How to keep photographs of groups of animals in focus using aperture

Wildlife photographers often want to make photos of groups of animals. When using long zoom lenses, this requires changes in aperture to ensure that all animals in the group are in focus, as the focal plane of telephoto lenses can often be quite shallow.

Aperture of f/9 not sufficient to have bear cub on the far left in focus. Nikon D850, f/9, 500 mm, subject distance 50 m, DoF 5 m

Aperture of f/9 not sufficient to have bear cub on the far left in focus. Nikon D850, f/9, 500 mm, subject distance 50 m, DoF 5 m

I often make this mistake during wildlife photo shoots, capturing a group of animals that all appear sharp on the small camera screen. Once home and viewing the image on a larger computer monitor, I am sometimes disappointed that animals in the back of the group aren’t totally sharp. Understanding depth of field and aperture is the way to fix this.

Aperture of f/5.6 not enough to ensure that the deer hiding on the right is tack sharp. Nikon D850, f/5.6, 250 mm, subject distance 30 m, DoF 4.8 m

Aperture of f/5.6 not enough to ensure that the deer hiding on the right is tack sharp. Nikon D850, f/5.6, 250 mm, subject distance 30 m, DoF 4.8 m

Wide open aperture for wildlife photography

A very common setting for shooting wildlife photos is to take photos at wide open apertures. This means using the widest aperture that your lens supports, often f/2.8, f/4 or f/5.6.

Using a wide aperture with a long zoom lens can have many advantages for wildlife. Wide apertures allow the subject to be isolated in the photo, blurring the background with nice bokeh and highlighting the subject of the photograph.

Aperture of f/5.6 allows the head of the seal to be in focus with nicely blurred background. Nikon D850, f/5.6, 340 mm, subject distance 18 m, DOF 1 m

Aperture of f/5.6 allows the head of the seal to be in focus with nicely blurred background. Nikon D850, f/5.6, 340 mm, subject distance 18 m, DOF 1 m

Since you can’t control the motion of animals, you are often left with busy or uninteresting backgrounds. Blurring out the background can make for a more compelling photo.

At f/5.6, only the head of the bear is in focus, and the busy background is nicely blurred. Nikon D850, f/5.6, 500 mm, subject distance 20 m, DoF 50 cm

At f/5.6, only the head of the bear is in focus, and the busy background is nicely blurred. Nikon D850, f/5.6, 500 mm, subject distance 20 m, DoF 50 cm

Aperture of f/7.1 used to keep both bears in focus. Nikon D850, f/7.1, 500 mm, subject distance 60 m, DoF 6 m

Aperture of f/7.1 used to keep both bears in focus. Nikon D850, f/7.1, 500 mm, subject distance 60 m, DoF 6 m

Understanding depth of field at various focal lengths and aperture settings

Depth of field (DoF) is the the distance between the nearest and farthest points in an image that appears sharp. Depth of field is affected by a few factors: focal length of lens, aperture and distance to subject.

As the focal length of a lens is increased, the depth of field becomes shallower. Wider apertures also mean a shallower depth of field. The depth of field also becomes shallower as the distance to your subject decreases.

The ultimate sharpness of your photos is also determined by the sensor size, final resolution of the image and the viewing distance of the final photograph. A group of animals that looks sharp at 800 px wide on a computer monitor might appear soft and out-of-focus on a large 24″ x 36″ print, for example.

The math behind calculating depth-of-field can be complex and impractical in the field unless you have tools to help with the calculation.

One such tool is an app called PhotoPills. This app offers a wide array of tools for photographers and can be a quick way to calculate complex things like depth of field and hyperfocal distance. Let’s use PhotoPills to calculate some depth of field examples.

PhotoPills depth of field calculator allows you to input camera model, focal length, aperture and subject distance to calculate depth of field

PhotoPills depth of field calculator allows you to input camera model, focal length, aperture and subject distance to calculate depth of field

PhotoPills depth of field calculator shows both the near and far limit of depth of field based on focal length, aperture and subject distance.

PhotoPills depth of field calculator shows both the near and far limit of depth of field based on focal length, aperture and subject distance.

In this example, I am using a full-frame camera at various focal lengths, apertures and subject distances.

