Behind the Shot #1 -Vegas Strip

June 29, 2014  •  1 Comment

I always enjoy reading about other photographer's stories regarding some of the shots they captured.  I always wonder what was going through their mind at the time, what their setup was, how they planned it and what their motivations were.  The equipment used is important too, I guess.  But I use a Nikon camera system and if I see a great shot taken by a Canon or Sony I don't abandon Nikon. 

If I pay attention to anything, it's in this order

  1. Pre-conception
  2. Exposure considerations
  3. Actual Exposure settings
  4. Lens
  5. Post-exposure processing

Exposure for me is more important than the lens because you can be using a $10k lens and still take crappy photos.  A great exposure on a crappy lens is still better than a crappy exposure with a great lens.  For an example of this, there is a great video by Kai Wong comparing a consumer level camera with an expensive lens to a pro level camera with a consumer lens -->  Cut your teeth on the cheap equipment first and if you like what you are doing, move up to the good stuff.  But improve the lens quality first, then make a jump to a new camera, not the other way around.

Here is one shot that I can say lived up to the preconception I had.  But I almost didn't get a chance to take this.  I had a very small window in which to get it right and not much chance to go back and try it again.  I didn't go to Vegas to take this shot, but the shot was waiting there for me to take it.

Vegas StripVegas StripNighttime on the Vegas strip from above the Bellagio.

Full disclosure:  This is actually a composite of two shots taken roughly 10 minutes apart.  The fireworks started after the last fountain show of the night and were actually off camera to the left.  The fountain in the shot was the finale. 

I'd like to say this born of a proven strategy of planning, knowledge of events, city, landscape and a long camp-out evaluating the scene. 

I really, really would like to say that. 

But it's not true. 

This was simply luck and being able to get to the right place at the right time and having enough time to experiment on a digital camera before attempting this.  Back when I was shooting film, I would have probably tried this, but not come close to this result, only because I could not scan the resulting film and retain the detail that I got here.  But even shooting with a really good digital "pro-sumer" camera and decent lens, I made some rookie mistakes here which I'll point out as I go.


Camera:  Nikon D200

Lens: 18-200mm Nikkor lens (this is the kit lens that came with the system)

Tripod: Manfrotto (I don't even remember what model it is, but I've had it forever and it's HEAVY, especially with a Manfrotto pistol grip attached.)

Remote shutter release (connected to the D200 remote port)

The Conception

My wife and I were attending a wedding, which was at the Paris Casino (the Eifell Tower in the shot).  We stayed at the Cosmopolitan Hotel across the street.  We were up around the 40th floor and had an awesome view of the strip and the Bellagio fountains, which were next door.  When I saw that view, I thought "Hey, this must look cool at night!".  But were going to be there for two nights only.  The first night I scoped out the events.  After that, I decided to take this picture the second night, during one of the fountain shows.  I didn't exactly know where I was going to be at the time, but I knew I would have to have enough time to get back to the room before the fountain shows ended.

Exposure Setup

Before I go into how I exposed this, I have to tell you what I had to do to get back to my room in time for the photo.  After the wedding at the Paris Casino, we all went up to a suite near the top of the casino's hotel.  I was taking photos all night and noticed at one point that my battery was starting to run low.  I didn't have a spare at the time (this prompted me to get one), so I stopped taking pictures.  I knew at the time that the photo I took was going to be the couple's gift, so I had to get it right, but I also had to disappear without them questioning it.  I was told there was going to be a fireworks show at Caesar's Palace at 9:15, so I had to get to the room before 8:45pm.  I was going to catch the 8:45 fountain show and have time to get the fireworks.  At 8:30pm, I silently walked out only telling my wife and another friend who was in the know.  15 minutes should be enough time to cross the street, right?

If you haven't been to Vegas in a long time, you'll notice that you no longer are allowed to cross the street by actually walking on the street.  There are now walkways arching over the intersections like a Japanese garden pond.  Vegas walkwaysYou can't cross the street at street level. You are safely suspended over traffic as it whizzes dreamily below you I was able to manage these pathways earlier in the day, but after a few beers, and in a hurry, I ended up crossing the walkway over the street and then took a really long walkway straight into the Bellagio, when I actually meant to go next door to the Cosmo.  The distance between the room (which was on the opposite side of the large building behind the Eifell Tower) and my hotel room was deceptively far.  In my state, it seemed extra close.  I seem to remember doing the same thing in New Orleans walking from a hotel to a bar and thinking it was close, but I ended up walking two miles, in the driving rain, in what ended up being the beginning of Hurricane Georges in 1998.  But I digress, long story short, it took me 25 minutes to cross the street in Vegas.  I got to the room a few minutes before 9pm. One show before the fireworks.  And not much battery left.

