Just know that it is very easy to shoot Fireworks Photography. Take your time with this description of camera settings and technique. Get comfortable with the knowledge that once the camera is all set-up the fireworks photography when they’re going off is easy and very intuitive.
Set the Aperture and ISO
Your aperture starting point is f8. This is an aperture that on many lenses is the sharpest setting the lens has and it will allow for minor mis-focus with it’s depth-of-field. As you shoot adjustments are made, if needed, to tweak your exposure with the aperture (More in Camera Set-up). ISO can be set to 200. You’re photographing bright vivid color so stay in the lower ISO numbers to record this.
Your camera is about to be set in a way that may be new to you. That’s okay, life’s an adventure and fireworks photography can help to capture the excitement of your 4th of July celebration. First, realize that you will be layering photos in-camera (easier than it may seem) by using your hand as your shutter. This technique is so much better with the ability to post process so the preference is raw files. If you’ve not shot raw then do not start with this event. So lets first deal with the shutter speed setting which needs set to B or Bulb. You’ll notice as you change to progressively slower speeds that the B will be visible. This setting allows the shutter to stay open as long as you hold down the shutter button. Consider doing this with a cable release, any quiver in your hand or bump while the shutter button is being pushed will make the streaks of the fireworks have imperfections in their streakiness. So the basic procedure is to hold your hand over the lens and press the shutter button; wait till the blast of fireworks is at its best. Move your hand away from the lens and replace it as the blast dissipates. With hand covering the lens just wait. Another blast comes and all you do is remove your hand again….wait…replace your hand. Start by getting three blasts by removing your hand and replacing it three times. Then release the shutter button to allow the camera shutter to close and advance for the next exposure collection. Look at your image and if it’s too bright close the lens a stop and if it’s too dark open a stop. Try again.
Tweaking the exposure
Besides the f-stop adjustment tweak your result but putting more or less blasts in your exposure. More blasts will make it brighter and less can make it darker. Of course when the bright white blast comes (you know the one that lights the sky like sunshine) it will overexpose so close quick to limit the exposure. Another technique is to watch the blast and pick one in a specific area of the frame, open for that blast and then close your hand/shutter. When the next blast comes in the same area just keep the hand/shutter closed till a blast comes to another part of the frame then add that to your collection of blasts by just opening your hand/shutter. You’re working in layers building your exposures. When blasts layer on top of one another, the cumulative effect can overexpose your image so by watching where the blasts are in the frame you can minimize the overlapping effect. Another way to watch and better your exposure is to note the time you open for each blast. If the exposure is too bright then cut back on the amount of time you open for each blast. If it’s too dark then hold your hand/shutter open for more of the blast. Example: I capture a blast and note that I counted 8 seconds each time I opened my hand/shutter and the cumulative exposure is a bit too bright. On the next group of blasts I will hold my hand/shutter open for only a count of 5 seconds and YES I got a better image.
All exposures are with your camera set to M (manual) for focus. We will pre-focus. We’ll set the focus to infinity; that’s the symbol that looks like a sideways 8 on the distance scale. Set it there and be sure AF is off. Very easy to focus because we’re just setting it and leaving it, on the sideways 8 (infinity).
The tripod is a must. Even a small one is better than none. For me it’s the Neotec (Manfrotto 458B Neotec Pro Photo Tripod). It sets up fast and adjusts as needed very speedy. If you haven’t invested in this accessory you might consider something light for hiking and activities where every ounce counts. I went with less attention on light weight and more on set up and tweaking the tripod. Cable Releases are a big help in fireworks photography and I would suggest them. Honestly, this year I have recently had two releases fail so you’d see me with my right hand on the shutter release and my left hand being the hand/shutter. But by next fireworks photography shoot let’s be equipped. It’s definitely the better way. Part of your evening can be spent getting ready for what can be an intense 10 or 15 minutes of shooting. Pick your place that you’d like to shoot from early. Align with where the fireworks will be shot from and estimating where they’ll be at the apex of their flight. As the darkness falls you may need to see details on the camera in the dark. Consider a small flashlight or headlamp to see your tools. White towel is a handy thing to have if you are changing lenses and caps during the darkness. Just keep all the gear on the white towel so small gizmos are not lost in the grass when all is over you can see on the white towel.
Lens Choice and Composition
My shot is always a composite. Try to add other elements to your photo. In the pre-visualizing I’d be looking for trees and people. You may be able to see water for a reflection or bridges or more in the way of architecture. If there are streetlights or other bright distractions you’ll need to decide if they add to what you’re visualizing or if they distract. My shots are normally tight cropped on fireworks and other elements are secondary. Remember, once you get a group of bursts of fireworks in your shot, certain things that may have been quite dark will be brighter than expected. See the people in my shot in Germantown Tennessee. The people were a pleasant surprise and quite dark on the night it was shot. The cumulative exposure of the multiple blasts of fireworks added to the detail in dark areas. For lenses I stay with wider angle lenses or zooms. I like to be close to the blasts and closer to the excitement. Wide angle zooms allow for more composing with other elements instead of shooting just the burst. If you find yourself a good distance from the blasts then maybe consider a longer lens or zoom.
Fireworks Photography Beyond the Shooting
When the music gets to its loudest with patriotic themes and all is done; grab all your gear and get to the computer. All is not done, it’s just beginning. Look things over with your software of choice and notice that some images may feel complete as a single image. Some images could be just a couple of bursts on a black background. Try importing into PhotoShop as layers. This article is not about the details of technique in PhotoShop to combine images. We’ll do that in another post. Just give it a try as layers to combine some images. Once in PhotoShop change the blending modes of layers. See what you get. Consider softening one of your layers or selectively do it with the selection tool. Maybe take people or an element from one image and mask the balance of the image. Then layer that with a good fireworks photography blast. Create, change and try something new.
Hope you enjoy fireworks photography, send me a sample of your finished imagery and, as always, ask your questions.
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©Gary Culley, 2014
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