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Obviously the combinations of subject distance, focal length and aperture are limitless, and these tables are just a few samples to illustrate the key points. I encourage photographers to use an app like PhotoPills to explore the various depth of field for their own lenses at varying subject distances.

With long focal length zoom lenses, the depth of field when subjects are close can be quite shallow, measured in inches at wide apertures. This can be problematic for groups of animals, and is also problematic for larger animals if the depth of their snout or head exceeds your depth of field.

At very close range, f/5.6 is only sufficient to focus on the eyes of the penguin. Nikon D850, f/5.6, 500mm, subject distance 5 m, DoF 3 cm

At very close range, f/5.6 is only sufficient to focus on the eyes of the penguin. Nikon D850, f/5.6, 500mm, subject distance 5 m, DoF 3 cm

Also remember that the value for depth of field extends in front and behind the subject that you have focused on. For example, if you focus on an animal’s eyes with a depth of field of 1 m, the sharp area of your photo will extend 0.5 m in front and 0.5 m behind the eye.

To achieve deeper depth of field to get a group of animals in focus, much smaller apertures are going to be required, as it is often impossible to change the distance between you and the subject when shooting wildlife.

Aperture for photographing large animals

When photographing small single animals, wide apertures will generally lead to the entire animal being in focus. This can also be true when shooting a side profile of larger animals.

Large single animals like bears, rams, caribou, bison, lions or hippos can require smaller apertures to achieve focus on the entire face of the animal. Even smaller apertures are needed if you are looking for the length of the animal to be in focus as it approaches directly towards you at a perpendicular angle.

Aperture of f/7.1 used to get the snout and horns of the ram in focus. Nikon D850, f/7.1, 500mm, subject distance 15 m, DoF 37 cm

Aperture of f/7.1 used to get the snout and horns of the ram in focus. Nikon D850, f/7.1, 500mm, subject distance 15 m, DoF 37 cm

For example, if you are photographing the face of a bear at 500mm that is 13 m away from you, an aperture of f/5.6 is going to result in a depth of field of only 22 cm. This won’t be enough to have both the eyes and snout in focus, so a smaller aperture is going to be required to get its entire face in focus.

At f/5.6, the bear’s eyes and face are in focus, but the snout is not. Nikon D5, f/5.6, 500mm, subject distance 13 m, DoF 22 cm

At f/5.6, the bear’s eyes and face are in focus, but the snout is not. Nikon D5, f/5.6, 500mm, subject distance 13 m, DoF 22 cm

Aperture for photographing groups of animals

Wildlife photos of groups of animals can be quite compelling. Showing the interaction of mother and cubs or highlighting group behaviors and interaction often makes for high interest photos.

However, if you are trying to ensure the entire group of animals is in focus, you have to make the aperture small enough to achieve the proper depth of field that captures the entire group of animals.

Sometimes I make a creative decision that the animals in the back of the shot can be blurred, in which case I leave the aperture at or near its widest setting.

Penguins in the back intentionally blurred using aperture of f/5.6. Nikon D850, f/5.6, 260mm, subject distance 8m, DoF 83 cm

Penguins in the back intentionally blurred using aperture of f/5.6. Nikon D850, f/5.6, 260mm, subject distance 8m, DoF 83 cm

In instances when I want make a group of 2 or more animals in focus, I make my apertures smaller and smaller, going from f/4 up to f/7.1, f/8, f/11 or f/16 as needed.

Doing real-time calculations of depth of field is impossible when shooting wildlife action. It can also be difficult to gauge the depth of a group of animals from front to back. Are they 0.5 m apart? 2 m apart? There isn’t time to figure this out with any degree of certainty.

Aperture of f/13 required to ensure the bear sow and both cubs are all in focus. Nikon D850, f/13, 500mm, subject distance 40 m, DoF 4.8 m

Aperture of f/13 required to ensure the bear sow and both cubs are all in focus. Nikon D850, f/13, 500mm, subject distance 40 m, DoF 4.8 m

When I am shooting groups of animals, I adjust my aperture as I shoot, using a few basic observations. First, how many animals are there in the group? More animals generally means they are staggered at greater depth and will require smaller apertures.

Second, is the group of animals lined up in a straight line, or do I perceive them to be staggered at various depths? The deeper they are staggered, the smaller I set my aperture.

