Having a great plan is a good place to start. Being able to improvise, however, is one of the most valuable skills to have or hone if you’re a photographer.

I love a grand plan. Working around the obstacles and the attention to details; it’s an exercise in answering the question of “what if.” My photo from New Year 2014 is a great example of how a well planned operation went wrong, desperation led to creative thinking, and an unusual opportunity was realized.

The Back Story

I usually spend New Year’s Eve gathering with friends or family to usher in the new year. On this particular year I found myself without an event or plan for the night. A long-time ritual in my home town of Seattle is the New Year’s fireworks display at the Space Needle starting at the stroke of midnight.

I’ve gone down to shoot the show only a few times over the years. I remember one time in the late 90’s where I spent hours preparing, setting up and waiting in a key location only to have low clouds and rain roll in at the last minute. The show was a complete washout, nothing but a highly diffused cloud with a pulsating light somewhere deep inside.

As this once a year event would rarely line up with an available evening, along with tolerable late December weather, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. Being a regular visitor to downtown I was very familiar with the Seattle Center, home of the 1962 World’s Fair and the icon of Seattle, the Space Needle.

A relatively recent addition to the former fair grounds is the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop) built a stones throw away from the base of the Needle. I was actually there for the ground breaking ceremony back in 1997 where they had a live band and a mosh pit. The museum building is like no other; designed by Frank O. Gehry, it was supposedly designed to look like a smashed guitar. It features strange shapes, a large variety of color, and it is said that you can’t find a straight line anywhere in the structure.

The building is an intriguing photographic subject on its own; a variety of lines, colors, shapes, and textures make it an ideal subject for abstracts. It’s proximity to the Space Needle provides an opportunity to combine two unique architectural structures in one shot. The west side of the museum is partially covered with a curved wall finished with reflective metal sheets coated with iridescent purple. When photographed against the sky it combines to form a beautiful collage of colors and tones.

The Grand Plan

As I was intimately familiar with the area I was sure a great shot could be made with the exploding fireworks off the top of the Needle reflected in the purple panels of the museum. While I had never shot the New Year’s Eve event from this exact location, the logistics all made sense to me. I knew what it would take to get the shot: the exact location of the tripod, the focal length of the lens and even where to park to avoid the large crowds that are always in attendance.

Photographing at large events with lots of people is something I’ve done quite a bit of over the years. I’ve developed a knack for avoiding the crush of the crowd yet still finding good angles for photos. A key element for getting this shot would be to arrive early. The place I wanted to set up was a concrete wall on the west side of the building, about 4 feet high. This would be an ideal location for my tripod, but it would also be a popular spot for everyone else. A half hour before midnight it was sure to be packed with families, teenagers, and party goers converging on every available viewpoint.

Time for the Show

The operation was in progress and everything was going according to plan. I had secured the ideal location, the tripod was set up and the camera and lens were set to my desired framing.  It was 30 minutes to midnight and crowds of people were still streaming onto the grounds looking for last minute viewing locations. My camera was set to Bulb for complete control of the exposure and I had shot a couple of test exposures to make sure everything was just right.

Seattle Space Needle at night on New Year's Eve
The test image for my originally planned location before I was nicely usher out by security guards. I was hoping for reflections of the fireworks on the purple wall (left side of image) once midnight hit.

As I sat there waiting I could see flashlights waving back and forth not far away. Next I heard boisterous vocal commands as a wide line of security guards came around the corner. With arms held out wide, they moved forward telling everyone in the area to move back. As they moved my direction it became clear that they were clearing everyone out of the area. Hundreds of people were backing up and walking away. When they got to me, I asked what was going on. A security guard said “We gotta clear everyone out of this area, it’s closed during the fireworks show.” I pleaded my case to no avail.

Walking away with my pack on my back and carrying my camera still mounted to the tripod I found myself in the middle of hundreds of people all looking for a new spot from which to see the fireworks. All my planning and hard work was thwarted by the arch nemesis of so many photographers – the security guard. This isn’t the first time that I’ve had to improvise after my plan fell apart (did you read about my Alaska trip?).

Endless Possibilities – none of them good

Now I found myself in quite a pickle. I needed to find not just a viewpoint, but a compelling photographic composition, just 25 minutes before the show. The grounds were filled with tens of thousands of people filling every imaginable space to stand, sit, lean or hang on to. I started walking away from the Needle; maybe there would be less people the further I went. No, there were people everywhere. Walking quickly around the area for 10 minutes only secured the fact that every good viewpoint was taken.

Finding a quality composition with 15 minutes to go, was looking less and less likely by the minute. While I hated the situation, I have to admit that I loved the challenge. I’ve been here many times before: failures most of the time, but a success would feel so good. So of course, I continued the search.

I ended up near the MoPop museum, but further away in the parking lot. As I stood there pondering the options the doors to the museum opened up and people from the event inside started streaming out to see the imminent firework show. Great, more people! As they filled the area I backed up further, in the process having to weave through a metallic structure designed to look like a tall line of grass. The art sculpture, known as “Grass Blades,” forms a partial wall on one side of the parking lot.

As I made my way onto the back side of the sculpture I found myself all alone. It was a poor viewing location to watch the fireworks because the tall metal posts obscured the Needle and likely a large portion of the show. Another 50 feet back where you could see over the top of the art work people were sitting on the hoods and tailgates of their vehicles.

The Secret Location

Here in the “shadow” of the tall metal grass I had stumbled across a “dead zone” where nobody wanted to be. Looking up at the Space Needle with only 10 minutes before the show I saw that the metallic blades of grass framed the Needle quite nicely. While this was a terrible location from which to view the show, it looked pretty good through the viewfinder. My eyes widened and I cracked a small smile – I had found a secret location, right in the middle of a huge crowd. Anyone who’s seen It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and the discovery of the big W will know what I was feeling.

Moving around in my private “dead zone” I was free to choose any framing that I wanted. Working around different compositions, I switched to a fisheye and then went back to my original lens – a 24mm f/1.4. My chosen, final composition was with the Space Needle slightly hidden between the tall metal blades. I hoped that the opening would be big enough to get something interesting.

Let the Show Begin

On the first burst of fireworks I was a bit late on the trigger and most of the fireworks were obscured by the metal blades of grass. For this location I learned that I would need to be quicker so that the fireworks were closer in to the Space Needle.

In the wake of the first round of fireworks, a haze of smoke now filled the night sky. From past experience I know that fireworks shows get increasingly difficult to photograph due to smoke obscuring the action. If you can’t get something good in the first couple of bursts, you’re in for a tough night.

The second round of fireworks shot out in a burst of red. The thick smoke reflected the fireworks and it turned to a blood red sky. Quicker on the trigger this second time around, I stopped the shutter before the streaks of red disappeared behind my window on the Needle.

A keeper!

Seattle Space Needle on New Year's Eve with fireworks
The top shot of the night; a brief moment in time before the Needle was obscured with smoke. A great example of how a less-than-ideal viewpoint made for a great photographic point of view.

Just as quickly as it got good, it deteriorated. Smoke continued to fill the sky, but now it was so thick you could barely make out the outline of the Needle. I moved around a bit to try and find a solution but couldn’t find one. As the show continued, fireworks burst in an un-photogenic manor and I ended up only shooting 14 images before it wasn’t even worth the effort to press the shutter release.

One keeper is alright with me. It’s a whole lot better than what seemed my destiny for an agonizing half-hour. Like I’ve said many times before, at any point in time you may be only 5 minutes away from a great shot. If you have optimism, determination, and creativity, the world can provide you with more than you ever expected.


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