Discovering Colt In Hartford

Saturday was the 200th birthday of Samuel Colt, and Hartford threw him a huge birthday bash. Colt draws his history back to the city in the mid-late 19th century, a time when it was a manufacturing hub. Colt Firearms happened to be one of the pillars of industry not only in Connecticut, but the whole country.

I was photographing the day’s festivities for the Hartford Courant, so make sure to check out all the photos here.

There was no irony lost on me that the manufacturer of weapons like the Colt 45 and M16 was being celebrated in the state of Connecticut. But any political or societal concerns aside, Colt was and is a part of the history of our state and city. The old Colt armory remains one of the most visible and iconic symbols of Hartford, with hundreds of thousands of I-91 commuters driving under its blue onion dome daily.

There was a lot going on, with historic walking tours, memorabilia displays, and all kinds of festivities incorporating numerous venues around the city. I decided to narrow my scope somewhat, focusing on just the main festival in Colt Park and a gala later that night.

The festival had... shall we say… a lower than anticipated turnout. When I arrived at 3 p.m. most of the vendors had packed up, well before the official 6 p.m. end time.

An event organizer acknowledged the issue, but also noted that other venues had overflow capacities for their tours and events.

I snapped a few photos and sauntered to one corner of the park where things were still happening, just in time to catch a skateboarding competition hosted by the guys from 860 Custom Skate Shop. This area of the festival seemed to have the best turnout, hosting a fashion show and b-boy competition.

Sick ollie, dude

While taking a few photos of the Colt dome before leaving, I noticed there were people at the base of the dome. I had to find out- was it possible to head up into the building’s dome?

A big thanks goes to the person wearing the pink shirt. If not for you, I wouldn't have noticed!

It turned out tours of the Colt Building were being offered every half hour, and I was just in time. I would learn more than 800 people attended tours that day, proving that organizer correct. Maybe it just wasn’t a good day for a festival.

The building has been under construction for years, converting the empty industrial shell into dozens of loft-style apartments. The tour was partially historic but seemed mostly to show off the apartments, which was fine by me. Maybe it’s weird, but I love seeing the inside of beautiful and/or historic buildings.

Going through the "attic" of the Colt Building. The area is normally off limits. Stairs going to the dome at right.

We went past units still under construction, through what looked like an attic space, before going up into the dome. The view was what you would expect. Fantastic.

Looking north, toward downtown Hartford. I-91 is to the right.

Hartford seems to be filled with opulent buildings that no one seems to know exist. One of them is the parish house at the Church of the Good Shepherd, where that evening’s gala was held. An event organizer gave me a quick history of the building- it was commissioned by Samuel Colt’s widow in honor of her husband and three of their children who died as infants. The building is rarely used for events because of fire code compliance issues (no elevator, very expensive to install one), which is a damn shame. This place was magnificent.

Gorgeous stained glass around what appears to have once been a balcony.

A church with cannons. #Hartfordhasit

The four corners of the room had crests emblazoned with the continents. Africa, Europe, Asia, and Americas.

It had all the trappings of a building constructed with late 19th century robber-baron money. Intricate stonework. Symbolic details. Memorial passages inscribed in walls. Stained glass. Simply magnificent.

Beautiful light fixtures, marble pillars.

After taking photos I couldn’t help but creep around downstairs. Walking into a side room there was a man standing near displays of Colt memorabilia. We began talking, and he explained the technology and history of Colt Firearms in the twentieth century.

This guy really, really, really liked Colt.

It was a whole day’s worth of history lessons and discovery.

The Big Boom

Every night for the last two weeks I've heard pops and booms going late into the night. What am I doing up at 2 a.m. on a weeknight? None of your business. But what are people doing setting off FIREWORKS at 2 a.m. on a weeknight? That's the real question!

Fireworks are pretty tough to capture. Consumer cameras have all kinds of settings meant to make it easier, but those never seem to work. Cellphones? Same thing. This Saturday, July 12, will give you one of the last big chances this season to photograph fireworks when the city of Hartford makes their display at Riverfest. Here's a few things I've found to work.

"Great American Boom" at Stanley Quarter Park in New Britain. I wanted to capture the park filled with thousands of spectators. I was leaving early to file photos on deadline, and stopped to capture this near the park entrance. July 5 2014. f/2.8, ISO 3200, 1/15s

The first thing you want to think about, like anything, is composition. Do you want these fireworks against the stark, black sky? What's in the foreground? What's in the background? Look for something to help them stand out.

Sure, this could have been nice. No tripod, and I tried to focus on the firework instead of the flag. FAIL. f/2.8, ISO 1600, 1/15s exposure.

