I thought this next post would be the last part of the 5D SR review but I just was asked to do a presentation on photographing fireworks. It had been a while since I had shot them so decided to bring my knowledge up to date and that has resulted in this material from a student handout on the topic.
Ah yes, Independence Day, the 4th of July, the day when the U.S. commemorates its independence from the British crown in the person of King George III. Picnics, parties, BBQs, all are part of the celebrations. But the most visual parts are the nearly obligatory fireworks displays. Around 200 B.C. exploding bits of heated bamboo were used as noise makers in Chinese celebrations, but sometime between 600 and 900 A.D. gunpowder was discovered while searching for an elixir of life. How ironic. It was used first to make even better noise making devices but by the end of the 10th century, however, the elixir of life was being used as an elixir of death as this marvelous creation was weaponized. Man has increased it propulsive power steadily every since.
But meantime, its peaceful, vibrant, colorful, and noisemaking potential continued and was firmly embraced by Americans seeking to re-create the “Bombs bursting in Air” of Francis Scott Key’s national anthem and used to cap a celebratory day. These “fireworks” or “pyrotechnic displays” now are standard fare at sports events and other gala occasions and generally bring delight and awe to viewers of all ages.
But we are photographers and second only to watching fireworks is the desire to capture them photographically. This is so much easier with digital technology than it was with film, not the least reason of which is you get instant feedback as to general exposure. So here are some tips and techniques for making photographs of these exciting events with your digital camera.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
As with so many things in life, location is everything. You can experience the fun of fireworks from virtually anywhere you can see them… but photographing them is a very different thing. The camera’s point of view, visual obstructions, the distance to the aerial bursts, the background stuff, even the wind direction, all have an effect on the quality of the photographs.
It is always easier to shoot a fireworks display once you have seen it. Fortunately many such displays occur more than just once a year in early July. For example in San Diego we have, each summer, nightly displays put on by Sea World, so there are plenty of occasions to see them over and over and pick locations and equipment for that special shoot. Some amusement parks like Disneyland, and some sports parks put on frequent fireworks displays. Since it is so handy I’ll use examples from the Sea World displays. These illustration were all shot over several nights of their shows.
But even if you cannot get such a handy “preview” you can always ask such questions as,
- What and where is the Launch Position?
- What is the expected weather and are cloudy conditions expected (or fog or rain, etc.)?
- What direction is the wind, if there is to be one, expected to be (to avoid having it blow the smoke at you and thereby obscuring the bursts)?
- When will it start and how long will it last?
With that knowledge now do take a location scout to answer further questions. For example,
- Are there upwind advantage points where you can see the launch site or at least get a good line of sight to the space above the launch site?
- What is the background? Depending on the elevation of your shooting stand you might just get sky as you look up or you might get something interesting (like the harbor or bay or mountains or lake or whatever is near you.
- Is there a place to set up camera and tripod?
- What will be the best lens or lenses to bring and would you be better off with several camera/lenses set up to shoot different angles of view?
- Do you need to protect yourself or equipment (based on the weather question above)?
- Can an unexpected visual obstruction get in the way, like a crown of people jumping to their feet? Or vehicles?
Armed with that data you will be miles ahead of anyone arriving cold on the scene scrambling to find a good shooting location and having to drag along lots of stuff to cover all bases. The frustrating part is that when there are multiple good viewing spots, as there are for our Sea World fireworks, each has its own appeal. No problem for nightly shows – in a week I shot at four locations and still have a hard time choosing a favorite — but for once a year displays you need to choose carefully based on what you want to capture.
One word of caution: if you get a position close to the launch point and/or close to the bursts themselves, take some hearing protection with you. It is like being around gun fire or artillery fire. Anything in the auditory world that is painful to be around from both the sound and the pressure waive of the explosion, can damage your hearing.
ARRIVE EARLY TO SET UP
Give yourself plenty of time and plenty of light to get in position and get set up. Even pre-armed with the information from above, arrive in time to set up the camera, make last minute adjustments to aim and exposure settings. Make sure you have a clear field of view unless you specifically want something in the foreground.
It is so much easier to do this when there is no rush and you have plenty of light. Then sit back (did you bring a folding chair or was there a place to sit), have a snack and come coffee or whatever, and wait for the show to start.
USE A TRIPOD
As we’ll see in the section on exposure, you will likely need to use exposures longer than those you can handhold. This is not about exposure per se but about the length of exposure needed to render the bursts properly. Any movement should be the fireworks themselves and not from you or the camera.