Third, how close are the animals, and how long of a zoom lens am I using? If I am shooting using a relatively wide-angle lens, say my 24-70 mm, depth of field is usually not an issue. But if I am using a 500 mm lens and the animals are only 20 m away, I know that I need quite small apertures to get a group of animals in focus.

Based on these factors, I will change my aperture to smaller settings. f/7.1 or f/8 with a smaller group of smaller amount of stagger in their positions. f/9, f/11 or f/13 when there are more animals and more stagger in their positions. I’ll go as high as f/16 or f/18 for a group that spans a significant depth or when they are particularly close when using a long zoom lens.

Deep stagger of bison required an aperture of f/18. Nikon D850, f/18, 340mm

Deep stagger of bison required an aperture of f/18. Nikon D850, f/18, 340mm

If a group of animals is stationary, I will often take a series of photos in quick succession using smaller and smaller apertures. Once I download to the computer, I can choose which setting has the optimal sharpness.

If I am photographing an action shot of a group of animals, I do my best to make my aperture smaller if I want them all in focus.

Aperture of f/6.3 to account for the staggered depth of the bears. The gull is not sharp at this aperture. Nikon D850, f/6.3, 500 mm, subject distance 50 m, DoF 3.8 m

Aperture of f/6.3 to account for the staggered depth of the bears. The gull is not sharp at this aperture. Nikon D850, f/6.3, 500 mm, subject distance 50 m, DoF 3.8 m

Aperture is my primary creative decision when shooting wildlife

When shooting wildlife, I will have a shutter speed set based on the particular animals that I am shooting and the speed of their action. That may be 1/320-1/500 sec for relatively stationary animals, 1/1000 – 1/1600 sec for faster moving action and 1/2000-1/2500 sec for very fast action like birds in flight.

I usually let the camera decide on ISO using Auto ISO to remove the need for me to think about this setting.

My primary creative decision when shooting wildlife, apart from framing and composition, is choosing the aperture for the photo. Sometimes that will be wide open to isolate a single animal, but for groups of animals or large animals, I have to constantly remind myself to make my apertures smaller to maintain an adequate depth of field.

Article Written by Kevin Lisota

It’s time to set the record straight on the Drake Passage.

It’s the point at which the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans converge en route to Antarctica. And, to some who have never crossed it, it’s taken on mythical proportions of being virtually impassable.

To hear some tell it, making it to the other side of The Drake is akin to surviving the mouth of a dragon.

Which is too bad. Those misperceptions can keep you from taking the adventure of a lifetime. Because, the truth is, yes, it can be rough (“the Drake Shake”). But it can also be as calm as bathwater (“the Drake Lake”).

If you happen to get the Drake Lake—woohoo!—that’s a big bonus. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride as the seabirds soar alongside your ship, and you eagerly watch for the South Shetland Islands to emerge as an oasis on the horizon.

If you get the Drake Shake, sure, it may leave you feeling a bit woozy. But tens of thousands have experienced it at its worst and gone on to have an experience they’ll never forget. Modern medications such as the patch or Bonine have helped many people before you!

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One of our prior guests onboard perhaps said it best:

I’m a physician and traveled with my wife and daughter to Antarctica with Muench in 2017. On our voyage, we had it a bit rough on the way down and rougher on the way back. During the rough part, some of us got a bit woozy — which took a few hours to shake off. But in the end, it passed, and the whole experience was well worth it. I’m really grateful for the ship’s physician, who took great care of those affected and had medicines to dispense as needed. So if people ask me if they should be worried about the Drake, I tell them ‘Definitely not! You can do it.
— Joseph Wu, Antarctica '17 and 10 other Muench Workshops

And the reward?

I’ve run out of ways to say WOW. Unbelievably beautiful place, sun, wind, snow, ice, mountain scenery, wildlife, icebergs, stormy seas, great people, and a voyage to remember for a long time. Bucket list check mark!!
— Kevin Bailey, Antarctica '17 and 3 other Muench Workshops
There is just no way even now to put into words the feeling of sitting in the zodiac on mirror-still icy water, in the fog, in this incredible silence among the icebergs the size of a modern-day hospital on the BOTTOM of the earth. Who gets to DO that? Who gets to feel that? When I look at the images I took on this trip, I FEEL that feeling again. It was an EPIC trip that I still am trying to wrap my head around as I go back to work and the normal routine of normal life.
— Margie Trandem, Antarctica '18 and 10 other Muench Workshops

As you can see, when you emerge from the passage and begin to see the wonder before you that is Antarctica, memories of chop and waves will quickly evaporate into breathtaking landscapes, and spectacular wildlife very few will ever see.

