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Photographing Fourth Of July Festivities

Making the most of this fun and colorful summer photo opportunity

The Fourth of July is a great American holiday. Across the country, people from all walks of life are getting together with family and friends to celebrate the birth of our nation and the height of summer fun. From picnic parties to family gatherings, Fourth of July festivities bring people together for outdoor celebrations, making them a great opportunity to take great photos. That could be a family portrait at the beach, kids watching fireworks or even food photography of the picnic spread in the park. Here are five ideas for photographing Fourth of July celebrations.

Portraits And Family Photos

When you’ve got the gang together, it’s an ideal opportunity for photographing Fourth of July gatherings, either separately or together. Outdoor environments tend to make for attractive portraits. Think of all the great senior portraits you’ve seen in a park or by the beach, using natural trees, flowers and foliage as a background. So whether you want to photograph individual portraits or family groups, Fourth of July gatherings are a great opportunity to do so. If you’ve got big bright summer blooms in your yard, these can be great to add color and creativity to an outdoor portrait session or simply the greenery of summer makes for an inviting organic background.

If you’ve gathered the whole family and want to make a group photo, take the time to position people using the triangle posing method—forming three people at a time into different head heights to keep from making a stiff, stagnant lineup. (As long as you position heads into rough approximations of triangles, you can keep building so that even the largest group photos will still look appealing. Helpful for group shots are blankets for those sitting on the ground, as well as stools, chairs or other natural structures (like trees and low walls) that allow people to sit, stand, squat and kneel in order to break up an otherwise stagnant lineup.

Wherever you put your people and however many you’re posing, pay great attention to the light. If you can get them into open shade—on the shadowed side of a building or under tall trees, for instance—you’ll have a much more attractive soft light on their faces. If you’re lucky enough to have a lightly overcast day, the clouds in the sky will turn the otherwise harsh sun into soft, diffuse lighting. But if you’re forced to deal with bright sunlight in a large open space, try to position everyone so that the sun is at their back and their faces are in shadow, then use a reflector or flash to illuminate their faces. This will help to keep them from squinting at the sun and will also keep the harsh shadows off of their faces.

Photographing Fourth Of July Flags And Festivities

When photographing children, Fourth of July’s patriotic themes and decorations make for ideal setups and backgrounds. Sure you can simply use a large flag as a backdrop, but you can also use small flags for kids to hold and interact with, as well as red, white and blue fabrics, decorations and other elements such as ribbons and balloons to add to the Independence Day theme. Any patriotic decor can add to the spirit of holiday fun when photographing kids, and there’s something inherently summery and all-American about such patriotic-themed photographs. Because they’re tied to the holiday, they become great keepsake reminders of a specific time and place.

Photographing Fourth Of July Food

Food Photography

Photographing Fourth of July parties lends itself to another great opportunity since they often feature a meal. So if your host has really gone all out—or if you’ll be doing the cooking and party prep yourself—here’s your chance to stylize a wonderful themed summer spread that not only tastes great but looks great too. Between patriotic-themed place settings and décor to beautiful grilled foods and picnic setups, this midsummer party is a perfect opportunity to make beautiful food photographs to add to your portfolio. Because of the inherently outdoor nature of the festivities, you’ve likely got beautiful natural light in which to work. If you can make that light directional—either by photographing near an opening under an awning, porch or gazebo—you’ll be very happy with the results. Even overhead soft light works well, though it may lack some of the drama of strongly directional light.

If the light is too harsh, consider using a large pop-up diffuser to create soft illumination of the tabletop, and if you’ll be working indoors, simply place your setup near a north-facing window to capture nice directional soft light. A bit of frontal fill from a bounce card or strategically placed silver reflectors goes a long way to taming extreme contrast in this kind of lighting. When in doubt, try a composition that makes use of party decor—be it a red-checkered tablecloth or patriotic-themed accessories—to add a hint of Fourth of July-specific interest to the arrangement. A floral centerpiece in a red, white and blue vase, for instance, offers a composition that’s about as colorful as it gets. When in doubt, try photographing the food cooking on the grill. If you’re building a food photography portfolio, this unique opportunity adds a distinct counterpoint to traditional interior tabletop setups.

Photographing Fourth Of July Decorations

Fun And Games

What’s the most fun about the Fourth of July festivities? For kids of all ages, it’s games and fun activities. Whether your friends are playing catch in the park, riding bikes down the block or simply twirling sparklers and glow sticks as the sun sets, these simple activities are emblematic of a great summer gathering. Plus the active nature of these festivities gives your subjects something to do so you can better capture moments and interactions and the candid nature of fun—a great counterpoint to the posed portraits discussed above. When in doubt, grab a medium telephoto lens such as an 85mm or 100mm and set the ISO very low and the aperture close to wide open (so you’ll have a very fast shutter speed that freezes the action). Then you can make great close-ups of smiling faces as your friends and family have fun in the summer sun, whether they’re throwing the Frisbee in the yard or playing board games on the porch.

At Dusk And After Dark

As the sun sets on our Fourth of July, the festivities aren’t ready to end. As everyone knows, fireworks are the culmination of the Independence Day celebration. Photographing Fourth of July fireworks is a great way to cap your day. For large-scale fireworks displays, start with a tripod and remote release, then dial in a long shutter speed of a couple of seconds or more to ensure you’ll get the colorful motion blurs that make fireworks photography iconic. You’ll want to do some test shots before the light fades completely in order to ensure a good composition that includes some grounding elements of the landscape nearby, whether that’s a city skyline or surrounding people and trees in a park-like setting. It’s the context of the earthbound elements that really adds to the interest in fireworks photography. If you can get a water element in the foreground to reflect the colorful explosions, even better! Just be sure to come prepared and work quickly to dial in the exposures as the show gets started. And if you’re not seeing an official fireworks show, fear not! You can make use of the magic hour and the smaller-scale fireworks that are so often a staple of Fourth of July parties. Sparklers, in particular, offer a great subject for light painting after dark or for balancing with beautiful dusk light where the sparkler itself becomes the key light in the scene! The darker the ambience the less of the scene you’ll see, so try to shoot these shots before the last of the sunlight fades from the sky.

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