Fireworks Photography

     
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The spectacle of fireworks attracts millions of spectators annually. Just recently my 3 year old daughter was asking to go see fireworks. Her prior viewing was over 11 months ago and apparently made a big impression on her then-2-year-old mind!
 
Those of us with love for photography running deep desire to capture everything of beauty we come upon. Fireworks definitely fit that description. The good news is that fireworks photography is easy. Following are some tips to make your fireworks photography successful.
 
Start with a solid tripod. If your camera is not motionless during the rather long exposures necessary for fireworks photography, the smooth paths of light the fireworks create will appear jagged. Mount your camera on a tripod and carefully level it. I generally like a portrait/vertical orientation (vs. landscape/horizontal orientation), but that is personal preference and is greatly influenced by additional subjects framed in the picture. Fireworks launched simultaneously from multiple locations also work well with a landscape orientation.
 
Also important is a remote release for the camera. Again, you want the camera to be motionless during the exposure.
 
Most camera lenses will work well as long as they are the right focal length or focal length range. Most camera lenses provide very good optical quality at f/8 through f/16, the apertures most used for fireworks photography. If you are not sure what focal length you need, take a couple of lenses. Zoom lenses provide the most flexibility if you are not sure of your viewing distance or focal length requirements. A scouting trip prior to the event will (as always) prove valuable.
 
All fireworks events take place after dark. Working in the dark is challenging even when you are intimately familiar with your equipment. A small issue such as dropping a memory card can turn into a frustrating problem. Pack a small flashlight.
 
Show up early for the fireworks event. Make sure your location has a clear line of sight and that late arriving viewers cannot obstruct your view. You might setup your equipment behind your blanket to help keep the view clear. At the same time, treat others with consideration. Be sure the background is pleasant. Remember that street and other lights will become overexposed blobs that require post-processing to remove. Setting up in the daylight is easier than in the dark. Leveling the camera, setting manual focus and getting the proper framing is difficult against a dark sky. Framing may need to be tweaked after the action starts - but take a guess. Get all of these tasks out of the way before complete darkness.
 
I generally use manual everything for fireworks photography: manual exposure, manual focus ...
 
As I mentioned previously, I like to setup my manual focus setting prior to dark. Pick a subject that is a similar distance as the fireworks will be. Since I often start my exposures with a dark sky over all focus points, autofocus does not work. Since a narrow aperture is used at a generally long distance, a wide depth of field usually covers any manual focus errors. Be careful to not bump the focus ring after the action starts. Also remember that changing focal length changes focusing in some zoom lenses. Check your lens for this attribute before dark. As a focus alternative, you can focus on the first burst that is fired.
 
For a shutter speed, Bulb is often best. I like to press the remote shutter release as a rocket is launching and hold it open until the firework completely fades from its explosion. This is generally 2 to 10 seconds. Missed the rockets on the first blast? You might be able to include the next set of rockets in the same exposure. Because the fireworks are constantly and rapidly moving, keeping the shutter open for long periods of time does not affect the exposure. Exposure is based on the aperture and ISO settings used. If there are subjects in addition to the fireworks included in the photo that are lit by a constant light, a specific shutter speed may be required.
 
You may think that a fast aperture would be helpful since you are shooting in the dark, but you are actually shooting bright light. The best aperture is usually between a narrow f/8 and an even narrower f/16. The exact setting is somewhat dependent on the distance of the fireworks (light fall-off, air clarity). Using an aperture narrower than f/16 will result in soft (not sharp) images as diffraction becomes an issue. Watch your histogram - keep the brightest pixels close to the right of the graph but not overexposed (stacked on the right side of the histogram).
 
I generally use ISO 100 for the lowest noise levels possible.
 
Quickly analyze the first photograph you can capture. How does the histogram read? Is the framing correct? Remember that you can crop later - but building missing sections of bursts is very complicated and time consuming. Is the image sharp? Make any adjustments necessary until you have it perfected. Then concentrate on the action. Long shows will require lots of memory capacity - be prepared - Have spare cards pre-formatted. Make spot checks periodically to make sure no settings have changed.
 
Avoid too many bursts in one fireworks photo. In my opinion, the overexposed areas created by repeated rockets and bursts make a fireworks photo look unattractive in addition to looking too busy. The finale may be the worst time to photograph fireworks. Your opinion may be different - and photography has no rules. Be creative.
 
For added impact, get additional subjects in your fireworks photos. Large buildings look great in fireworks pictures. Lakes and rivers create beautiful reflections. Adding a person or persons to the photo adds interest. A flash will be of no use in lighting the fireworks, but can be useful in lighting a foreground subject watching the fireworks. Try lighting foreground subjects with your flashlight. You will probably want to focus on foreground subjects instead of the fireworks for these shots. Again, be creative!
 
Creativity doesn't need to end with the shot. The black sky background in fireworks photos makes it easy to add other fireworks blasts or other items (such as a moon) to your images in Photoshop. Try replacing the complete black background with your country's flag.
 
Fireworks photography is not hard. Getting a great looking fireworks photograph just requires a little planning and simple execution. You will be adding impressive shots to your collection in no time.

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