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Photographing Fireworks

July 2, 2013 Dirk Fletcher, Digital Photography Program General, Photography 0 Comments

Photographing FireworksWith the Fourth of July almost here, everyone thoughts turn to BBQ’s parades and fireworks. While photographing Uncle Louie at the family BBQ may not be picturesque, parades and fireworks have long been a popular subject for professionals and amateurs alike.

Below is an excerpt from my 2010 book, Lighting For Dummies which (here comes the plug) is still available on Amazon. The excerpt comes from Chapter 9 and gives you the rundown on how to photograph fireworks. Enjoy and have fun!

- Dirk

Capturing Popular Nighttime Scenes

Certain subjects have been capturing photographers’ interest for as long as cameras have existed. The beautiful part is that today’s cameras lend themselves to feats of low-light photography. In this section, I tell you about using your camera to record a time-tested all American subject: fireworks.

Finessing Fireworks Displays

A fireworks display is one of the best seasonal summer events you can possibly photograph. The colors are second to none, and the dramatic displays lend themselves to dazzling photographs. By varying the amount of time you leave the shutter open, you can control how long the trails of light show up.

Depending on where you set up your shoot, you may face a couple limiting factors. The worst is a high level of ambient lighting, which limits the amount of time the shutter can be open. Getting the shutter open and keeping it open without shaking the camera can sometimes prove more challenging than you may think. Little feet and passing cars can easily jiggle the camera just enough to disappoint as well.
If you’re in a city and you can find an angle that shows the skyline, a prominent statue, an arch, or another landmark, get set up to include it. As you select your framing of the foreground, make sure to allow plenty of room in the background for the fireworks. If you’re in an area without a prominent focal point, set up by giving yourself enough room in the sky to capture all the colors.

Here are the steps for getting great fireworks shots:

1. Get the camera set up and ready for action.

Put the camera in bulb mode. This keeps the shutter open for as long as you hold down the button. Use a slower ISO because the fireworks them- selves will be bright enough to expose at a slower speed. An ISO of 100 or 200 should work perfectly. Set the aperture between f/8 and f/11.With your camera on a tripod and your cable release installed, take a test frame.
2. Determine your foreground.

If you have a foreground structure that is lit — a statue, for example — get the exposure for the foreground before shooting your test firework exposure. If it isn’t lit and you want to shoot it as a silhouette against the colorful skies, you need to do some test shots to ensure that the subject is, in fact, going to go black.
3. Test your exposure.
After the fireworks start, snap some shots while keeping a keen eye on the LCD screen to make sure the exposures look good. For starters, set the lens at f/11 and, with the camera in bulb mode, depress the shutter just before a burst of fireworks to capture the entire burst. Keep the shutter open while the fireworks trail down. This gives you colorful streaks in the shot.

When you’re comfortable with this technique, it’s time for the fun part. You need the lid to a box (covered in black paper is ideal) or a dark baseball hat. With the lens covered by your box or hat, open up the shutter while the fireworks are going and begin to paint the sky. Visualize the scope or angle of your lens, and as fireworks burst in these areas, pull your makeshift shutter away from the front of the lens so the burst can be recorded. You can work on a single exposure for some time while you patiently “paint the sky” with explosions and trails of light.

Once you expose for a particular part of the sky, quickly cover the lens after the burst and wait for a different part of the sky to be exposed. When you feel you’ve filled up the sky on your LCD, let the shutter close by letting go of the cable release. Wait impatiently for the picture to pop up on your LCD, and then do your happy dance.

You’re essentially painting the sky with light, as I discuss in greater detail in Chapter 15. The only difference here is that you don’t have any control over the light source, whereas you do when you’re light painting.

If you aren’t going to shoot any silhouette or landscape views and you only want to capture the brightly lit skies, you can have some additional fun. During the show, try this: Zoom your lens in with the shutter, take the camera off your tripod, and rotate or spin the camera with the shutter open and a sky full of color. This creates colorful and whimsical patterns in an already exciting sky.

 

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