I’ve found it is also much easier to use a cable or remote release. That way, knowing that my camera is aimed in the right direction, I can concentrate on the fireworks themselves to know when to release the shutter rather than trying to see the launch through the little viewfinder and then I’m not punching the shutter release on the camera body in excitement and imposing some camera shake on the image.
Shoot on manual and shoot in RAW! Fireworks are their own light and are really quite bright. The issue is not whether there is enough light for an exposure – there is – but the question is how do you want to render the burst? As points of light or as trails and streaks of color? Little points of light are not very exciting and they give no indication of the actual nature or pattern of the burst. To do that you need some sense of motion. And that means the camera needs to be steady (hence the tripod) but the exposure needs to be long enough to let the viewer see what the design of the burst is but not so long as to just let everything dissolve into an amorphous blur.
ISO. As I noted, pyrotechnic bursts are bright. Use your camera’s native speed or cleanest ISO (you have tested for this have you not?) which is usually ISO 160 for latest generation Canons and ISO 100 for nearly everything else. This will be enough for the light and give you the least amount of noise in the dark underexposed areas of the shot… we are shooting at night after all and a large portion of the frame will be dark…
APERTURE. Shooting fireworks is similar to shooting with an electronic flash, the light is its own shutter speed but you need to use an appropriate aperture setting. The burning elements of the aerial burst are bright enough that an aperture of f8 will record them solidly. If you are lucky to have frequently repeating displays such as we have thanks to Sea World, you can do some preliminary tests, however my own experience is that f4 will blow out these specular highlights while f16 is consistently too dark.
NOTE: I keep reading and hearing that f16 is the recommended aperture setting. But in four nights of shooting tests, those images at f16, regardless of shutter speed were, consistently and without exception, too underexposed at ISO 160. This recommendation may be a carry-over from the film days of shooting with high-speed Ektachrome for such subjects. Whatever the source, it did not work well for my tests.
There was no dead perfect aperture for every burst, but this is not film, it is digital, and we now have an enormous ability to deal with such small variations. A savable range, if shooting in RAW is to keep exposure apertures around f8. White or very bright bursts may need to have highlights recovered in the RAW converter, while dark colors may need some small exposure boost in the converter. But the exposures will be close enough that you can correct virtually any color or intensity of burst. In the film days those were unrecoverable and had to be tossed out, but not now.
SHUTTER SPEED. This is the setting that will have the greatest aesthetic effect on the shot (other than composition, of course). The usual recommendation, carried over from the film days, is to set the camera to “Bulb” and hold the shutter open during the burst. You would take a black card to “cap” the shutter between bursts and then could stack them up for a more exciting composition on one frame. And it sort of worked assuming the sequence and aerial placement of the burst designs cooperated.
But this is the digital era and it is SOOOOOO easy to stack shots like this in post-production where you can then arrange them better than just having to live with the sometimes confusing overlap. For my own tastes relying on luck is no longer necessary or desirable. That means I can choose shutter speeds for better single burst control individually (see the last photo in this post) .
Of course you cannot try shooting a burst and then have them launch another identical one after you have changed shutter speed. From launch to full bloom for individual bursts takes, on average, 3 – 8 seconds though the last finale with multiple bursts happening nearly simultaneously can take 15-30 seconds or sometimes even more for major events like the fireworks shows over New York or D.C.. That final finale, however, as cool as it is in person, is better captured on video since the still shots tend to get overblown or the combination burst patterns simply compete with one another into a visual gibberish of bright colors. So I concentrate more on the individual bursts. If I want an image with multiple bursts, as noted above, I put them together in the edit phase where I compose elements to suit my own needs.
I’ve found that most of the bursts can be captured with 5-6 second exposures if – IF – you can trip the shutter as soon as you see the launch or see the trail of the delivery rocket heading skyward. That is another reason that location scouting can make this so much easier. Longer exposures will give longer “trails” and streamers to the burst particles but none of the displays I watched and timed while preparing this handout lasted more than 40 seconds and most were well under 20 seconds and closer to 10 seconds.
If you can’t see the launch, then you can still resort to the “bulb” setting with shutter covered and “uncap” the shutter at the first sign of a burst then re-cap it as it dies down and close the shutter.
Of course you can still follow the old guidelines and simply leave the shutter open for the entire time but then you risk exposing/overexposing any background and also building up lots of heat noise in the image. That worked OK in the film days and now it works best when the background itself it important to capture in the shot but again, test in advance to see what is the max exposure to capture the environment at your chosen aperture so you do not overexpose it. Some bursts, especially white ones, are incredibly bright and very long exposures, as the trails cross and crisscross, simple leave you with a blown out blob of light.
