UPAA Blog 2022-23 #6 - 11/10/22 (text and photos by Steven Bridges)

Steven Bridges is the Tom Hanks of UPAA: An equal combo of talented, versatile and genuinely nice. He's the staff photographer in The University of Tennessee Knoxville Office of Communications and Marketing and a three-time UPAA Photographer of the Year. His Sports Features category image "Fire in the Sky" was voted Best in Show in the October 2022 Monthly Image Competition. The photo was part of this article detailing Steven's overall game day coverage strategy, but the MIC Q&A is a chance to take a closer look at the creative and technical process that went in to this image specifically. -Ed.


1. Quick tech stuff—camera model, focal length, exposure data, lighting used (if any):

•Canon EOS R5

•Canon EF 11-24mm f/4 USM Lens w/Control ring mount adapter EF-EOS R

•Shot at 11mm

•ISO 50, ⅕ of a second, handheld, f/18

2. Was this photo assigned or enterprised? What was your plan/vision prior to the shoot?

I created this image during a self-assignment covering our rivalry game against the University of Florida. ESPN’s College GameDay was in town, both teams were ranked in the AP Top 25, but Tennessee had lost the last 16 of 17 contests to Florida. At this point in the season, we were 3-0 and on the road to restoring our football program. Needless to say, the energy on campus was electric. You can read more about my day in this previous article.

As for the plan/vision of this specific image, it was almost a year in the making and based on a photo I made during the last football season.

In the 2021 season, we began firing celebratory fireworks around the edge of the north side of the stadium instead of from an off-campus location. During a showcase of our new nighttime game experience, I made an iconic image of fireworks going off at dusk in a sold-out and checkerboarded Neyland Stadium with a spotlight on the Power T at midfield during the pre-game celebration.

The 2021 fireworks photo (which was also part of Steven's POY-winning portfolio)

Before the current season started, the stadium underwent upgrades that included adding a second video board behind the north endzone. It changed the view enough that my previously iconic image was out of date.

I wanted to create an updated version, but a few things had to fall into place. First and foremost, I needed a game where the exposure of the stadium fireworks were close to the ambient light in the sky. These opportunities change depending on the time of year and the start time of the game. 

As the Florida game began to wind down, I was looking for image opportunities and noticed the skylight was starting to fade. The chance for me to recreate my fireworks shot was a real possibility. With 7:55 left in the 4th quarter, I dropped my long glass in the press room and headed to the top of the stadium. I talked my way in to a position among the fans as I had done the previous year. Once there, I waited 30 minutes for the game to end, the Vols to win and fireworks to explode. I did several test frames to make sure my exposure and framing were where I wanted them. The longer shutter I could use, the longer the trail on the fireworks. My biggest fears were not capturing a sharp image while hand-holding such a slow shutter speed, missing the fireworks exploding at the right moment and shooting a crooked photo.

3. Any unique logistics in making the photo? What sort of post-processing (or not)?

My old-school photojournalism background says get everything right in camera. If you’re fixing things in post production you’re a hack. The new school me says, “try to make it work in camera, but know your gear and make it work for you.” Today’s cameras allow you to create things that were impossible in the past. It is okay to shoot in accordance with how you want to process the image. For this image, I pushed my camera’s limits and brought the “boomfication” in post-processing.

When shooting this image in 2021, there were multiple rounds of fireworks fired. I missed the first set because the fireworks were WAY overexposed. Knowing I could recover the shadows inside the stadium, I made sure to expose for the highlights and let everything else go dark.

When the fireworks began, I fired a burst of ⅕ second exposures to try and capture the fireworks in the air without camera shake. I had one shake-free image that I liked and that was all that I needed from that scene.

I toned my RAW file as close as I could in Adobe Camera Raw, and then sent it into Adobe Photoshop. There I took it back into the Camera Raw Filter and tweaked the crowd by adding more brightness and contrast. (Sorry, I don’t have a screen capture of this.)

4. Did your vision before you made the photo come through in the final product? What (if anything) would you do differently if you could re-shoot this today?

Afterward, I was sort of disappointed with my image and even complained to my boss about it. The first time I shot this image the field was clean with a spotlight on the Power T. Now players were scattered across the field and there was no spotlight on the Power T. This image was solid but it wasn’t as pristine as my previous capture.

The Monday after the game we included it in a social media recap/feel-good gallery and this image went viral. That helped me realize what I created.

You have the obvious visual of fireworks exploding at dusk. Throw in the win over one of our historic rivals to stay undefeated in front of a sold-out and checkerboarded stadium that was still full when the clock ran out. This was not just a stadium firework shot, it was a sign that our football program was turning things around.

It's a sign! No... really, it is! The image was used on a billboard on I-40 a few weeks later.

We received tons of requests about where to purchase the print. Our offensive coordinator tweeted it out and received more engagement than our post. https://twitter.com/CoachGolesh/status/1574529702059982848?s=20&t=hfGKh8ZyBOjp0g-BNCBuMw

It was even made into a meme! That’s when you retire, right?

5. What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?

I love the people I meet and the connections I am able to make. From the students and staff across campus to members of UPAA and other photographers around the globe. I have been lucky enough to have photographers mentor me along the way and I love giving back in the same manner.


"What is fireworks' favorite font? Arial." Thanks for reading the blog. Article submissions and suggestions always welcome, email editor Matt Cashore, mcashore@nd.eduFollow UPAA on Instagram!