Photographing Fireworks

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July 3, 2008

I thought I’d post this a couple of days early so you can try some of the techniques over the 4th of July weekend. Great fireworks photographs can be taken with almost any film or digital camera. This (and the rest in this post) are images from the Oswego Harborfest celebration. The “Fireworks by Grucci” are presented by the the Entergy Corporation & consist of about 30 minutes of fireworks choreographed to music. I’ve also included links to more images of the shows for 2006 & 2007. There are a couple of tricks that can be used that will make it easier to capture the show:

  • Although not essential, a tripod will allow for more realistic captures. Without one your images are going to show camera shake since your shutter speeds will be longer than most photographers can hand hold a camera.
  • The choice of lens (or focal length if you only have a single zoom) depends on what you want for a final image. If you wish to capture single bursts or are a long distance from the location of the display, longer focal lengths are necessary. If you are close or want to include the surroundings, a wider lens works well. I usually shoot with a fairly wide lens because I like to show the entire display, but I have seen great results with close ups of individual bursts. For some examples, the 2006 Harborfest images were shot with a 17 – 30mm zoom & the 2007 Harborfest images were shot with a 10 – 20mm zoom. The exact focal length can be found in the EXIF information attached to the larger versions of each image. Which ever you choose, be sure to go to the location you plan to shoot from during the daylight hours so you can choose a shooting position, determine how wide or narrow a lens (or zoom setting for a point & shoot camera) you should use. Given a choice, I’d make sure I can go wider rather than narrower – too close & you may end up clipping the tops of the bursts.
  • Because fireworks are only “there” for a brief period of time, your auto focus may not be useful. You will have better luck switching to manual focus and in most cases, setting the focus for infinity. If you are so close that the bursts are not at infinity, but must be focused, manually focus on an object that is about the same distance away while there is still enough light to see it. Trying to set focus manually while the fireworks are going off is difficult.
  • Exposure for fireworks is primarily determined by aperture, not shutter speed. Since they are usually shot against a black sky, the only thing providing light is the fireworks themselves. When they fade, there is no light striking the film or sensor, so even if the lens is open, no exposure is recorded. You can easily leave the shutter open for a couple of seconds as long as the camera is on a tripod so that it doesn’t move. On the other hand, if you use a short shutter speed (maybe because you are trying to work without a tripod) you will often miss some of the burst. About the only time short exposure times work if if you are trying to isolate an individual burst & they are difficult to capture one at a time.Fireworks themselves are quite bright. It is east to over expose your images, particularly if you are using the program mode because the black background averages with the light from the fireworks & opens the lens too much. Generally you want to set your camera for manual exposure & set both shutter speed (bulb) and aperture. If your camera is set for an ISO of 100, f:6.3 to f:11 are good starting points. During the finale you may want to close down a stop or two – there are usually more pure white flashes caused by the “bang” or salute shells.
  • So, the final set up: With your camera on a tripod, pre-aimed & focused while there was enough light to see, attach a remote shutter release, set the camera on bulb (set on bulb, the shutter will stay open as long as you hold down the release) and watch for the streak created by the fireworks lifting charge. Push the shutter release & leave it open for a second or two, watching the display. If there is a burst you want to keep isolated from the rest, close the shutter. Otherwise, leave it open until a reasonable group of bursts take place. If you are using a digital camera, check the image in the LCD & histogram to make corrections for exposure. Remember, the corrections should be using the aperture, not the shutter speed. One last note – if your camera shoots RAW, this is a great time to use it. The wider dynamic range will help obtain the correct exposure under the difficult lighting conditions.
  • If you are in the right location, try to include a photograph of the crowd getting ready for the show. Although it may require a long exposure, a shot of the crowd lighted by the fireworks themselves is also useful:
    • One additional technique for those who like to spend time using an editor – take a wide angle photograph of the scene prior to any fireworks going off, but after dark. Once the fireworks start, take a couple at the same zoom setting, but also take a number of close up images of individual bursts. Using your editor, add the images of the bursts to the empty wide angle shot. The advantage is you can make a modest display look like an expensive one! Of course it didn’t actually happen, so if you are trying to stay true to the exhibit, this won’t work.
      In any case, fireworks are a wonderful opportunity to take photographs of an unusual scene. Good planning is necessary, because you may need to wait a whole year to try again.
  • A couple of more examples:

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