Firework Photography Tips

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  • Firework Photography tips intro
  • Composition 
  • Equipment needed
  • Camera Settings
  • Post Production ideas



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firework photography tips. A complete guide on how to get stunning photos at firework displays.

Introduction

Whether at a private celebration or at a major organised display, fireworks are a colourful and spectacular event that provides a great, if somewhat challenging, opportunity for digital photography.

This article sets out some key firework photography tips to help you prepare to capture some great firework photographs.

 


Firework Photography Tips

Preparation




Firework displays are typically fairly brief and intense affairs, often lasting only a matter of minutes. It is therefore imperative to plan ahead and be ready and waiting in advance of “showtime”

Although the finale of the show may be the most spectacular part of the display to watch, oftentimes it is the first few fireworks that can give the best shots, as by the end of the display there can be a lot of smoke in the air to shroud the clarity of the shots. So it is better to be fully prepared from the very beginning that be fumbling around changing settings once the show has begun.




Firework photography tips

composition

Preparation is everything with firework photography and this includes predetermining how you will frame and compose the shots.

The following is a list of points to consider - it is not imperative to apply every single one of them to obtain good shots - but they do serve as a useful checklist of considerations.

  1. Know exactly when the firework display is scheduled to start and arrive early enough to secure your chosen location - remember to allow for the fact that others may arrive after you and obscure your view! So try and select a vantage point which nobody else can move in front of.
  2. Check the weather forecast. If possible select a vantage point upwind of the display as this will minimise the effect of any smoke from fireworks. Be prepared to protect yourself and your equipment from any rainfall. If to guarantee your chosen vantage point requires your arrival well in advance of the display - then be sure to be appropriately clothed and consider bringing a collapsable chair for comfort and refreshments and book etc 
  3. Try to avoid shooting from an east to west direction. As the sun sets in the west, the western sky retains significantly more ambient light after sunset. This will mean either less contrast between the fireworks and the sky  or shorter than desirable exposure times - neither of which is optimum for firework photography.
  4. Try and have some idea of the likely scale of the fireworks and the location in the sky that they will occupy (one way to do this is to try and view images taken from an earlier display at the same location) When framing your shot be sure to leave enough headroom so the fireworks don’t fall outside of your field of view. Remember you can always crop the images afterwards to remove surplus sky.
  5. Consider including other elements of the foreground or background into the composition - this often defines a sense of scale to the fireworks which enhances the interest of the shot. Typical examples are city skylines, lakes or other bodies of water (which reflect the fireworks enhancing the shot) or crowds of spectators watching the show. Just remember that at the long exposures you will be using, that any elements of the composition that are moving will suffer from motion blur.
  6. Either landscape or portrait mode can be used with good effect. Portrait mode facilities a sense of grandeur - and is especially useful if incorporating a body of water in the foreground of the shot. Landscape orientation gives a little more leeway if you are uncertain of the exact location where the fireworks will appear in the sky.


Firework photography tips

Equipment Needed

Firework displays are almost certainly to take place at night - and to get the effect of the streaks of light from the blossoming bursts of fireworks long exposure times are required. I would therefore strongly recommend using a digital slr camera for this subject.

You will need (ideally)

  • Digital SLR camera
  • Wide Angle lens
  • Tripod 
  • Remote shutter release or Intervalometer.
  • Torch


Firework photography tips

Camera Settings - 1

Preliminary

Listed below is a checklist of camera settings - I strongly suggest you attend to these settings well in advance.

  1. If your camera or lens has an image stabilisation (anti vibration) system then SWITCH IT OFF.  As you will be using a tripod, the image stabilisation system will not only be redundant but MAY actually CAUSE as loss of image sharpness
  2. Set ISO to 100 (or lowest setting). Although photographing fireworks is “low light night photography” - you will be using long exposure times to get the correct exposure and will not be shooting “hand held.”  Higher ISO settings not only lead to unnecessarily (and undesirably) shorter exposures but increase the incidence of digital noise in the image.
  3. If your camera has “long exposure noise reduction” then switch it OFF!  Long exposure noise reduction works by following your actual exposure with a second dark “exposure” of equal length, during which you will not be able to capture any more images. As firework displays are normally fairly constant and frenetic once they start, using this setting significantly reduces the number of shots you can make during the display.
  4. Shoot in RAW format - to give you greatest flexibility in the post processing of the image.  Make sure you have sufficient space on your memory card  - remembering that a RAW image is typically around 4 to 5 times bigger than an equivalent resolution JPEG.
  5. Make sure your cameras battery is fully charged. Long exposures and the use of the LCD display to review your images and adjust your camera settings may drain the battery faster than normal - especially if you are shooting on a cold night.



