to a stranger's house to sleep on the couch or in a spare room. Perhaps even loonier: welcoming someone you've never met into your house. But thousands of people take part in hospitality exchanges, as such visits are known. Konstantinos Chalvatzis, a 25-year-old teaching assistant who lives just outside Athens, Greece, joined hospitality club Couchsurfing.com last March; the online community knows him as "Promitheus." Since then, he has welcomed about 40 strangers into his apartment, and stayed on the couches of more than 60 club members. "When people stay with me, they get a real sense of what living in Athens is like," he says. "If I have time I'll show them the big monuments, as well as residential areas, taverns, and underground art galleries." Participants come in all ages, colors, and cultures, though they tend to be male, English-speaking, and in their 20s and 30s, and hail from America, Germany, Australia, and Canada. The upside is not only free lodging but the chance to meet people who tend to be open-minded, curious, and generous. But it's not the equivalent of a free hotel, says Bryan McDonald ("Duke"), a 28-year-old musician born in Mexico who now calls Amsterdam home. "The best thing a Couchsurfer can do is spend time with his host," he says. "I've had guests cook their favorite food, or make something special from their country for me. These little things mean a lot to hosts." There are three major players in hospitality exchanges, none of which charge a membership fee. HospitalityClub.org debuted in 2000, and currently has more than 328,500 members. It features the most comprehensive security procedures; before being accepted as guests, travelers must provide full names and passport numbers. Globalfreeloaders.com, with nearly 62,000 members, pushes the idea of hosting as much as freeloading, advising members not to accept a free stay unless they can host within six months. Couchsurfing, in business since 2004 and home to 754,146 members in 229 countries, has the most technically advanced search ability. Travelers can view every possible open couch in a specified radius, rather than only by city or country, which is how the other two work. For all three clubs, hosts and couch crashers are paired up based on profiles that include languages spoken, location, and interests (from Björk to Frisbee and beyond). Many members clarify what's not acceptable—"no drugs" is a common refrain. Though safety can't be guaranteed, members post messages about how visits went. A recent note on Couchsurfing, from a Californian about an Austrian host: "Joe was my 'host with the most' in Vienna. He likes to cook for guests and even has ketchup for Americans!" —Chelan David 7. Volunteer Farm Workers Trade a day in the fields for room and board For a month in 2003, Gungsadawn Kitatikarn, of New York City, harvested kale, lettuce, carrots, strawberries, and fava beans in exchange for food and lodging at a Portuguese farm named Belgais. She worked 9 to 5 most days, with an hour lunch break that usually wound up being a communal buffet for two dozen people, and stayed in a furnished bungalow with hot showers a short walk from the main farmhouse. Someone from the ranch drove her into the nearby town of Castelo Branco when it was time for a break. "The people were lovely and respectful, and the ranch was breathtaking," she recalls. "Since I was out in the middle of nowhere in Portugal it was sometimes too quiet for a city gal. But I became comfortable with the silence, and thoroughly enjoyed it." Belgais is one of more than 4,500 organic farms around the world that provide free food and lodging for guests willing to weed, plant seeds, plow fields, dig trenches, and harvest crops. Nonprofit organization World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms compiles a country-by-country list of participating farms (wwoof.org). Once you pay an annual membership fee, you receive either Internet access or a mailed booklet with contact information for farms in the regions you've selected (fee varies by country; in the U.S., it's $20 for one person, or $30 for a dual membership). You then get in touch with the farm directly to negotiate how long you'll stay, what kind of work you'll do, where you'll sleep, and how much you'll be required to work. Each farm is different, but the standard for volunteers is six hours of work per day, six days per week. That doesn't leave all that much free time, but for many people, working the land in a beautiful, simple setting makes for a nice, healthy respite from their hectic lives. —Laura MacNeil 8. Rotary Club Trips Network your way to somewhere exciting Most people are vaguely aware of the Rotary Club as something local businessmen join so they can trade business cards over lunch. The truth is, the organization is huge and international, with more than 1.2 million members and 33,000 clubs in 200 countries (rotary.org). Rotary International also sponsors travelers on special trips abroad, and there are a few ways even nonmembers can take advantage of the programs. The Group Study Exchange sends groups of four business or professional people—anyone from architects to police officers—to learn about their respective professions in Mexico, Thailand, and dozens of other destinations. Rotary International pays for transportation, including airfare, and local hosts provide meals and accommodations. Applicants are required to have at least two years of experience in their field and, since the idea is to foster future business leaders, be between 25 and 40 years old. Another possibility comes in the form of Rotary clubs that pay for visitors to come into their communities as volunteer consultants of sorts. According to Rotary International, host cities look for people with "a proven level of professional or technical skills," and, depending on the situation, restaurant owners, plumbers, computer programmers, teachers, and business managers may fit the bill. An online database allows you to search the options. Finally, Rotary clubs organize some 8,000 youth exchanges per year, in which students 15 and up are hosted overseas in private homes and camps for stints of few days to several months. Room and board are covered, though airfare is not. Don't expect to jump on any Rotary-sponsored vacation right away, however. Competition for program openings is stiff, and involves a lengthy application process that can take up to a year. —Laura MacNeil 9. Home Swapping Exchange houses and live like a local The concept of home swapping is as simple as it sounds. You trade your pad for someone else's, and everyone gets a free place to stay. "If you have a sense of humor and go with the flow, home exchange will work for you," says T.T. Baker, co-author of The Home Exchange Guide, who has swapped homes five times. "If you have a narrow comfort zone, stay in a hotel." Checking references, talking over the phone with your counterpart, and having contracts clearly spelled out—especially when it comes to bills and damages—alleviate the anxiety. The right situation may require months of planning and a dose of luck. It certainly makes things easier if you live in Miami Beach, or some other spot popular with travelers. Home exchange services charge $35-$110 per year, and by joining more than one club you obviously increase your chances. Reputable companies with listings worldwide include: digsville.com; gti-home-exchange.com; homeexchange.com; intervacus.com; ihen.com; and swapnow.com. —Sophie Alexander Here's to the kindness of strangers After joining one of these clubs, you'll stay for a few dollars or free at members' homes. Most clubs also expect members to host travelers. —Lee Uehara   Educators 800/956-4822, educatorstravel.com, $36 annual fee   Gays and Lesbians 011-49/30-691-9537, lghei.org, $40 annual fee   Mensa Members 800/666-3672, us.mensa.org, $52 annual fee (plus $40 for intelligence test)   Motorcyclists 877/408-0471, motorcycle-travel.net, $30 annual fee   People Over 50 815/456-3111, evergreenclub.com, $60/single, $75/couple annual fee   Tandem Bicyclists tandemclub.org, $15 annual fee   Women 011-44/1494-465-441, womenwelcomewomen.org.uk, $67 annual fee