So if the only thing that stands between you and photographing Antarctica is the thought of crossing the Drake, think again. Talk to us – we can help prepare you to make it through with flying colors and come out afterwards with photos you will cherish for a lifetime.

Photographers are flocking to Antarctica. Here’s why.

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Not much has changed in Antarctica for tens of thousands of years. And yet, at the same time, everything is changing.

Which may explain why Antarctica is suddenly so “hot” among passionate photographers.

There are few places on earth where the landscapes and wildlife are as unspoiled as in Antarctica. There’s no light pollution, no sprawling development, no iconic viewpoints overrun by tour buses. In short, there’s a spectacular shot no matter which way you point your camera.

But, as we’ve all been reading in the news with alarming frequency—there’s also a ticking time bomb in the form of climate change, which is having known, and unknown, consequences on the Antarctic ecosystem. Will the icescapes and wildlife as we know it today still be there tomorrow, for all to see?  For sure, there’s still time to experience all its wonders—but for how long, nobody knows for sure.

For now, the opportunity to photograph seals and penguins up close and personal, to explore your creativity capturing the towering ice sculptures that rise from the water, to experience the exhilaration of spotting any one of eight species of whales breach the surface of the sea, is just too tempting to pass by.

With today’s ice-strengthened ships, modern technology, and the sheer amount of experience sailing in Antarctica waters, the journey is safer, smoother, and easier to experience than ever before. 

So, maybe that explains why Antarctica is now one of the most coveted destinations for photographers. Or, perhaps the answer to the question is even more straightforward than that: when the mystique and majesty of a faraway place calls, you just go.



Using Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop CC Offline

Note: Many thanks to Katrin Eisman of Adobe for validating these steps. Be sure to listen to our Episode 60 of the reCOMPOSE podcast where we will discuss this and so much more, with Katrin as our guest.

You’re about to head to one of the few places left on the planet with no internet, maybe a safari in Africa, or an expedition to Antarctica, and you’ve heard about some folks that have been prevented from using Lightroom and Photoshop when not connected to the internet. What to do?!

Here’s the sure fire way (according to Adobe!) to ensure your Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC work when you are offline and have no internet.

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1. Close Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop CC.

2. Right before your trip, and with internet connection, go to your Creative Cloud App and Sign Out of Creative Cloud.

3. You will get this message, don’t worry, you’re going to sign right back in and you won’t lose anything.

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4. Now immediately sign back in to Adobe Creative Cloud

5. Then, launch Lightroom Classic and Adobe Photoshop CC, this restarts your “timer” for how long you can use the products with no internet connection.

Adobe’s Help Page on the subject.

In offline mode, if you pay annually, you get 99 days of grace period; if you pay monthly, you get 30 days of grace period. How do you get that 99 day period if you are already signed up to pay monthly? Just get on to Adobe’s help page and then call Adobe and tell them you want to pay annually not monthly What they do is cancel your paid-by-the-month plan (don’t worry) and the replace it with the paid-for-annually plan.

6. Now, before your trip, turn your computer into offline mode (no internet connection at all) and then close and reopen Lightroom and Photoshop to test them out.

One other tip: Don’t change the clock on your computer, this can invalidate your license. Adobe recommends that if you’re in an area where you’re crossing timezones frequently, turn off Automatic Date and Time and be sure to turn it back on once you arrive to your final destination.

How to Shoot Awesome Fireworks Photos

Fourth of July Fireworks at Seattle’s Gas Works Park. Nikon D810, 70mm, 8.0″, f/9.0, ISO 100

Fourth of July Fireworks at Seattle’s Gas Works Park. Nikon D810, 70mm, 8.0″, f/9.0, ISO 100

Millions of people will be taking photos of fireworks this week, and millions of those photos will be poor. Taking compelling photos of fireworks isn’t all that difficult but does take a little bit of advanced planning and gear.