Firework photography tips

Camera settings - 2

Setting up the shot and exposure PRIOR to the firework display starting

The following is my preferred technique as deployed using a Canon 60D camera.

  1. Affix the camera to the tripod preferably with the tripod legs in the non extended position and the centre column also not extended. This will give your tripod maximum stability to avoid camera shake during the exposure.
  2. Compose and frame the shot - I prefer to use the live view, LCD viewfinder for this partly because with the tripod set up I use the camera is low to the ground and so by using the articulated LCD screen I can compose the shot without having to lay flat or crouch down low to the ground. Also the live view enables me to move focus point to practically anywhere in the frame.
  3. Focus on an object in the composition that is at the distance that the fireworks will appear, or to an object that its essential to the composition to appear sharp. I focus using the Back AF button on the camera. Once focus lock has been achieved I then zoom in to 10x magnification on the screen and fine tune the focus manually if necessary. It is then imperative to disengage focussing from  the shutter button - I tend to have focussing permanently assigned to the Back AF button on my camera - but if preferred you can also simply switch the lens from AF to MF to achieve the same result.
  4. To avoid ambient light from entering through the optical viewfinder cover it - canon provide a flexible rubber cap for this purpose (it is normally found on the camera neck strap) - but black electrical insulation tape can also be used.
  5. To set the exposure I recommend waiting until a few minutes prior to the scheduled start of the display (to ensure there will not be any dramatic change in the ambient light) then switch the exposure mode to MANUAL and select a shutter speed of  8 seconds (this will appear as 8” on the display - be aware not to confuse this with a setting of 8 which is actually 1/8th second) and aperture of F11 -  Ideally attach a cable shutter release - but if you don’t have one use the 2 second remote timer. take a test shot. Review the image on the LCD screen and check for sharpness and exposure of the background elements that are important to your composition. (Note - if incorporating a body of water into the scene, do not worry if it appears underexposed as it is only the reflection from the light of the fireworks that will be important) 
  6. If necessary adjust the exposure by adjusting the shutter speed.  If you find that a shutter speed of less than 4 secs is required then reduce the aperture to F16 instead.
  7. IMPORTANT - now you have optimised your exposure for the background elements take another shot BEFORE the fireworks begin.  IF it becomes necessary to adjust exposure during the display to optimise for the fireworks (more on that in a moment) this may also affect the exposure of the background elements in an undesirable way - so you may choose to use this original shot of the background and composite in with the firework shots in photoshop in post processing.


Firework photography tips

Camera Settings - 3

During the display


Once the display begins there are a couple of different options for taking the shots - there are pros and cons for each.

Method A)  Using a cable shutter release

  1. Set the turn the exposure mode to BULB
  2. Open the shutter to begin the exposure when you see the fireworks rocket trail heading into the sky  -  End the exposure after the firework has exploded and the blossoming fire trails are no longer apparent.
  3. Review the image on the LCD screen. If the firework is OVER exposed with blown out highlights - then adjust to a SMALLER aperture (higher F Number). If the firework trails appear too dim or too thin - then try opening the aperture a by a stop  i.e. adjust to a LOWER F number.


The disadvantages of this method are 

a) As the exposure time will vary from shot to shot it will affect he consistency of the exposure for the background elements of the images.

b) It requires you as the photography to remain concentrated on your photography throughout the entire display - which can sometimes have the effect of you being less “present and in the the moment” to enjoy the actual experience of the display.

The advantages are 

a) You have greater control over timing the exposure to match the fireworks, potentially increasing the number of usable shots.


Method B) Using an intervalometer

This is my preferred method. I actually use the excellent free firmware from magic lantern which is installed on the memory card in my camera. This software adds significantly to the capabilities of the camera and one of the functions that is includes (which is absent from the standard features of my Canon 60D) is an intervalometer.

  1. Leave the camera in M - manual exposure mode 
  2. Set the intervalometer to take a shot in intervals 1second longer than the chosen shutter speed. For example, if you have opted for a shutter speed of 8 seconds - then set the intervalometer to automatically take a shot every 9 seconds (the interval has to be greater than the exposure time to avoid something called “jitter”)
  3. When the display begins simply activate the intervalometer and the exposures will begin.
  4. Review the first one or two exposures, and the fireworks seem under exposed -  try increasing the aperture one stop, if they appear under exposed try decreasing the aperture by one stop.

The disadvantages of this method are;

You may find the timing of the exposure doesn’t always coincide optimally with when each firework explodes

The advantages are

a) The background exposure from shot to shot is more consistent

b) Once you are happy that the fireworks are correctly exposed, you can simply sit back and enjoy the show.


Post production tips 

For detailed advice on how to best edit and enhance your firework images - including a simple technique for combining images in photoshop to make a composite image.

Please click here


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