Shoot fireworks like a pro!

Philly Fireworks #1

Independence Day is coming up, and that means fireworks shows! Now admit it – we’ve all been guilty (at one point or another) of whipping out a little pocket camera and snapping away at the fireworks, handheld, in P mode, probably with the dinky little on-camera flash going too. Yeah, I’ve done it too…

BUT…

with a little effort and a bit of technical know-how you can go from blurry, underexposed, globs-of-color-on-film shots to beautiful, crisp, rainbow bursts that will be the envy of your friends and neighbors! (grin)

(note: a lot of the techniques here are similar to the ones in my article on photographing lightning, so you may want to read that as well (LINK -opens in new window))

First things first:

GEAR:
most of this will be assuming you are using an slr/dslr. You can shoot fireworks with a pocket digicam, but it is harder. If you have one with manual controls, most of this info will apply, but pocket cams have never been known for good long/low light exposures so YMMV.

you will need:
1. a camera (duh). at least something that lets you control the aperture and has a “bulb” mode (meaning the shutter stays open as long as the button is held).
2. a tripod. we’re talking exposures of several seconds, it is impossible to hold the camera steady. Tripod is a must (the sturdier the better to cut down on “mirror slap”)
3. a cable release. used for bulb mode. Note that most wireless remotes will *not* do “bulb”, only set exposures. There may be some out there that do, but most likely you will need a *corded* remote release.

Now, on to the specifics:

TECHNIQUE:
first, set up your gear. make sure the tripod will not be disturbed/bumped during the exposures. Set up the camera on the tripod, attach the cable release. Frame the anticipated “action” area.
Before the show starts, put your camera in Aperture priority mode and take a few “test” shots to determine a good exposure, (I prefer slightly on the dark side). I like to adjust it to an aperture that will give me a decently exposed image at a shutter speed of about 2-4 seconds (since this is usually about how long I open the shutter with the release.) this isn’t an exact science, it’s just to get a rough estimate the the aperture needed for your approximate exposure time. Since the actual bursts of light will expose regardless, we are basically just calibrating the exposure for the ambient light here. Once you are comfortable with the exposure, leave the aperture set as it, and switch into M (fully manual) mode. Turn the shutter speed all the way down until it goes into “bulb” mode. Now you can manually control your shutter – when you press the button down on the cable release, the shutter will open, and stay open until you let go of the button. This way you can exactly control when the exposure stops and starts.
note: make sure you camera is set to manual focus, else you will lose shots while it “hunts” for a focus lock. Most likely focus will be set to infinity, but if you are really close/have a long lens you might need to adjust. Regardless, get it set and leave it.

There is a “rhythm” to photographing fireworks, once you get the feel for it, it’s pretty easy to “anticipate” the exposures. You can usually hear the rocket going up, a second or two before it bursts. This is when I like to start the exposure. Hear the rocket – CLICK – burst – wait a second or two for the “trails” of the burst to expose – release shutter. That’s basically it! I find most of my exposures are in the 3-5 second range. As the show goes on you will probably adjust your aperture, or even set a “preset” exposure as you find the “pattern” of the show. Either way, you still generally want to be starting your exposure right as the rocket goes up before it bursts. The exception to this is when the show gets really “intense” and many rockets are going at once, it can be difficult to tell by sound alone. In these cases, hopefully you have a general idea of the exposure needed, and I will sometimes just set an “average” exposure and just keep clicking the shutter. Kind of “spray and pray”, if you will 🙂

TIPS AND TRICKS:

What lens to use?
– this really depends on 2 things: how far away from the action you are, and how tightly you want to frame the shot. Farther away = longer lens, closer = wider. The examples on this page were shot with an 85mm lens (equal to 127.5mm when using a 1.5x crop camera, like most dslrs) I was about 4 blocks away, shooting from a balcony of a high rise apartment building. I like a pretty tight framing, as it allows the actual fireworks to dominate the picture, rather than extraneous elements, so I tend toward longer rather than wider.

Framing the shot / vantage point
This is a matter of personal taste, but I like to include the surrounding scenery in my shots to give “context” to the fireworks. (As opposed to pointing the camera up an having just the bursts against an empty sky). Usually the best way to do this is to get to a high point, so you have an unobstructed view of the surrounding area. I happen to be lucky in that my apartment’s balcony looks out over the Philadelphia Art Museum (where the fireworks show occurs), So I’ve got a great vantage point without leaving the home. But even if you don’t you can probably find something. If you live in an urban area, many high-rises have roof decks that make great spots. Tops of parking garages are also good. If you’re in a rural area, this might not be as much of an issue, since there is probably more space, and less “stuff” to get in the way of the shot, but a high vantage point is still good.

– The clearest shots often come at the beginning of the show, and after pauses in the shooting (of fireworks that is, not photos!) this is because the accumulated smoke will either not be too bad yet, or have had some time to dissipate (respectively).

-Speaking of smoke; if possible, is is advantageous to set up in an orientation where the wind is blowing at a 90 degree angle to your position. This way, the accumulated smoke from the rockets will blow out of the picture frame as quickly as possible, leaving less to “muddy” your shots.

Capturing multiple bursts.
– A cool trick if you are using bulb mode is to capture multiple bursts in one exposure. Basically they way you do this is to use bulb mode to keep the camera’s shutter open, expose one burst, then cover the lens with something to block out extraneous light, but *keep the shutter open* until the next burst, uncover the lens to expose the burst, re-cover it and so forth…

The trick here is to have something that will block light out of the lens, but NOT TOUCH IT, as the vibrations of bumping/touching the lens will ruin the shot. One common method is to use a black/dark colored baseball cap – the “bowl” of the cap will block light from entering the lens without touching it (this is what I do). You could also use a black piece of cloth, a black cardboard cylinder with one end capped etc…

Basically the sequence goes like this:
– As the first burst starts, expose normally using bulb, however, when the burst ends, instead of releasing the shutter, leave it open and with your other hand, cover the lens with your cap/coth/whatever, being careful not to bump/touch it.

-Wait

-As the next burst starts, remove the covering for the lens, expose the burst.

Repeat as desired (note,you may have to close down the aperture for these kinds of shots to compensate for the increase in ambient light over the length of the exposure)

Finally when you have enough bursts, release the shutter to finish the exposure.

CONCLUSION:
I hope these tips help you all get the most out of your holiday fireworks pictures. Photographing fireworks is not all that difficult once you get the hang of it, and can yield some spectacular results.

Enjoy the holiday everyone!
philly fireworks 2

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