Travel Tips

David Neeleman

Window or aisle? Jumpseat. When I'm flying on planes I like to hang out in the back with the flight crew and help serve the customers. Some days I'd rather sit and watch TV, but I learn a lot from hanging out with our customers and crew. I think it's time well spent. The last thing I ate from a minibar? I'm a budget traveler. I'm too cheap to buy anything from a minibar. I won't pay two bucks for a candy bar. I won't leave home without... My Blackberry charger and a calculator watch. The charger because if I run out of juice I can stay connected and my watch because I'm always thinking about new deals so I've got to have it to run the numbers. The best trip I've ever taken? And why? Paraty, Brazil. It's an over 400-year-old town with a bunch of little islands off the coast. I was there with my family and on the way home we stopped at the Embraer factory and looked at our new planes being built. It was a great trip. My dream trip? I've been trying to get my wife and family to go to Rome. I'm a Christian history guy so I'm interested in visiting the museums there. The movie or book that inspired me to pack my bags? Southwest Airlines annual report. My greatest travel pet peeve? No TV's on airplanes that aren't mine. It's just boring. There's got to be something in the seatback that entertains people, not some three-month-old movie that's ten or twelve rows away. How I deal with jetlag? I don't really get jetlag. When I get to the place that I'm going to, I never sleep out of rhythm. If I've been up all night and I get to my destination at ten in the morning, I don't go to bed. I wait until it's the hour to go to sleep, and even if I go to bed early, like eight or nine o'clock, I just fight through it. Don't ever arrive at noon, go to sleep and wake up at five in the afternoon--you'll never get over it. You'll be up all night and the cycle will continue. If I could travel with any living person... My father. He's getting along in his years and we've got precious time over the next ten or fifteen years. I'd like to spend as much time as I can with him. He travels a lot and knows the world, like every great restaurant to go to. He's a blast to travel with. I'll never go back to _________And why? I'm not a very picky traveler. I'm not someone who needs to stay in the best hotels. Every place I go I find interesting. I can't think of anyplace that I've been that I wouldn't go back to. India's an interesting place. I've never been there, but my dad claims that his best two days in India was the day he visited the Taj Mahal and the day he left for home. If I could be anywhere right now... I wouldn't want to be anywhere but where I am now.

