The Most Stunning Photos of Fireworks Don’t Have a Lick of Color
By Laura Mallonee
Every photo of fireworks looks pretty much the same—a burst of color against a dark sky. There’s nothing at all original about it. That’s what Damion Berger thought, too.
Still, that didn’t keep him from grabbing his camera to photograph the display that followed Sting’s concert in Monaco in 2008. Berger figured it would be a throwaway pic, but when he saw the negatives, inspiration struck. “Black and white generally casts a nostalgic tone, but in the negative it’s electric, vibrant, modern and unfamiliar,” he says.
Suddenly, a tired genre was new again. Berger has photographed dozens of fireworks shows from San Francisco to Paris to Dubai for his ongoing series Black Powder. He favors shows set against unique historic or architectural settings, like the Brooklyn Bridge or London Eye, and uses Apple Maps and Google Earth to find the ideal vantage point. He’s got a knack for sweet-talking people, and gets into places you never would. He called the Gritti Palace hotel in Venice just hours before a show and talked the manager into letting him shoot from the balcony of the famous Hemingway Suite—which goes for $20,000 a night. And he somehow managed to get onto the roof of Westminster Abbey on New Year’s Eve, but won’t say how he pulled that one off.
He likes to arrive several hours early to set up his gear, securing his tripod with weights and using a level to ensure his Arca-Swiss 4×5 camera is plumb. Berger only takes one or two shots, making multiple exposures on each. For the first photo, he starts with a long exposure before the show to ensure buildings and trees and other parts of the scene are dark enough to balance the flashes of fireworks. Then he makes several exposures during the display. For the second photo, Berger makes multiple exposures during the middle of the show, then follows it with a long exposure 30 minutes after the sky clears. In each case, he’s never sure just what the image will look like. “Each attempt to take a photograph is essentially a brand new experiment,” he says.
Back home, Berger develops the negatives, scans them, then meticulously adjusts the tones in Photoshop. The final result looks nothing at all like the shots you’ll see on Instagram this weekend. They look utterly original.