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Photographing Fireworks

As soon as summer rolls around it seems that quite a few events are surrounded by fireworks. Photographing fireworks can be a bit tricky, but with a bit of practice it can be a lot of fun.

The problem with fireworks is that their colourful and dynamic nature means that you cannot use your camera's metering system to provide information about exposure to take the picture. By the time your camera processes what it is seeing and you press the shutter button, the explosion is gone. The whole idea is to open the shutter when the rocket it just launching and close it after the burst has finished. If your shutter speed is too fast, all you will get are pinpoints of light instead of the beautiful lines that make fireworks so attractive.

So, now that we know what we are after, lets look at the needed equipment.
  1. Tripod. I cannot stress this enough. You need a sturdy tripod planted firmly on the ground. Try to avoid sand as it generally shifts when you least expect it and there goes your composition. The bigger the camera the bigger the tripod. Make sure you can shoot in the vertical position.
  2. Camera. Beyond the obvious need for one, you must be able to set the camera to full manual mode. This means that you get to control the focus, aperture, and shutter speed. I will get into the details of how to set each further down.
  3. Memory Cards. Do the math. Firework exposure times vary between 1 to 15 seconds though I find most of my shots are around the 3 to 5 second mark. So if you figure the fireworks will last 15 minutes and you average 3 seconds per image, that works out to roughly 300 pictures. It is better to have one memory card capable of holding all of those images rather than  3 or 4 cards and having to swap them during the show. If you shoot RAW, get a very big card.
  4. Cable or remote release. These useful tools let you trigger the camera shutter without physically touching the camera and causing blurring or messing up your composition.
  5. Picnic type stuff. Blanket, towel, food, water, book, etc. You have to show up early to most events so bring something to do while you are waiting for the fun to start. Pack up all you garbage when you leave too.
  1. Find a comfortable spot from which you will be able to see the show without having people obstruct your view.
  2. Set up the tripod and camera. Make sure it's firmly planted on the ground.
  3. Composition. This can be a bit tricky. You have to factor in the height and width of the bursts and without them present; the best thing you can do is guess. Include some foreground elements if you wish for a more scaled look. You can always adjust your composition at the beginning of the show to compensate. Just remember that you can always crop so don't worry if you are are bit too zoomed out. This is one of those times where a zoom is invaluable.
  4. Aperture. F8 to F11. That's it. Just remember, if you use a large aperture (lower F number) then you risk severely overexposing your shots and ruining them.
  5. Focus. Either set the hyperfocal distance for your F-stop or focus at infinity. I generally use infinity unless I have some foreground elements that I want sharp as well. Don't touch the focus for the rest of the night. This is easy to mess up in the dark.
  6. Shutter. Set your camera to bulb mode. If you decided to include some foreground in your composition such as buildings, trees, etc, you will have to expose for the it and maintain that exposure for all you fireworks shots. Or you can be sneaky and do a foreground exposure and later blend it with a fireworks exposure in Photoshop. This way you can ignore the foreground and focus on capturing the fireworks correctly. It won't matter if the foreground is over or underexposed in your firework images since it will be replaced.
Generally it's a good idea to verify your composition during the few initial bursts. It's been my experience that most firework shows start with a fairly huge display to begin with so composing to that should be fine.

Now for taking the actual pictures. Generally the idea is to open the shutter when a rocket is just about to launch and close it when the burst is finished. This can be difficult to do if there are lots of rockets going up, but with some practice you can get the hang of it. Once you are shooting for a while you will develop a sense of when the next burst is about to take off.

Sometimes, it is possible to keep the shutter open for multiple bursts without the risk of overexposure. This can be done using a black card or any other object that can be used to block the lens. In this case you could keep the shutter open for quite some time and just cover and uncover the lens to capture the image. Be aware however, that the longer the shutter is opened, the more noise will build up on the image. This will be mostly noticeable if you are using a small compact digital camera. Also, the more bursts there are in the frame the more cluttered and messy the image can appear especially if the the bursts explode one on top of the other in the exact same location.
Final Thoughts:
Fireworks can be a lot of fun. You will only get better with practice. The first time I tried I only kept 10 or so images out of 480. Yeah, that bad. Second time I kept over 80 out of 410. The last time almost 200 were keepers. You can see some of them here. I hope to improve as time goes on and I get more practice.

It can be fun to make a day of it, especially here in Vancouver for the annual Celebration of Light. The shore is usually packed by 3pm and the fireworks start at 10. Best bet is to come early, relax, and set up when the time is near.


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