Fireworks are not designed with the color fidelity of photography in mind. They do not correspond to normal photo standards such as “Daylight” at 5600 Kelvins or “Tungsten” at 3200 Kelvins. And since each has its own color combinations it is virtually impossible to do a custom white balance.
In the old, old film days they were often best rendered with “Type A” film which was set for 3800 Kelvins for some of the special flashbulbs and studio photoflood bulbs of the day. Fireworks are varied in color temperature but are generally close to 4000 Kelvins (to display white bursts as more or less neutral white). The good news is that is easily correctable in the RAW converter.
I usually shoot with the camera set to Daylight then adjust in post as this gives me the greatest flexibility. You can also shoot in Auto but there will be a slight delay as the sensor searches for the setting of the ever changing image. I’ve found for my own work however, it is just easier to shoot at a daylight setting and then adjust manually in the RAW converter if desired. After all, there is no right or wrong, only what looks best to your eye.
INCLUDE THE ENVIRONMENT (OR NOT)
The answer to this question really depends on what the purpose for your shots is or might ever be. As a professional you are always thinking about downstream potentials and ways to turn your images into a revenue stream. If the shots are simply to show friends and neighbors your neat fireworks images it is the capture of the burst that is likely most important and any background superfluous. But for a pro the question is (unless you are shooting on assignment in which case the purpose is given to you) can this image become an illustration or for a poster or flyer or even just a good addition to the portfolio?
Including some of the environment gives a sense of “place” which is important if that specific “place” is important to the story of the shot. In that case well known landmarks might be included.
Or sometimes the environment is really irrelevant but gives a good space on the image where text/body copy for a poster or card, etc. might go. Composition then becomes really critical. Truthfully in this digital age it would be easier to composite the bursts over a purpose shot illustration of the background.
When in doubt, try to shoot both if you can. If time does not allow then shoot a touch wide and rely on cropping for the output where only the burst is important.
Vertical or Horizontal? Yes. Do both if you can. If you are shooting for hire, take two bodies with different lenses or different orientation. You may not get a chance to re-do the assignment especially for occasions such as a couple of years ago when the entire fireworks barge in San Diego Bay ignited at once…
Now here is where shooters in the digital era really gain some major traction. But the key is to shoot in RAW and then use the editing power found in the combination of RAW converter and photo editor (such as Photoshop™) to really make your shots “sing.”
In the RAW converter, for example, Adobe Camera Raw™ (ACR), I usually adopt the following workflow for fireworks shots.
- Apply Camera Profile
- Preliminary Exposure adjust if necessary
- Highlight recovery as needed
- Exposure re-adjust
- Color temperature adjust if needed
- Shadow adjustment if needed
- Open in Photoshop
If you are using Lightroom™ you can now do the same corrections in the “Develop” module. The interface is slightly different but you have the same controls. However for the best results for each frame I would do each separately and not try to batch process them as if all were exactly the same in terms of exposure and tone.
Often, with the power and flexibility of the latest iterations of ACR and Lightroom, there is little or nothing left to do in Photoshop but sometimes a curves adjustment similar to night sky/Milky-way shots to drop the sky tones around the burst elements is helpful.
And if there is a lot of smoke or clouds in the air reflecting the light from the displays I may darken that. Then I will crop them as I think best and save them. I keep any last finishing touches to when I have a special need for a shot such as for a layout or illustration.
MULTIPLE BURSTS IN A SINGLE IMAGE
If you want to have multiple bursts in the same shot, digital technology has made this incredibly easy. In the film days you had to keep the shutter open and let the burst exposures accumulate. That meant you had to hope the brightness of the bursts would be the same and that they would appear in precisely the right place with the right shapes. Sometimes that worked…
But now you can shoot each burst separately and edit them for best rendition. Then after selecting the best ones for a grouping and sizing/rotating/scaling them as needed for the overall composition, you can easily composite them in Photoshop using layers and the “Lighten” blend mode.
Here is a composition featuring 3 separate bursts from 3 different shoots. The base shot showed a reflection in the water so a reflection needed to be added for each of the additional bursts. However the other shoots did not include the water so reflections from similar colored bursts were used.
Shooting fireworks is fun. Not the least of the reasons why, is that it is always, for me at least, fun to see them. I love fireworks shows. They are also a good practice target for tricky light circumstances and for editing of low light and potentially noisy subjects.