The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
While the Smithsonian Institution is perhaps better known for its museums that pepper the landscape of the National Mall in Washington DC, its devotion to scientific research easily matches its dedication to collecting, preserving, and displaying artifacts of cultural and historical importance. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) started off as a small field station on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal Zone in 1923 and flourished, becoming one of the world’s preeminent scientific facilities committed to understanding biological diversity.
Carl Hansen—a photographer for, and later the director of Smithsonian Photographic Services—worked at STRI between 1985 and 1992, documenting the work of Smithsonian scientists. During those seven years, he captured roughly ten thousand images that are as varied as the work and specimens he documented. These photographs include breathtaking aerial views, vibrant underwater shots, intimate portraits of flora and fauna, and documentary accounts of the education and conservation work that takes place on Barro Colorado Island.
This compelling body of work is a rich and valuable resource, made easily penetrable due to the detailed descriptions Carl recorded for each image. At the Archives, we are currently working to catalog and make available this substantial contribution to scientific endeavor. For now, please enjoy this slideshow, which was selected to illustrate the breadth of this exquisite and instructive group of images.
It was July 1880 in Washington, DC and Smithsonian Secretary, Spencer Baird, had fled the city with his family for cool ocean breezes and to study the fishing grounds off the New England coast at Woods Hole on Cape Cod. For those left behind minding the Smithsonian Castle, it was probably hot, humid, and hellish in town and they were in need of relief. Luckily, the proprietors of some recently discovered caves had extended an invitation to the Smithsonian for a tour. So, at 8:35 on Monday morning, July 12, 1880, a party of researchers and staffers set out to Luray, Virginia.
According to the 1880 Annual Report, the party consisted of William J. Rhees, chief clerk; Daniel Leech, corresponding clerk; Dr. Charles A. White, archaeologist; Prof. Otis T. Mason, ethnologist; Prof. Frederick W. Taylor, chemist; Dr. Elmer R. Reynolds, ethnologist; Thomas W. Smillie, photographer; and Prof. James H. Gore, civil engineer. They travelled west past to Winchester, Virginia and, “after having selected quarters for the night,” attempted to explore the “Endless Caverns” four miles south, but were turned away by the proprietor. How disappointing. Nevertheless, Mr. Smillie managed to “secure some very fine negatives of the valley scenery.”
“After a night of refreshing sleep” they enjoyed a, “most romantic ride over the Massanutton Mountain to Luray” taking in the scenic beauty of the valley along the way. Once in Luray, they selected lodgings, “ate a sumptuous dinner,” donned old clothes and set out on their ride to the caverns. Upon arrival, they were met by their guide B. P. Stebbins (co-discoverer of the caverns) and outfitted with tin candle frames to light their way and coats to help them “sustain the shock of a sudden change in temperature from 96 to 56 [degrees F]. “
The account in the 1880 Annual Report is more a romantic travelogue than a dry recitation of scientific facts. For example, “[t]here is nothing more beautiful in the cave these, scarves, shawls, lambrequins—what shall we call them—of translucent calcite, … falling in graceful folds, fringed with a thousand patterns, and so thin that a candle behind one of them reveals all the structure within.”
A clip from the Smithsonian Annual Report, 1880, Click to read more on Google Books.
The Smithsonian visitors made allusions to the need for further scientific study, noting (with no further elaboration) in their report that “a peculiar combination of circumstances precluded a more scientific examination of the Luray Cavern.” It is clear, however, that the party were there as tourists (it’s how they describe themselves), who enjoyed the many courtesies extended to them by the cavern’s proprietors, “the citizens of Luray, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company.” But it left me wondering….what, if anything, came of this junket?
Well, Mr. Stebbins received several photographs of the caverns made by Mr. Smillie and eventually the Smithsonian received a 1,000-pound stalagmite for the collection (catalogue # 116663 69: currently on display at the National Museum of Natural History). Also, the Henry-Baird Column was named in honor of the first two Secretaries of the institution. Today, however, it is known as the Double Column and it is found in the Giant’s Hall.
Note: This blog post borrows heavily from the article, “Shooting Fireworks: Capture the Spectacle,” from former Smithsonian employee, Jim Wallace (originally published on the Smithsonian staff photographer’s website in 1995), with valuable additions from Ken Rahaim.
The 4th of July is coming up next week, promising picnics, gatherings, and of course, fireworks. You may have noticed that the magic of fireworks is very challenging to capture on camera. Smithsonian photographers would agree, but they also have years of experience capturing fireworks at inaugurations, special events, and at the 4th of July celebration on the National Mall. Follow their expert advice below to ensure that you take the best possible photographs at your celebration, whether you’re in your backyard or in DC.
Choose a good viewing position.
Ken Rahaim’s first suggestion is to anticipate where the fireworks show will occur and scout your shooting position in advance. Smithsonian photographer Eric Long adds that it is desirable to "have something in the photo that's identifiable." That might be an iconic building or landmark in your hometown, or as is often the case on the Mall, one or more of the National monuments. "Having water in the foreground to reflect the fireworks also works well," Long continues.
Aside from the National Mall itself, other suggested vantage points of fireworks on the Mall include across the Potomac River near the Iwo Jima Memorial—a view, photographer Nick Parrella explains, where you can line up “the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol in the shot”; and the Arlington side of the Potomac, which photographer Jeff Tinsley notes, one can use the river and numerous small boats anchored there as an effective foreground.
Think about framing.
