Sunday, July 22, 2012

Shooting Fireworks

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You never know when you might see a fireworks show. It could be on the 4th of July in the USA, Bastille Day in France, Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, or after the Friday luau at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki, Hawaii. Whenever it happens if you want to take good photos of it you need to know how. You can watch videos on YouTube, find a magazine article, or go on a Google search and end up here. Shooting fireworks effectively is the topic this week.

The main piece of equipment you have to have in order to get good fireworks photos is a tripod.  Since fireworks are only done at night you will be taking long exposure photos so it's essential you have some means of completely stabilizing your camera.  Make sure the tripod you use is "rated" for the weight of your camera and lens.  There's nothing worse than having the whole thing tip over because it will always land on your lens.  It's kind of like dropping a piece of toast and jelly on the floor.  The jelly side always lands down.  That'll be your lens.

You don't need an expensive camera, but you do need one where you can shoot in full manual mode and set both the exposure time and aperture setting.  Exposure times for fireworks are best in the 3-6 second range.  You can shoot longer, but you'll get more over exposed areas and may need to adjust the aperture.  A good place to start is with an aperture setting of f/11.  Your distance and focal length will help you adjust this as needed.  Just remember, fireworks are quite bright.  That stopped down setting will help with the exposure and give you room for the longer exposure.

To get crisp shots and the best color you need to use the native ISO value of your camera.  For smaller consumer cameras this may be an ISO of 50-100.  On more modern DSLR cameras it will likely be ISO 200.  Whatever it is, use it.  The lower the better really as both color and noise will be minimized.  Whatever you do, don't use flash!  If that is automatically on, turn it off.  Feel free however to smile if you see someone else's flash going off. 

If you really want to eliminate any trace of camera movement there are a few other things you can do.  First, lock the mirror up if your camera allows it.  This can make a lot of difference by eliminating any movement the slap of the mirror might introduce into the exposure.  Second, if you have one use a remote triggering device.  The less you have your hands on the setup the better and a remote will let you adjust exposure times "on the fly".  Nikon makes a nice multifunctional unit, the MC-36 remote, that acts as both a hands off shutter release and as an intervalometer.  Other camera brands may have similar units, but you do need to make sure that whatever you buy will work with your camera body.

It's important to show up early to the venue and set things up well beforehand.  By getting there ahead of time you'll have light so you can see what you're doing, and the time before the show will allow you to play with settings and get some of those "golden hour" shots as the light fades.  One thing for sure to set ahead of time is your focus point.  Use the autofocus feature of your lens to set it up on a distant subject.  Then, very important, turn autofocus off so the lens is in manual mode.  When taking shots of fireworks you don't want the lens to wast time hunting for focus; you want that set up early.   

And a final tip for those of you who may be using an expensive VR (vibration reduction) or IS (image stabilization) lens.  Be sure to turn this feature off when you're camera is on a tripod!  Normally the VR/IS feature is great at taking motion out of a photo.  But when a camera is on a tripod VR/IS gets confused and can actually *introduce* motion blur into your pictures.

If you can incorporate foreground elements or water into your shots, all the better.  Play with focal lengths too.  Get some wide angle, medium length, and telephoto shots.  Once the show starts you won't have a lot of time, so you'll be busy.  But the more time your shutter is open the better.  You want to get as many shots as possible in the time you have.  The more pictures you have to choose from the more likely you'll be to get some nice ones.

I know this is a lot of stuff to remember, so it's probaby worth it to make yourself a checklist for your next shoot.  I know I'll be doing that.  I forgot a few things the last time myself!   :)

Have fun!

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  1. Great tips Dave. Love the pictures, looks like fun!