Fireworks need a tripod

If you want good photos of fireworks, you need a tripod. The average firework shell may take 1-5 seconds to burst, and you simply cannot hold the camera steady for that amount of time.

Camera for fireworks

Almost any DSLR, mirrorless or point-and-shoot camera can be a great fireworks camera, provided that you have it on a tripod.

Many consumer-focused cameras even have a dedicated fireworks mode that can be useful if you are frightened away by exposure settings like aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

Lens for fireworks

You do not need a fancy or expensive lens to shoot awesome fireworks photos. Fireworks are sufficiently bright that shooting at an aperture of f/8 is more than sufficient and will get you optimal sharpness from most lenses.

In general, you want a wide-angle lens for fireworks. I shoot the large fireworks show on Seattle’s Lake Union every year and I end up using a 24mm focal length on a full-frame camera. This would translate into a 16mm lens on an APS-C crop-sensor camera. I am usually very close to the show at these wide focal lengths.

Focal length obviously depends on how far away you are from the show, but every time I shoot the fireworks, I underestimate just how tall the largest shells are and find myself zooming out.

Fireworks on Lake Union. Nikon D850, 24mm, 1.6″, f/8.0, ISO 250

Fireworks on Lake Union. Nikon D850, 24mm, 1.6″, f/8.0, ISO 250

If you are feeling creative or plan to operate a second camera, zoomed in shots can also be interesting. There can be groundworks or crowd elements that can be an opportunity to try a shot with a 70-200mm telephoto lens, for example.

Groundworks on Lake Union. Nikon D810, 135mm, 1.3″, f/9.0, ISO 320

Groundworks on Lake Union. Nikon D810, 135mm, 1.3″, f/9.0, ISO 320

Boats on Lake Union. Nikon D810, 200mm, 8.0″, f/9.0, ISO 100

Boats on Lake Union. Nikon D810, 200mm, 8.0″, f/9.0, ISO 100

Focus for fireworks

Fireworks are quite bright, and most cameras would have no problems with auto-focusing on them. The challenge is that you may often trigger the camera before a fireworks burst when the sky is blank and there is nothing to focus on, so you need to set your camera to manual focus mode.

You are going to be a considerable distance from the actual fireworks. Before the show begins, find a distant light or building and focus on that to set your camera at infinity focus. Then switch your lens or camera to manual focus mode so that the auto-focus motor doesn’t change the focus each time you press the shutter. You may want to bring a piece of gaffer tape to secure the lens focus ring so that you don’t bump or change it.

If your location is very dark, here are some more tips about finding infinity focus at night.

Exposure settings for fireworks

First of all, remember to turn off your flash, if your camera has one built in. A flash will add nothing to fireworks photos, other than messing up the foreground and underexposing the actual fireworks.

If you aren’t comfortable with manual exposure settings and your camera has a dedicated fireworks mode, go ahead and use it. If you are familiar with camera exposure settings like aperture, ISO and shutter speed, put your camera into manual exposure mode.

I generally shoot fireworks at an aperture of f/8. What about shutter speed and ISO?

Shutter speed is the most important setting here. Fireworks bursts develop over time and some linger in the air for quite some time. You want a shutter speed that is long enough to capture an entire burst. Anything shorter than 1 second often will give disappointing results.

I have shot ~10 fireworks shows over the past years and have experimented with various shutter speeds. If you are in a city with a large and dense fireworks display, a shutter speed of 2.0-4.0 seconds will often be able to isolate some of the bursts.

Space Needle New Year’s Fireworks. Nikon D850, 70mm, 4.0″, f/8.0, ISO 100

Space Needle New Year’s Fireworks. Nikon D850, 70mm, 4.0″, f/8.0, ISO 100

I’ve also shot as long a 6-10 seconds which captures many more bursts in the scene. In very dense fireworks shows, this can lead to too many bursts in the shot, which may or may not be what you are after. In smaller shows, using a longer shutter speed may improve the shot by adding more bursts into one picture.

There is no right or wrong answer to shutter speed, and I encourage you to experiment somewhere in the 2″-10″ range.