Since I was shooting through a window, I had to make the inside of the room pitch black.  But there are always some annoying reflections, so I closed the drapes as much as I could.  I knew when I started that I would need a long exposure to capture the lights.  But I would also need to judge that against what happened with the fountain.  I chose F22 as the aperture so to make sure everything was sharp from the fountain to the farthest building. I figured later this was my first mistake as F11-F16 would have done just fine and allowed me to take a stop or two off the ISO, which was pretty high 1600.  10 seconds at F22 was pretty good to get the building lights exposed properly.  After that, I took some test shots with the fountains going and decided 8 seconds was going to be my target.  That would also get me some light streaks from all the cars moving below.  Not knowing what the fountains were going to do, I kept the shutter open for eight seconds at a time, crossing my fingers that the battery would hold out.

There was rarely an eight second interval where all the fountains were lit up.  I would chimp the screen (look at the exposure right after taking it) to see what it looked like and never was impressed with the fountain.  In real time, the fountain was great, but as a long exposure, I was only getting part of it at any given time.  I'd caught the end of the previous show when I got to the room, so I knew at least I had a shot at the end when all the fountains would fire.  My last exposure of the finale ended up being my best one.  The fireworks started after the fountains ended.  I had to take those separately.  At 9:23pm, my battery died.  I managed to take only 17 photos.

I managed to get back to the party where I was greeted with "Where the hell did you go?".  Well, I'm glad I was missed at least.

Post Processing

Here is the photo I started with out of camera with no alterations or color correction.  Because I was at a relatively wide setting (22mm), you can see the vertical window frame on the right.  I couldn't avoid it at that setting, but the parallax effect would need to be fixed anyway (you can see the right side of building on the far right is far from parallel, but the buildings on the left are vertical).


Fortunately, I didn't have to do too much more than some distortion correction to straighten out the buildings and a little cropping on the final shot.  Also, there were some reflections from the drapes that I had to remove in Photoshop.

Here is a simple rotation counter clockwise which evened out the parallax between the left and right sides...



Here it is after using the vertical parallax adjustment in Lightroom (+15)  Note the whitespace added because of the distortion.  But the building lines are now vertical on both sides...



After that, it was simply a matter of cropping out the whitespace.

I also picked one of the firework shots that I took before the battery died and superimposed it on the sky.  Although they were going off to the left of the fountains and after the show was over, I wanted to include them for the wedding present because they wanted to see them and couldn't because of where their suite was.  The problem for me was one of the Caesar buildings was in the way for most of the shots.  The best one I got is below.  This was at the same settings as the strip shot, but at 6 seconds instead of 8.


I had to cut just the fireworks out of this shot and creatively place them on the shot of the strip without the Caesar dome and the Trump sign showing.  Placing it to the left against the new Palazzo building gives it a bit of legitimacy.  Creating a layer with just the fireworks in it and setting it to "Difference" layer effect cancels out all the blacks and leaves the colors intact.

Vegas StripVegas StripThis is a composite shot of the Vegas strip. The fireworks were actually going off immediately the left of this shot, and I took a separate image of them and added them to this one.


Lessons Learned

What did I learn during this experience?

  1. Always have a spare battery that is charged
  2. The best way to pack a 5 pound tripod is to use a army duffel bag and pack all your clothes around it.  Clothes=earth friendly packing material.
  3. There are three elements to an exposure, Aperture, shutter speed, AND ISO.  Question your settings, but not so much you miss the shot.  Do you REALLY need to be at F22?  Do you really need to be at ISO1600?  (That's a rhetorical question, btw)
  4. I used to think F22 was the best option for sharp images.  That's a myth (at least outside macro photography).  This is a very good explanation about aperture and the effects of diffraction.
  5. If you drink and photograph, don't drive.  If you are in Vegas, remember how to get back to your hotel room.
  6. Public intoxication is legally protected in the state of Nevada.  Who knew?


Sean & Beckie Simon(non-registered)
You're Welcome. :) - The Simons ("the wedding couple") It is one of our favourite presents. It hangs proudly in our home.
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