Travel Tips

Flying Business Class Overseas

Last fall, two new airlines began flying New York-London routes, with not a coach seat between them. In planes that normally accommodate 200, MAXjet and Eos placed 102 and 48 seats respectively. All passengers fly in business class, with no middle seats and more space than coach, including nearly double the legroom. On Eos, seats even recline into totally flat beds. To make a splash, they undercut the competition. MAXjet's one-way fare currently starts at $679, about the same as what British Airways, United, and American charge for a walk-up coach fare. In January, MAXjet even ran a $999 sale for round trips. On Eos, where seats are two inches wider than MAXjet's, flights normally cost $3,250 each way--still more than $1,000 less than the average New York-London business-class seat. Eos and MAXjet's routes are limited. They fly between JFK and London Stansted, which both happen to be hubs for popular low-fare carriers--JetBlue at JFK, EasyJet and Ryanair at Stansted. Both carriers plan on expanding; MAXjet begins flights to Stansted from Washington-Dulles this month. The upscale upstarts represent only one way for folks to fly in business- or first-class without paying full price. Starting at $25 a month--or $197 a year--First Class Flyer sends subscribers a monthly e-mail newsletter of upgrade strategies and deals on upper-class tickets that airlines don't publicize (888/980-9922, firstclassflyer.com). Last December's issue highlighted a business-class special on Iberia: $2,200 for round trips to Madrid from Chicago, Miami, or New York--about half what you'd tend to pay to make the trip from Chicago. There are also agencies that have contracts with dozens of airlines (particularly foreign carriers) and specialize in discounting upper-class seats. By booking through AccessFares (888/318-4287, accessfares.com) or 1st-Air.Net (585/383-4470, 1st-air.net), you'll save at least 20 percent, and sometimes as much as 50 percent. Recent searches at 1st-Air.Net turned up a business-class round trip from Boston to Tokyo on Korean Air for $5,370 (the published fare was $7,850); as well as Los Angeles-Tahiti round trips on Air Tahiti Nui for $2,890 in business class and $5,195 in first class (published fares: $3,595 and $8,095 respectively). Discounted or not, a first- or business-class seat still costs a big chunk of cash. To be sure you're getting the most for your money, request quotes from travel agents and tour operators that specialize in your destination. NTA America, for example, has access to discounted business-class fares to Japan (800/682-7872, japanvacation.net). Finally, don't overlook the tried-and-true method of using frequent-flier miles for free upgrades. Many airlines will bump you up in exchange for as little as 15,000 miles. Subscribe to your carrier's e-mail list to receive notices about specials.

Travel Tips

Picking the Right Spanish Parador

As the renovation project continues, it may be difficult to discern which paradores underwent a carefully considered redesign, and which merely got new curtains and carpeting. How do you find the gems? Do your homework online At parador.es, the official site, search by style (monastery, castle, historical site) and/or services (pool, playground, tennis). "Modern" style means the building isn't old--therefore, no palaces or castles. To find a recently renovated centuries-old building, cross-search something like "convent" with a modern amenity, such as a pool. Each property has a gallery of photos. Skip them at your peril. Go to the source "Contact the paradores' main office and ask when the hotel was redesigned," says designer Pascua Ortega. Make inquiries with the reservation center, either by e-mail (reservas@parador.es) or phone (011-34/91-516-6666). Play favorites Designer Jaime Beriestain also renovated the Parador de la Seu d'Urgell, and Ortega had a hand in the more modern ski chalet Parador de Vielha. (Both are in the Pyrenees.) Call in help Marketing Ahead, the U.S. marketing firm that works with the parador system, can make your reservations and plan itineraries for no additional fee (marketingahead.com, 800/223-1356). Shop for discounts Many paradores have rates as low as $109. (The ones in this story start at $133.) You can do even better. At parador.es, click on Special Promotions for discounts such as the five-night card: You pay $515 for five nights at any of the 89 participating hotels, whether it's a five-night stay at one parador or consecutive one-night stays at five different ones.

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