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Long Exposure Photos of Gunfire at Night (A Memorial Day Memory)

memorialday

In April of 1970 I was near Phu Tai, Vietnam in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Admin Compound. We were pissed off at taking Viet Cong sniper fire from the mountain above us several nights in a row. The guy would stand up from behind a rock and blow off a clip from his AK47 on full-auto. The sniper was shooting at such a high angle that most of his rounds came through the sheet metal roofs of our hooches. We decided to use a “heavy” response the next time(s) the sniper hit us.

Over the course of a week, I shot two rolls of Kodachrome II (ASA 25) time exposures using a cable release and resting the camera on sand bags in a perimeter guard tower. I used a 35mm Nikon FTN with a 50 mm f/1.4 lens. Most of the exposures were from 15 seconds to one minute in duration. I mailed the unprocessed film home, and didn’t know what I had until I was released from active duty in June. Only recently have I decided to share them.

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Shooting long exposure photographs of gunfire and fireworks can be tricky. The dark areas need to be exposed enough to provide a setting for the brightly lit events. Being able to see the dark areas puts a perspective to the bright events, and makes a big difference in the effectiveness of the photo.

Since the events are transitory, the shutter needs to be open long enough to acquire enough events to make the point of the photo. In this case a low ASA/ISO helps by preventing overexposure of the dark areas, while still acquiring lots of events.

Of course the camera needs to be absolutely motionless to prevent blur, which is why I rested the camera on a sandbag re-enforced wall. Using a cable release also prevents any jiggle that might be caused by a heavy shutter finger. However, it is still important not to move the cable release while the shutter is being held open because the camera may be jiggled by that too.

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The red tracers are from M60 7.62 mm machine guns. The tracers are loaded four to one. That means there are actually five times as many bullets in the photo as are seen with the tracers. The white bursts without tracers are from an M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun firing HE (High Explosive) rounds. The white tracers with explosions are from twin 40 mm (1.57 inch) anti-aircraft Bofor guns mounted on an open turret M42 Duster, which is an open turret tank.

The guns were the same as the familiar navy anti-aircraft Pom-Pom guns. We actually had US Navy manuals for them. The bright white lights at ground level are hand launched parachute flares that had hit the ground and were still burning. You can even see some of the rounds ricocheting off the rocks.

Try that with the camera in your iPhone!


About the author: James Speed Hensinger is a military veteran and photography enthusiast based in Denver, Colorado. Visit his website here.


Image credits: Photographs James Speed Hensinger


 
 
  • http://www.facebook.com/miksstudio Michael Dixon-Brooks

    Impressive, I couldn’t even to begin to imagine the noise as that is all happening,

  • Mr. Woodward

    iPhone taunt totally cheapens article. Bravo.

  • arkhunter

    Saw the picture on FB and thought it was a Daft Punk concert or something with a a laser light show.

  • Rex

    Agreed.

  • Mark

    I was just about to write something similar… tasteless.

  • http://www.purseblog.com/ Vlad Dusil

    Let me be the first to say, thank you for serving your country in Vietnam and beyond. Impressive pictures too, I can’t imagine what it was like.

  • Mansgame

    Now that is pretty awesome.

  • Jas

    Or I would say, great way to finish the story. You eased the tension and made me smile after a very serious couple minutes of reading. Great work, I can stare at this and ask many questions. No dought you stopped him or made him retreat…

  • http://www.facebook.com/burnin.biomass Burnin Biomass

    A man who went thru this deserves to taunt what ever he damn well pleases.

    Thank you for your service sir!

  • Inter

    The photographer can remember and relate his experience of the war in Vietnam in whatever diction he chooses.

    Mr. Woodward and Mark; cannot wait to see your iPhone based war photography images from modern conflicts. Please post it when you return from your travels.

  • Gord

    Learn to take a joke.

  • Mikael Sörlin

    > We decided to use a “heavy” response the next time(s) the sniper hit us.

    I don’t get it, what was the heavy response? He just started talking about his camera after that, but I doubt it’s considered heavy response against sniper-fire.

  • ph33lix

    “Heavy” here refers to the calibre of bullets used against the sniper.
    M60, M2 and M42 guns are usually meant for BIGGER targets like trucks or, for the M42′s case, aircraft.
    What’s more, the M2 had explosive rounds.

    If the overkill response somehow didn’t kill the sniper, I bet it would’ve really really scared him away at the very least.

  • 220VOLTS

    Some Americans say we were fighting on the wrong side in South Vietnam.. You can start a bar fight in Texas with that remark. Now there are other Americans (some here in Bangkok) that disagree with that. They say “we were the wrong side.”

  • Alan Dove

    Did you get him?

  • http://twitter.com/keewa Oliver Kealey

    The white-tracer trails are from an Anti-Aircraft gun mounted on a tank, pretty heavy response for a lone gunman!

  • NativeSonKY

    Wow – these are a real treat for those of us steeped in photographic techniques. I’ve done quite a few fireworks displays over the years but sadly my ex wife absconded with about 20 years of my photos and negatives. Glad to see some of us are able to hold on to our work! Thanks a bunch for sharing! And Thank You for enduring the utter hell that was Vietnam!

  • Jim Vaughan

    … amazing- wish they were larger!?

  • chris comer

    This is an awesome shot .. i am actually in school rite now to gt my bachelor of science degree in photography … just started.

  • Ivan

    So, did you get the sniper?

  • Calton

    Sometimes the best response is pure overkill. If the sniper survived, I’ll bet he never did that again.

  • Calton

    Mighty impressive!