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I Shot the Boston 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular on Expired Film


It’s 6:30PM on the 4th of July in Boston and I had just gotten off work—one of those poor souls whose job doesn’t care about national holidays. What’s worse is that all of my plans fell through; my roomies are at a private event on Google’s rooftop, the cute gal I’m dating is visiting family in Pittsburg, and all of my climber bum friends are up in New Hampshire making the most of a 4 day weekend.

So I walk home. Make dinner. Wander into my uncomfortably hot and muggy bedroom and my evening plans are right in front of me.

Sitting on top of my (even more hot and muggy) windowsill are a few rolls of Kodak 200 ISO film from 1982, well beyond their expiration date. Brilliant! I’ll go shoot some fireworks with that. Fortunately, I recently acquired 24mm lens for my Canon AE-1 and a cable release that I had yet to put to the test. In theory, I’m set. In reality, I’ve never shot fireworks before in my life.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions of someone who knows what they are doing!

Regardless, I walk down to the waterfront and find a spot next to a like-minded photography enthusiast. As I’m setting up my tripod I start to chit-chat; the goal of course is to find out how exactly I should trigger these shots so that I don’t waste 48 frames. Most people are willing to share their tips, especially if they know that the person stealing their perspective is shooting on expired film. With a little guidance, I have a plan. Stop down to around F/8 to F/16 and keep the shutter open for 2-4 seconds depending on how well I can count.

Fortunately, I brought my Sony A7II with a Canon FD lens adapter along to take a few practice shots before going analogue.

A practice shot on the Sony A7II and a similar shot of expired film. See the difference?

The sun sets and I wait for the show preview with my digital camera mounted on the tripod. Suddenly, the barge on the Charles River starts lighting up the sky. I get a feel for the timing and end up with 3 or 4 shots that I felt good about. During the gap between the preview and the actual show, I fumble around to swap the 24mm lens, jam the film reel, unjam the film reel, load a roll, and screw in my cable release.

The show begins, and I start hamming off photos one after another. The cable worked flawlessly and the timing felt right! But it’s always a gamble with expired film. I send them off for development and wait for the results. A few days later the scans come in! The colors are desaturated, the smoke turned green, the skyline is a ghost, and several photos are unbearably underexposed. I love them all.

Sure, I could have taken photos all night with my digital camera; the colors would have been punchy, the skyline would be sharp, and it would have cost me about $25 less, but now I have some vintage looking prints that make for a better memory.

About the author: Duncan O’Boyle is a freelance photographer in Cambridge Massachusetts with a specialization in event, climbing, and analogue photography. When not taking photos, Duncan is a full-time graduate student in mechanical engineering at MIT. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram.