Working the fireworks

“…And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air…”- The Star Spangled Banner – Francis Scott Key

Shooting public fireworks displays is easier than you might think. The tools and techniques are the same as with any night photo. High ISOs (the camera’s light sensitivity) aren’t needed either. All you need is your camera, a tripod and a clear view of the night sky.

Use a manual setting with your DSLR. The dark sky will most likely only confuse the camera’s automatic functions. A small aperture of f/8 to f/16 should be good enough to catch the bright blasts of light. Remember you’re trying to get the fireworks and not any detail in the sky. If you want foreground detail, then a time exposure will help record the scene.

Most public fireworks displays are easy to time. One can usually hear the shell being fired and/or see a trail of sparks leading to the sky before it explodes into a colorful shower of light. A time exposure from 10 to 30 seconds should be sufficient to capture multiple bursts on a single frame. Anything in the foreground that is moving will be blurred, but that could add to the visual excitement of the photo. One quick reminder: always use a tripod. There’s no way that anyone can hand-hold a camera at such long exposures.

A lengthy exposure tends to cause the camera’s sensor to heat up, thus causing more noise in the picture even when using low ISOs. Many cameras have a long exposure noise reduction (NR) feature. When it’s in use, after the camera takes a picture, it makes a “dark frame,” basically a blank picture of the same length of time. Then it compares the two frames and uses dark frame to cancel out most of the noise. The problem is that it effectively doubles the shooting time because the camera’s basically taking two pictures. A 10-second exposure becomes 20 and so on, and no other picture can be taken in the mean time.

Shooting the “safe and sane” home fireworks is a little different. Using a tripod and time exposures are the same but while the public displays can be very bright, they only last a short time, at most several seconds. The home fireworks can last for several minutes and are stationary. That means you need to use much shorter times, in the 1 to 5 second range with an aperture of f/11 to f/22, or you’ll get a massively overexposed bright spot in your picture.

You can get a painting with light effect with hand-held sparklers. They emit enough light, that with a high enough ISO (around 800-1600 ISO) that they can illuminate the person using it. Coupled with shutter speed of about 1/60th to 1/15th of a second and a waving motion of the sparkler, it can make for some spectacular photos. For the sharpest picture try to make sure the person doesn’t move much more than their arms or use a flash in addition to the long exposure to help freeze the motion of your subject.

In the old days of film, you had to wait until you got your pictures back from your photo finisher to see how you did. Now with digital cameras all you have to do is to “chimp” to see your results (view the pictures on you camera’s monitor). Just chimp and if the photo is too dark or bright, then adjust your setting accordingly.

So use a tripod, a time exposure and a small aperture and whether you’re watching a public fireworks event or just lighting some sparklers in your front yard, you can easily capture the visual excitement of the Fourth of July.

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