Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How to photograph fireworks

It's that time of year again when colorful displays of fireworks will light the night skies in celebration of July 4th.  Obtaining colorful and exciting photographs of firework displays is not difficult, but it does require an ability to work a camera in manual mode with a remote release. Digital cameras have made photographing fireworks much easier and fun to do.  Here is how it is done.

You will need a steady tripod for your camera, a remote release to hold the shutter open, and a lens that will enable you to fill the frame with the fireworks display.   A zoom lens is best because you can modify the cropping as you go by zooming in or out.

Fill the frame with the bursts for the most dramatic effect.  On a dark night you can even leave the camera shutter open to capture several bursts in the same exposure.
 The first thing you need to do is determine where to aim the camera.   Fireworks displays usually go off from a fixed location and cover a limited area of the sky.  You should be able to see the individual fireworks trail as it shoots up from the launch area.  Fix you camera so that it covers the area of the sky where the  full burst occurs.  It is usually best to fill the frame with the burst.  Including too much of the dark sky is dull and uninteresting. 
Set your camera to manual exposure mode.  You will need to also set the shutter speed to B, or Bulb, which will keep the shutter open as long as you are holding in the button on the remote release.  Choose a low ISO setting -- preferably the base ISO of your camera.  This will usually be ISO 100 or 200.  Set your camera menu to turn off the noise reduction for long exposures. This will only slow your camera down and is unnecessary where the dark areas are pure black.

Your lens should also be set to manual mode.  The auto-focus mode may have to hunt for a focus point that will result in many out of focus images.  Note that on most modern auto-focus lenses the actual infinity setting of the lens is often not at the very end of the focus ring range.  You will need to set the infinity symbol on your lens by eye.  Set it for the very center of the symbol.  The focus ring can easily be bumped off of its setting so it is wise to tape the ring securely in place while shooting.

Over-exposing the photo will result in a colorless image, like the one on the right.  Close the aperture down another f/stop or two until you can see some color on your camera display.
The proper selection of lens aperture is a bit of a variable.  Fireworks differ from one another in terms of brightness.  So you will need to do some on the spot testing to determine the best f/stop to use.  The range is usually between f/8 and f/16, but can go as low as f/22.  With an ISO of 100, I would recommend starting with f/8 (f/11 for ISO 200).  Overexposing the fireworks results in washed out bursts lacking in color.  So it is best to keep the exposure toward the darker end and bracket by at least one full f/stop, or even more.  For instance, you could begin with f/8, then try f/11 and f/16.  Check your camera display to see if the color is in the burst. 

To avoid your fireworks photos looking like the bad example above you need to keep your shutter open long enough for the bursts to record in the frame.  When the exposure is too short, the burst does not have enough time to "paint" itself in your picture.  That is why the burst streaks in this photo are so short.  There is also far too much dull, black sky in the photo.  This photo needed to be cropped tighter.

Here the crop was tighter and the shutter was open long enough to capture several bursts of fireworks that allowed them to create long, bright streaks that completely fill the frame.
Timing is very important.  You want to keep the shutter open long enough during the burst so that it "paints" itself on the camera sensor.  This will give you the fullest color. Too short a shutter speed will only record a small part of the burst.  You want to record as much of the burst as you can without over-exposing the photo.  The length of exposure depends upon the brightness of the burst and the sky.  If you have set your camera up properly, you can release the shutter as soon as you see the firework begin its upward motion.  Keep the shutter open during the full burst.  This is usually between three and eight seconds, but could be longer if the sky is really dark. Towards the end of a fireworks display smoke tends to build up. This may cause the image to overexpose.  Be mindful of this and stop down the lens if you see it happening.

If your camera can double expose, you might want to experiment with capturing more than one burst in the same photo.  Alternatively, you can capture a number of bursts and combine them later into one frame during post-processing.
 As the display goes on, the sky begins to fill with smoke.  This smoke reflects the light from the fireworks and can affect the exposure.  You may need to darken your exposure by stopping down your lens aperture by another stop or more. 
These rules should give you a good starting point.  Experiment by varying the lens aperture and the time the shutter is open.  Above all, be aware of where in the frame your bursts are recording and tighten up the crop.   You want your photos to be exciting, and that means filling the image frame with the burst. Crop tight enough to eliminate the dull and uninteresting black areas of the night sky.

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