20 — Fireworks

PA Lehigh-Fireworks 2003 4270.jpg

It’s that time of year in the US. Obviously, we’ve got the big Fourth of July celebration early this month, but here in my neck of the woods, Dorney Park is running fireworks every weekend through the summer and a number of the local municipalities have additional summer celebrations with pyrotechnics. 

Fireworks are generally a relatively easy thing to capture, but it does require that you do a little pre-planning and pay some attention to the shooting details. 

The planning part comes into play because fireworks by themselves are generally pretty boring. The best fireworks shots have something distinctive in the foreground (often silhouetted as it is here) or show the fireworks in context of the location they’re being performed (e.g. over Dorney Park would be something I could do here in Lehigh Valley). Basically the first option is contrast, the second is about location identity, but there can be elements of both either way.

Note, however, that wind will come into play. If you’re downwind of the fireworks, you’re going to get a lot of smoke and haze in your composition. Adobe’s latest Dehaze filter does a pretty nice job of helping you with that in post processing, but it’s still better to avoid getting into what will be a hazy position in the first place. Stay upwind.

On the other hand, the Eastern sky will typically be darker than the Western sky, especially at the start of the show. So your position should reflect how dark you want the sky to be, too. In big cities, the city’s ambient lights also come into play, and they’ll compete against the fireworks if they’re directly behind the fireworks. 

Most everything on your camera should be set to Manual. Here are the attention to detail bits:

  • Tripod and remote release. Especially these days we have highly intricate detail going on in many of the fireworks blasts. You won’t capture the exact shape or the fine detail without the camera being steady during the shot. This gets a little tricky in that bursts can be at different heights, as in the above example. I tend to shoot wider than my final image is likely to be just to give me some flexibility in this, but I also scout locations that give me the flexibility to change my physical position quickly if I find I’m framed wrong. When I say “wider” I generally mean at the top of the image. Most shows are of fixed width for safety purposes, but the height at which fireworks will go off varies considerably. Leave room at the top of your composition. The nice thing about repeating fireworks as we have at Dorney Park is that you can scout, test, shoot, and reshoot all summer. If you’ve got access to those setting off the fireworks, just asking what heights they’re planning to detonate things at will give you some idea of where to set up, too. 
  • F/11 and ISO 100. A lot of fireworks tips give f/8 as the aperture to set. More and more I’m coming to believe that this results in a bit too much blow out at the center of the burst. If you like that effect, sure, consider f/8. But typically f/11 seems about right to me for the distance I’m shooting from most of the time. And that’s the other thing: light falls off with the inverse square of the distance ;~). The closer you are to the fireworks display, the smaller the aperture you should be using. The further away you are, the more you can try opening up the aperture. The good news here is that with wider angle lenses, you’ll be getting some depth of field with the smaller apertures, and that helps keep your setting in focus. But be sure to check that depth against your framing. With silhouetted items, I tend to let them go slightly soft in order to pull in sharpness of the fireworks display itself. It’s one of the few times that I’ll shoot with near being less focused than far. 
  • Long shutter speeds, but not too long. Most fireworks take a few seconds to show their full size and subtlety of micro-bursts these days. You’ll often also want to get a couple of bursts into one shot. The above shot is six seconds, and those two bursts you see were separate shots separated by a couple of seconds in their detonation. With the big city displays these days, we often see lots of synchronized bursts, and I’d tend to think you’ll be down in the two or three second range for those, while in smaller displays you could be in the eight to ten second range. If you’re at a show where the bursts are leisurely, bring a black card with you and hold it over the lens between bursts but leave the shutter open. I didn’t say it, but your shutter speed is Bulb, another reason why you want a remote release.Warning: if your fireworks go off early in the dusk time frame and your camera has a base ISO of 200, you might need to use a neutral density filter to get long enough shutter times.
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction Off. You just will be getting too long a delay between shots if you leave this on, and that could mean missing a really good burst. But you’re taking lots of long shots in a row, and it’s summer, so the camera could be getting hot. Take a six second (or whatever you think your average exposure will be) before the fireworks start with the lens cap on, and another at the end of the fireworks. Use those to subtract out noise later if you find you need to. But make sure no light gets to the sensor in these shots: that means the viewfinder eyepiece must be close. Heck, just bag the entire camera with your black jacket for the noise shot.
  • White Balance is tricky. In reviewing raw images after the fact, I’ve found that most fireworks look best at white balances far below what you might expect. In the 3200-3900K range much of the time. If your fireworks is one of those that fire off a simple blast at the beginning to jar you, often that blast is neutral in color, and a good way to judge where your white balance is for JPEG shooters. The LCD on the back of your camera isn’t the greatest way to judge, but if you’re shooting JPEG, take a close look at those first few shots and make sure that the fireworks isn’t being recorded as too warm. Better yet, shoot raw+JPEG if you’re unsure.
  • If you’ve got a recent OM-D, consider using the Live Time ability. The ability to see the photo develop as you shoot the long exposure is pretty cool, and very useful in determining when to stop the current shot and move to another. On the other hand, it drains batteries. So…
  • Bring extra batteries. Some shows last longer than you think, and some cameras are energy hogs when doing long exposures. Be prepared. 

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Even taking the camera off the tripod, or zooming during a shot, or changing focus during a shot. A good show is long enough that you have time to go a little crazy in the middle, and sometimes those experiments pay off with something unique. The thing I wouldn’t experiment with is taking the aperture below f/8. 

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