Fireworks are bright, move fast, then vanish. With a fast shutter speed you'll freeze the explosion, but may not recreate the vibe of a fireworks display. Too slow of a shutter and the light will streak. Which could be pretty cool, but fireworks also produce clouds of smoke, which you'll notice with a brighter image. Likewise a fireworks finale looks amazing to the human eye, but too slow of a shutter to capture it will just create a blob of light.

Even here the smoke cloud is evident, but at least wind was carrying it away. Here I tried to balance the luminosity of the Hartford cathedral with the fireworks. f/3.5, ISO 1600, 1/50s.

Cool streaks, light nicely balanced. At Provincetown, July 3, 2013. f/8, ISO 100, 4s exposure.

Notsomuch. Same display as above, but multiple shells around the same height in rapid succession got too bright. f/4, ISO 100, 2s exposure.

This past weekend I had the best success while photographing the "Great American Boom" at Stanley Quarter Park in New Britain for the Hartford Courant. I wanted to capture not only the fireworks, but their illumination on the crown watching them. Shooting at f/2.8, ISO 3200, and 1/15s to 1/40s seemed to be the sweet spot for catching both. At those speed it's highly, highly recommended to use a tripod.

Lying down on the ground, catching the right angle for these siblings watching the fireworks in silhouette. f/3.5, ISO 3200, 1/40s.

Have fun!

Headlining Act: Jim Koplik At The Meadows

A couple weeks ago I was asked to take a photograph of the man who runs Hartford's Xfinity Theater for an insert piece going in this week's CTNow [formerly the Advocate].

Jim Koplik worked in concert promotions for decades, and built The Meadows in Hartford. The venue is having its 20th season summer 2014.

The man, Jim Koplik, has been around the Hartford music scene for decades. Not only does he run the Xfinity Theater, he actually built the thing twenty years ago. It was later bought by one company, which was eventually bought by Live Nation.

The venue has famously changed names through the years- it was formerly the Comcast Theater, which was formerly the New England Dodge Music Center, which was formerly Meadows Music Theater. Before that, and the name that always seems to follow it, is simply "The Meadows"

How do you take a photo that captures the full expanse of a music venue? Especially one the size of the Meadows. The place has a capacity of more than 25,000, including the lawn. In the past few years I've been lucky enough to photograph a lot of shows at the Meadows, and an idea actually came pretty quick. I wanted a shot of Jim from the stage, with the vast expanse of the venue, including that lawn, spreading out behind him.

The problem was planning for the light difference between the lawn outside and the covered pavilion. The throw from the stage was at least a couple hundred feet, so I made a plan with all the firepower I had available.

My plan: expose for the lawn and background sky, use an Alien Bee B800 strobe on full power to bounce off the ceiling and brighten up the pavilion, and a speedlight off a highly reflective silver umbrella to light Jim, and an on-camera speedlight to help fill and trigger all the lights. Easy!

I brought extra to the shoot because it's better to be overprepared than missing something crucial. It also happened to be a day in mid-May so warm and humid it could have been August. But the extra fifteen or so pounds proved to be worth it.

Jim was shooting a few television promo segments, so I was told I would have only five minutes between takes to get the shot. From the stage the pavilion was even more cavernous than I thought. Trying to brush away panic, I thought and planned.

Shot at the same exposure as the final image. It was dark in there.

I was able to set up my stands offstage and prepared everything to max power. The day's haziness helped- the lawn wasn't as bright as it could have been, and some of the light diffused nicely to help light the back of the pavilion.

Jim finished his segment, and I rushed to set up a speedlight off the floor of the venue, a good 16 feet below Jim's eye level.

Camera geek talk: Both that rim strobe and the key light strobe were set to remote "SU-4" mode, meaning they would simply fire at whatever power they were set to when hit by the light of another flash, just like a studio strobe photocell. When shooting with photocell it's important to set everything to manual mode- the TTL pre-flashes will trip all the lights out of sync with the camera.

The ceiling was way too high to bounce the light, and one B800 clearly wouldn't cut it. This is why overpreparing is good- I had a second strobe with me. I set one up on each side, aimed for the horizon, and hoped for the best.

The two B800's are hooked into a Vagabond mini battery pack. The stick figure is Jim.

The two B800's are hooked into a Vagabond mini battery pack. The stick figure is Jim.

The best was good enough, as the image came out crisp. Koplik had a warm demeanor, clearly a pro at this sort of thing, and within two minutes it was done. We even had a chance to chat a little about music.