Behind the Scenes - Thunder Over Louisville 2016




Around this time last month my good friend and talented cinemtographer Blake McGrew of Dark Heart Creative approached me about doing a little behind the scenes, or "making of" project on the 27th Annual Thunder Over Louisville event.  I haven't lived in Louisville for a very long time and had never attended Thunder, not to mention up close and personal from a behind the scenes point of view. Needless to say, I was extremely excited to be asked to be a part of the project, and happily obliged to come along and take some portraits to accompany the video. The purpose of this blog is to provide a little behind the scenes insight from my perspective as a photographer and what it took to get the shots we did.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Thunder is one of the largest annual firework displays in North America (according to their Facebook page, 725,000 were in attendance this year) and it is the opening event of the Kentucky Derby Festival and serves as an exciting kick-off for Derby month. The airshow is also another large component of Thunder and as you will see below, it ended up becoming good portion of the project.


The plan:

The idea for this arose roughly a week before the show, so we had to quickly hone in on what we wanted to focus on because logistically there was just no possible way we could cover the full scope of what was going on during the event. We ironed out a rough game plan, asked our friend/assistant/photographer Hunter Zieske to tag along, and dove in head first. In total, we shot for about two and a half days. The day before the show, the day of the show, and we circled back about a week after to pick up some extra shots from the airfield to get a little bit more content on the airshow. That last shoot day somehow turned into all of us being offered the opportunity to fly in formation around Louisville with cameras in-hand, which was the experience of a lifetime for all of us. Talk about perspective!

 There are more people involved in producing and orchestrating this show than I could name here, so rather than just shooting the fireworks and all the other things that can be found online or are better seen in person, we really wanted to focus on some of the key players who could give some good insight on everything that goes on to make those things happen. For us, those key people were: Wayne Hettinger (head producer of Thunder since the show began), George Zambelli Jr. (of Zambelli Fireworks), Mike Reardon (air boss), and Jeff Daus (pilot).

While we did have the appropriate passes and access to go pretty much anywhere, from the command center at the top of the Galt House Hotel, to the bridge where all the fireworks and canons were being carefully wired and placed, what we did not have a lot of was time with our contacts. We had to work as efficiently as possible as I don't recall having more than ten to fifteen minutes to photograph each subject, but each and every one of them was as gracious and collaborative as you could ever hope for when taking someones portrait, especially in the midst of such a hectic weekend. That said, I am very proud of what we were able to capture with the time we were generously given.

I can tell you firsthand how crazy intense it was just from our own point of view. I can't imagine what it must be like to manage everything and make sure it all goes off without a single mistake. The sights and sounds of this event, from the control room to the big finale, are a thing to behold and I hope the following content will do some justice. 


I carried a Canon 5d MKIII with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens for the entirety of the three days. I don't often shoot wide or horizontal compositions, but when the environment is so crucial to the story we are trying to tell, it's my preferred way to work as I can include much more in the frame to tell that story.

For all three days of shooting, I decided to bring along a single light source. My trusty Profoto 7b pack, although old and (very) heavy, it got the job done. I chose to bring this light because it's a 1200ws pack, meaning even on the brightest days, the sun can easily be overpowered. That in combination with ND filters allow for a shallow depth of field, which is much more pleasing to the eye especially on location where background distractions are everywhere.

As usual, I brought along some Photek Softligher II's of various sizes, but as you'll see we ended up going with the 46 inch for every shot. It's easier and quicker to assemble than the larger 60 inch version, easier to hold, and the light is plenty soft enough. When efficiency is key, those small differences add up to be incredibly important. You'll never find me lugging an octabox around on location unless time allows.


Below is the resulting video and the five portraits that were included from our three day adventure, along with some extras and behind the scenes shots a little further down. To close, I would say that this project was an absolute blast and taught me the importance of personal work. It's so crucial to chase the opportunities and projects like these that present themselves. Doing work you are passionate about, regardless of where it will end up in the end, is key to finding your path and being commissioned for things you'd be happy to shoot anyway. I would also like to say a massive thank you to Blake for asking me to come on board, Hunter for doing a great job assisting, and of course all of our subjects and contacts that made all of this possible with their kindness and cooperation.



Wayne Hettinger - Producer of Thunder Over Louisville

Jeff Daus - Thunder Over Louisville pilot

Jeff Daus - Thunder Over Louisville pilot

Mike Reardon - Air Boss for Thunder Over Louisville

George Zambelli Jr. - Chairman of Zambelli Fireworks for some extras as well as behind the scenes/set up shots.


See you on the next one!