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How To Shoot Fireworks

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography
 
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Digital Fireworks

In the US we celebrate Independence day on July 4th while our friends up north celebrate Canada Day on July 1. With this in mind I thought an article on photographing fireworks might be helpful.

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OK, first off, I want to stress that fireworks are tricky—no getting around it, no digital silver bullet to make this one easy. Even people who have shot fireworks for years sometimes find it challenging. In order to do really good fireworks, you’ll likely have to get into manual mode with your camera, adjust shutter speeds, ISOs, and apertures. Since any one of the above would constitute multi-week series, we’ll have to do our best in the space we have :-)

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Before the camera ever gets set up, you’ll need to arrive early and scout out a good location. Find a place that should give you a good view, with no large light sources nearby (i.e. street, parking lot, headlights etc.) Big lights tend to “muddy” the scene and bleed into the photo.

Also, consider an alternate area that you can move to quickly to get a better angle, should your first location turn out to be less than desirable—you know, overrun with floodlight carrying kids or something. Oh, and make sure that your equipment isn’t going to be in the way of other spectators.

Next, take extra supplies. Grab extra batteries, a small flashlight, all the memory cards you’ve got, and my personal favorite, bug spray (nothing like trying to shoot with a mosquito buzzin’ in your ear).

The best fireworks photos are long exposures—usually 2 to 15 seconds. As such, you’ll need a tripod of some sort. Doesn’t have to be real fancy, just something to keep the camera still while you shoot. Sorry, no matter how steady you think you are, those types of exposures are not hand holdable. Oh, and if your camera has a cable release, bring that along too.

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OK, so far this hasn’t been too bad, but now we’re getting into the shark infested waters of camera settings.

Lens - You’ll probably want to shoot at a medium to wide angle focal length. This really depends on how far away you are from the fireworks and how big they get. The idea is to point your camera where you think their gonna be and shoot. If you have way too much sky once you start shooting, zoom in a little. If you’re only getting pieces of the display, zoom out.

Quality - Set your camera to its highest quality setting. JPEGs produce “artifacts” which are much more evident when shooting between areas of light and dark (like with, umm, fireworks :-). Also, the higher quality may give you less “noise” and possibly better looking colors.

Flash - Shut it off. Even if it could reach it wouldn’t help. All it’s going to do is irritate the people around you and give snapshots of the backs of their heads.

ISO - This is your digital “film speed”. Although it seems like you would want the fastest you can get, the reverse is true. You’ll want to set this to the lowest setting you have – probably 100 or 200.

Why? Cuz I said so! :-)

Actually, the higher your ISO, the more “noise” the camera picks up during long exposures (“Noise” refers to the little random, off colored pixels you see in photos). And since noise is the most noticeable in dark areas, you want to keep it to a minimum.

Focus - This is a big issue for any camera shooting fireworks. If you try to rely on auto focus, you’ll be lucky to get the shot before the explosion fades away. You need to manual set your focus at infinity (all the way out).

I know, I know, you have an auto focus camera, so how do you manually focus it? Three exciting possibilities exist for you:

First, you probably have a setting called “Landscape” mode, usually depicted by a mini mountain range. This focuses the camera at infinity. As long as it can be used in conjunction with a manual exposure, you’re all set.

The second option is that you actually do have a primitive manual focus mode. Not all cameras will include this feature, and the ones that do kind of toss it in as an afterthought. However, it might be worth checking your instruction manual just to see if your camera can do it, and what types of digital gymnastics you’ll need to perform in order to use it.

The last possibility is that your camera actually has a “fireworks” mode. If it does, it may not only help you with the focusing problem, but also the next issue:

Aperture and Shutter Speed - This is the hardest part, but I can give you some recommended settings.

If your camera has a manual mode (usually depicted with an “M” on the setting dial), choose that. Then set the aperture (lens opening) to between 8 and 16. The aperture controls how much light comes through the lens. The higher the number, the less light.

The next manual setting is the shutter speed. This controls how long the shutter is open. Start with 2 seconds and increase the time if you don’t like the results (i.e. the fireworks look too dark). Be careful not to “burn out” the fireworks – you still want to see color – but don’t let ‘em get too dark either.

Note that the longer the exposure gets, the more “noise” you’ll pick up. Experimentation is the name of the game here. One day, when I have an extra eight hours or so, I’ll do a write up about how to use aperture and shutter speed :-)

If you’ve never shot in manual mode before, dig out your instruction manual and get reading. The settings I’ve given you here should work well – so understanding “how” to get it set right now is probably more important than “why” :-)

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OK, that’s it for the camera settings. As for actually shooting, just aim for the area where the fireworks are going off and take a LOT of photos. It’s almost a numbers game – the more you shoot, the better your chances of getting good results.

As for when to shoot, I usually try to click the shutter just as the explosion starts. Since you don’t want the camera bouncing around on the tripod, squeeze the shot off slowly.

Also, remember that you’re shooting with a digital camera here – check your images as you go and adjust camera angles, exposure time, etc along the way.

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Hopefully some or all of the guidelines above will help. It’s a crash course, that’s for certain. Use as much as you can, and keep in mind that all nighttime photography falls into the “experimental” category. It takes most photographers a long time to get really good at it. The important thing is that you give it a try :-)

~ Steve

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