Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Independence Day in Small Town USA

I absolutely love small towns.  Maybe it is the slight introvert in me but I generally feel lost in big cities. Large expanses of buildings and concrete were never quite my game. It is one reason that I loved growing up in Virginia Beach so much. While it is becoming an increasingly large city, it will always have that small town feel that beach communities seem to maintain. It is also the reason that I like to get away to truly small towns. When I lived in NC, I used to pick a direction on the map every Friday afternoon and drive until I found a place of interest. I usually ended up in a spot not often travelled to by others en route to more bustling vacation spots. The people I encountered were almost always generous in their hospitality and I had the opportunity to see and do things most don't get the chance to experience. It was amazing to arrive back in the office on Monday with stories of kayaking around Core Banks, hiking to the base of a little known waterfall in Nantahala, or seeing the world's largest frying pan. My friends and coworkers had no idea that such treasures were within driving distance of their home.

For the 4th of July this year, I decided at the last minute to bypass the elaborate fireworks display on the Norfolk waterfront and opted instead to go to Edenton, NC; a small tight-knit community on the Chowan River. Life is definitely different there. In place of big overstated celebratory events, there was a single gathering in town park with a local fair type feel to it.  Ice cream, BBQ, and funnel cakes filled the air with wonderful smells. The kids took turns riding in a little replica train that circled the park while the parents spent time escaping the 98 degree heat under large tents as they listened to old school music and caught up with neighbors. It was an interesting dichotomy to Virginia Beach where every restaurant and bar views the 4th as a profit opportunity. In Edenton all of the restaurants closed for dinner on Independence Day to give their employees a chance to enjoy the holiday and to avoid the craziness that such events inspire. Life is a little slower but definitely not less enjoyed than in their larger population cousins.

Manual, BULB, Mirror Lockup, 4 sec, f/11, 34mm, ISO 200

One thing about a small town is that there is no sneaking into it. I wasn't in town for 30-minutes before I heard my name being called by a friend that I had just recently caught with at our 25th high school reunion. Not that I was trying to be covert; I just didn't want her and her husband to feel obligated to house me for the night. I knew they had plans to head out of town in the afternoon to a baseball game. It is funny because I can spend days going all over Virginia Beach and not run into someone I know and in this little section of NC Americana, I'm caught immediately. Katy gave me a nice improptu tour of the town and it's history. You just don't see that very often in larger cities where getting around is difficult and people are too busy to share a few minutes of their time with an old friend. It was refreshing and much appreciated.

Manual, BULB, Mirror Lockup, 1.6 sec, f/14, ISO 200

Although Katy provided me the access codes to a private plantation to view the fireworks, I found that a better vantage point was had with water in the foreground. This was of course the same location from which the entire town was going to view the show. So even though the heat was unbearable, I staked out my spot on the water's edge at 7:00 and proceeded to bake for 2-hours waiting for the show to start, giving me plenty of time to make small talk with locals. They were graciousness enough to give me room to shoot with tripod and all. I'm not sure that I would have received the same consideration on the Portsmouth seawall.

Manual, BULB, Mirror Lockup, 2.6 sec, f/14, ISO 200

The fireworks show in size is nothing to compare to those like NY, DC, or even Norfolk. Most were single or double burst and it was over in what seemed like 15-minutes although I didn't check the time. What it lacked in size, though, was made up in the quaintness of the moment. This is how the 4th is to be celebrated. There were no sponsored by x-corporation signs, celebrity guest speakers, or a full orchestra for the backdrop. It was simplicity of Edenton celebrating our freedom the way it should.

Manual, BULB, Mirror Lockup, 9.6 sec, f/14, ISO 200

There is no mystery to photographing fireworks. A DSLR helps but many of today's point and shoots have enough features to allow you to get great images. Equipment-wise, you just need a camera that allows you to take long exposures and a stable platform (tripod) to mount it on. To avoid camera shake, I used a cable release and Mirror Lockup; a feature that allows you to open the mirror prior to releasing the shutter thus minimizing vibrations from the mirror slap. I set the shutter speed to BULB which means that the shutter will remain open until I depressed trigger again to close it. This allows you vary the shutter speed without having to fiddle with the camera settings. f/11 to f/14 enabled longer exposures while maintaining a large depth of field. I generally open the shutter when I hear the shell launch and then close it when I think I have the image captured. It takes a little practice but not at all difficult or too technical.

Manual, Aperture Priority, Mirror Lockup, 8 sec, f/11, -1 EV, 36mm, ISO 200

The one disappointment I had was that the full moon did not rise until after the fireworks show had ended. I was hoping to get the moon in the frame behind the streaming blast of colored light but it wasn't meant to be. With that in mind, I couldn't let the opportunity go to waste. When I got back to the hotel room I set the alarm clock for 3:30 a.m. to be in place by 4:00 to capture the moon over the waterfront. Something about being out there alone, capturing a beautiful scenic of the moonlit waterfront is magical. I'm looking forward to my next small town adventure.