Ken Rahaim advises that providing scale for firework bursts when framing your image, is important: “While bursts in isolation are beautiful, adding some scale will enhance the bursts by emphasizing their size.” Rahaim continues, “Another technique used to add scale to your composition is to include silhouettes of onlookers in the foreground. This has the added benefit of providing a human element to your photographs which help to engage the viewers of your image.”
Photographing fireworks from an unexpected location or vantage point can also make for a unique photo. Smithsonian photographer Alan Hart has had the enviable position of photographing fireworks from the top of the tower at the Smithsonian Castle Building: "It put me just high enough to get a perfect silhouette of the Washington Monument in front of the spectacular bursts." While not everyone can shoot photos from these kinds of locations, anyone can think about ways to get a more creative shot.
Have all your equipment ready to go.
Start with a fully charged battery, freshly formatted memory card, and plenty of film if you’re shooting with a film camera. Rahaim suggests filling your pockets with additional fully charged batteries and formatted memory cards, since “You won’t have any time to search for these once the show begins.”
Bring a small flashlight.
Rahaim explains, “It’ll come in hand should you need to dig into your camera bag or read any of the un-illuminated button labels on your camera.”
Set your initial camera settings before the show begins.
Settings such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focal point, should be decided before you start taking photographs. Ken Rahaim says, “Naturally, during the show you can make adjustments to shutter speed but you want your baseline settings in place well before the show starts.”
Find out which way the wind is blowing and get upwind.
This practical suggestion comes from photographer Richard Strauss, who notes: "Fireworks create smoke and if the wind blows it towards your position it not only blocks the shot but makes it uncomfortable to shoot. From the right position you can use the smoke to your advantage. As the fireworks program builds, the smoke reflects light and can help define the shot."
Use a tripod.
It may seem obvious, but using a tripod helps you keep the camera steady and obtain sharper photos; it allows you to take a photo without having to look through the viewfinder; and it can aid careful composition of a photograph. Ken Rahaim adds: “Once you’ve chosen your position, compose and frame your image securing your camera in place with the tripod. You might have to make minor adjustments to your framing once the show begins but that should only take a few seconds.”
The kind of camera you use really doesn't matter as long as you can manually control it.
Whether you’re using an old-fashioned film camera or a digital camera, manual control is imperative since auto-focusing is dependent on contrast, which is very difficult to achieve at night in low light.
Most of the time, if your camera is even able to achieve auto-focus, by the time you shoot the burst you were anticipating will have passed its peak. So, Rahaim suggests setting your digital camera to manual focus and doing one of two things: 1) pre-focus on an object within the area of the fireworks burst or 2) set your focus to infinity.
Almost any lens, wide-angle or telephoto, that gives the desired perspective will work, and since on film cameras the exposures will usually be at f/8 or f/11, a fast lens isn't necessary.
Shutter speed is the most influential variable in capturing fireworks.
Ken Rahaim notes that with digital cameras, the shutter speed will be relatively long when photographing fireworks. In his photos here, the shutter speed was between 3 and 4 seconds. He explains, “The combination of your camera’s shutter speed & the duration of the burst’s illumination will determine the ‘length’ of the fireworks’ ‘trails’ that are recorded on your sensor.” Long shutter speeds also have the disadvantage of introducing motion blur into the image. Rahaim explains that a camera tripod will go a long way to counteract this issue, but additionally, “if you have a remote shutter trigger it will further reduce blur inducing camera vibration by allowing you to keep your hands off the camera.”
With film cameras, most Smithsonian photographers start with a basic exposure of f/8 and 4-seconds for ISO-64 film, and bracket their exposures during the fireworks show. Other tips from photographers Richard Strauss, Jeff Tinsley, and Alan Hart include: opening the lens just before a burst is launched to capture the fiery streak climbing skyward, as well as the burst itself; setting the shutter speed to "B" (Bulb) and using a locking cable release for timed exposures; locking the shutter open while covering the lens with a black cardboard card, and uncovering the lens periodically to accumulate bursts; and waiting until the sky goes dark again before closing the shutter.
Some final considerations for those of you using digital cameras versus old-fashioned film?
If you’re shooting with a digital camera, ISO is the second most important variable.
Ken Rahaim elaborates: “For digital cameras, higher ISO settings introduce noise. Digital noise is exacerbated in shadow areas and, not surprisingly, in low light, nighttime photography. Keeping your ISO setting as low as possible will help alleviate the noise issue.” His photos her, for example, were shot at ISO settings of 50 to 200 (depending on shutter speed).
With a digital camera, shoot as much as possible!
Ken Rahaim suggests, “Although you should try to anticipate the bursts and gauge their rhythm, don’t be shy about taking a lot of pictures. This is the digital age after all, and you’re not paying for film anymore. That said, consider your time spent reviewing all your images before switching to motordrive mode!”
But if you are shooting with old-fashioned film… think about the type of (and how much!) film you use.
Most Smithsonian photographers recommend using a slower speed (ISO 64 or 100) slide film. Some, like Talman, prefer color negative film because, "it has greater exposure latitude and contrast control." Preferences for daylight vs. tungsten film also vary: some feel that tungsten can be better for the artificial light produced by fireworks; but others feel that daylight film can have warmer saturation, truer color, and be better for areas where there are mixed sources of light. And save some of that film for the grand finale since, as Eric Long observes "The programs usually get better as they progress,” and the best shots are typically at the end of the show.
Thank you to the Smithsonian photographers for their expert advice, and everyone have a safe and happy Fourth of July, full of masterful photographs!
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