Thunder Over Louisville Photos & Tips

Thunder Over Louisville is an airshow and fireworks display that starts the week of festivities leading up to the Kentucky Derby. In this post, I’ll share some thoughts on the event, plus photos and tips if you’re thinking about visiting. For starters, Thunder Over Louisville is purportedly the largest annual fireworks show in North America–given the intensity of this show, I believe it!

I attended for the first time this spring, and was fortunate enough to have a kind reader offer me a press pass for a nice vantage to photograph the fireworks. I think pretty much everyone from the state of Kentucky attends Thunder Over Louisville, plus most everyone from a few surrounding states as well.

Louisville was basically a walking city that evening as the fireworks take a couple of bridges to the city out of commission, and traffic is an absolute mess as cars have to deal with pedestrians and alternate traffic routes. Be sure to arrive early if you’re attending, as it’s going to take you a bit to park (or find parking) and you’re going to want to take time to enjoy the “pre-show” activities, which are basically one giant party in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. It took me twice as long to drive home from Louisville as it took me to drive down, but it was totally worth it.

As for the Thunder Over Louisville fireworks themselves, they were incredible. Most bombastic show I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some pretty impressive fireworks shows. The coolest part was the “waterfall” of fireworks that cascaded from the bridge into the river below at various times during the show (see the first photo), which is one of the coolest effects I’ve ever seen, and not something I had seen previously. There was some sort of theme to the show and accompanying music (I think it was classic TV theme songs), but the fireworks were so loud that I couldn’t even hear the music most of the time.

I think the show lasted around 25 minutes, and it was a non-stop assault of intense bursts. Given the intensity of the entire show, I wasn’t quite sure how the grand finale would be “grand” by comparison, but the answer to that was, apparently, offer a ground-shaking simulation of World War 3 with so many bursts that it was probably dangerous to stare directly at them.

Going into the show, I had no idea of what to expect, but since I knew it was the largest (how that was quantified–shells? intensity? duration?–was beyond me, though) fireworks show in North America, I figured I’d play it safe and use a neutral density filter. I opted to use my go-to “CHEAP-O” ND filter, as that gives me the luxury of adjusting the intensity of the filter. When the show started, I quickly moved it to almost the max.

The arrangement of the fireworks was great, with burst sets placed in the sky with symmetry and variety. The art of this is probably lost on those who are not really into pyro (or are photographers), but it’s an important thing at which most fireworks shows fail miserably. Kudos to whomever designed this show–it was spectacular.

I have a lot of decent to good photos of the fireworks thanks to the good arrangement, but I’m a little disappointed in my shots because the overall composition is not that interesting. This is my fault, and next time I shoot the show, I’ll go for a different spot, probably on the other side of the river. There was also a lot of smoke that blew through the fireworks, but what can you do about that?

While waiting for the fireworks, I also took some photos of the airshow at sunset (and a couple long exposures at dusk). I thought I’d share a couple fireworks shots here as well as one pic from the airshow. I photographed all of these shots with a Nikon D600 and the Nikon 28-300mm VR Lens.

There’s really nothing to the processing here. Just opened the images in Adobe Camera Raw, ran a preset that opens the shadows and increases the contrast on the fireworks photos (and one that makes the blacks deeper on the airshow shot). After I did finishing in Photoshop CS6, which basically consisted of curves adjustment layers on all three and a saturation adjustment layer desaturating the tents in the airshow photo. Start to finish, I edited all three photos (combined) in about 10 minutes.

Aside from the above, the thing you really want to know about Thunder Over Louisville (and prepare for, if possible) is that traffic out of the city is insane after it ends. If you want to avoid this, it’s a good idea to watch from the other side of the river (assuming that provides you an easier exit route). Also, while there are a lot of free viewpoints, many prime viewing areas charge a fee for access to their facilities–and it’s a significant premium during Thunder Over Louisville. With all of that said, it’s a fireworks show–and all day experience, really–that I’d highly recommend to anyone in the Midwest!

Your Thoughts…

Have you attended Thunder Over Louisville? What did you think of it? Is it something you’d like to attend? Please share any of your thoughts in the comments!

6 replies
  1. Liz Beadles
    Liz Beadles says:

    I haven’t attended thunder over Louisville, however, after seeing these photos I’m considering a road trip with my family this summer! Beautiful!

    • Michelle
      Michelle says:

      It’s very beautiful ! They have a airshow earlier in the day before Thunder starts it’s free an awesome! Come an see you will love it!

  2. JB Meier
    JB Meier says:

    Great shots, as always. Not too far from KY either so may have to plan a kid-less getaway next year.

    Was wondering about the specs on the airshow pic. The sky and contrails indicate a long(ish) exposure yet the planes are so sharp.

    Get up the good work, and I am anxiously awaiting a certain magical Southeast Asia trip report!

    Take care,

  3. Sonya
    Sonya says:

    I’ve never been to Thunder over Louisville but I’ve been to Louisville numerous times. My only experience with Thunder was almost 4 years ago. We were there for a conference and there was a mess of traffic. We came out that night after the concert and saw the end of the fireworks. Since then they have booked the conference a different weekend because it was just nuts that year with all that going on.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yeah, I can imagine that traffic had to be infuriating if you were in town for an unrelated conference. I knew what I was getting into, and it was still pretty aggravating. That was like LA rush hour traffic times 10!

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