Given the brightness of fireworks, it is not necessary to have high ISO settings and something like ISO 100-320 should be sufficient. In fact, you want to make sure that you don’t overexpose the fireworks. Here is a rundown of the exposure settings I’ve used for the past few shows:

1.6 seconds, f/8.0, ISO 250

8.0 seconds, f/9.0, ISO 100

6.0 seconds, f/9.0, ISO 200

4.0 seconds, f/8.0, ISO 100

10.0 seconds, f/8.0, ISO 100

If you know how to read your camera’s histogram, turn it on and you can check that you aren’t overexposing by checking the first few shots.

Composing your shot

It does help to arrive early at your shooting location to get setup. It is much easier to accomplish this before the place is packed with crowds of people.

Try not to point your camera directly up in the sky. This leads to boring pictures. The best fireworks photos include some landscape element, whether that is a city skyline, buildings, trees or crowds.

4th of July Fireworks over Seattle’s Lake Union 2015. Nikon D750, 24mm, 6.0″, f/5.6, ISO 100

4th of July Fireworks over Seattle’s Lake Union 2015. Nikon D750, 24mm, 6.0″, f/5.6, ISO 100

Don’t forget about the crowd. Pictures of people enjoying the fireworks can be compelling, and it is all too easy to forget to turn around a snap a shot of people’s reactions. In this photo I was annoyed by the woman in front of me who was wildly waiving the flag, but it actually made the shot more interesting.

Crowd waives a flag at Seattle’s Lake Union fireworks. Nikon D810, 24mm, 5.0″, f/9.0, ISO 200

Crowd waives a flag at Seattle’s Lake Union fireworks. Nikon D810, 24mm, 5.0″, f/9.0, ISO 200

Watch out for smoke

Large fireworks displays can create a lot of smoke. Some of the best fireworks photos will be in the first minute or so before there is too much smoke.

Fireworks and smoke over Seattle’s Lake Union. Nikon D850, 24mm, 1.6″, f/8.0, ISO 250

Fireworks and smoke over Seattle’s Lake Union. Nikon D850, 24mm, 1.6″, f/8.0, ISO 250

If the air is still, there isn’t much you can do about the smoke. If there is wind, try and position yourself in an upwind shooting location so that the smoke moves away from you during the show.

How to trigger the camera

Since you will be shooting long exposures of the fireworks, it is important that you do not shake the camera by pushing the shutter button. There are a few ways to avoid this:

Turn on a 2-second shutter delay. Most cameras have a capability like this which allows you to press the shutter button and it will take the photo 2-seconds later. This is easy, but difficult to time fireworks bursts.

Use a cable release. This allows you to trigger the shutter without touching the camera and cable releases are quite inexpensive.

Use your camera’s smartphone app. Many cameras are able to connect to a smartphone app via Bluetooth or WiFi, allowing you to trigger the shutter on your phone. This normally works well, but if you are in a crowd of thousands or tens of thousands of people, wireless networks can fail because there are simply too many other phones around. I don’t recommend this unless you test it with a crowd around.

Trying to time exactly when fireworks will burst in the sky isn’t easy or intuitive. For many years, I used a cable release and just kept pushing the shutter over and over when I thought the next batch of fireworks was coming. You will take a few hundred photos, and many won’t be great, but this maximizes your potential to capture the interesting ones.

Fireworks fall in front of Seattle’s Space Needle. Nikon D810, 70mm (cropped), 6.0″, f/9.0, ISO 200

Fireworks fall in front of Seattle’s Space Needle. Nikon D810, 70mm (cropped), 6.0″, f/9.0, ISO 200

For the last couple of fireworks shows that I shot, I simply used the intervalometer on my camera to take shots at 1″ intervals, allowing me to enjoy the show without having to press the shutter. Some cameras have this capability built-in, while other cameras may need an intervalometer accessory.

These shows are pretty short at 15-20 minutes. Take as many photos as you can. Sift through them at home and discard the boring ones, but if you are continuously shooting, there will be some keepers in the mix.

Enjoy the show

Don’t forget to enjoy the show. It is easy to get wrapped up in your camera settings, but allow yourself a few “oohs” and “ahhs.” Remember, if you don’t get the shot, there is always next year for fireworks!

~ Kevin Lisota