a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Photographing Fireworks

Friday, July 06, 2012

Photographing Fireworks

SUMMARY: Some people have asked how I got such great shots.
These are most likely the best photos I've gotten of fireworks, and as I told one person today, I got them by following directions.

You can search the web for "photographing fireworks" and come up with tons of pages. Here's the link I looked at this year:

In a nutshell:
  • For all cameras:
    • Use tripod!
    • Use remote shutter release or 2-second timer to reduce camera shake 
    • Zoom in as needed
    • (Of course you know that you don't use flash to shoot fireworks, right? Just in case the thought crossed your mind--)
  • If you have an SLR (I have a Canon DSLR):
    • Use lowest ISO (my lowest is 100). (This helps to keep the sky black and not grainy.)
    • Use shutter speed 5 to 8 seconds
    • Use f4 to f8
    • Set lens to manual focus and set focus to infinity
    • Adjust everything as needed based on your situation (see the article).
  • If you have a point and shoot, check whether there's a fireworks setting--most do nowadays, the article said. I checked, and surprise!, my Canon S100 indeed has a fireworks setting. Just FYI, when I used the setting, the camera shot at:
    • ISO 80
    • Shutter speed 2 seconds
    • f8
    • Guessing it must've set itself to manual focus/infinity, because I didn't notice it trying to achieve autofocus
    • No flash
I shot some of the show with each camera. Some of my notes from the evening:

  • The most important thing for me is always using a tripod or some way of keeping the camera completely still.
  • The biggest ah-ah! for me this year on the DSLR was using manual focus set to infinity. Neither you nor the camera have to try to figure out how to focus on a nebulous object in the dark. Maybe if you were trying to get a shot with some in-focus, well-lit foreground object--say, the disneyland castle--you  could use auto focus, but even then I think probably manually set it once and leave it there.
  • A longer shutter speed gets you longer trails on the fireworks and more fireworks per shot. I ended up at about 4-second shots with my DSLR, after the 5 and 8 seconds just seemed to have too MUCH in them.  The 2-second setting with the pocket camera was too short; next time I would just set the camera to manual mode (I can do that with mine) and give it a longer time.  Of course, this will change depending on how quickly they're releasing fireworks into the sky. You don't really need to adjust the aperture (f stop) much once  you figure it out for your situation, because the fireworks burn and spread so rapidly and are then gone, so it's not like a single light shining in a single spot.  You could probably set the shutter speed to 10 seconds and still get good lighting but a mass of overlapping fireworks--I think it would look quite cluttered unless the fireworks were really spread out across the sky. (And 10 seconds might start making the sky too light.)
  • For the grand finale--maybe it's because they were shooting things so close together--the image burned out in the middle. Would've been better to have a smaller aperture or faster shutter speed during that time. Not sure whether that's true for all shows.
  • Set up the camera and keep shooting. Each firework took less than 4 seconds and they were usually shooting one up at least every few seconds. I tried to time pressing the shutter either as soon as I saw a rocket head upwards from the ground, or at the instant that it exploded. I could do either of those with the SLR at 4+ seconds, but with only 2 seconds, the timing was more crucial; I think that hitting the shutter at the instant it starts to explode works better for that.
    But, essentially, I essentially just pressed the shutter again each time the previous shot completed.
  • Tripod: For my DSLR, I own a lightweight tripod that can have quite a bit of shake just from the shutter releasing. We sat on the ground this time, so the tripod was fairly short. I held it down firmly with one hand below the camera, pressing it towards the ground, to help reduce shake.  For the small camera, I used a gorillapod. We had these nifty chairs that are just a back and a seat so you're sitting comfortably on the ground. The gorillapod on my bent knee proved to be rock solid.
  • About using a remote shutter release or the timer--meant to bring my remote release for the DSLR but forgot. Or use a 2-second timer--yeah, decided really quickly that, especially with the 2-second shutter speed, I wanted to press the shutter exactly at a certain moment. So I placed my hand firmly on the camera, also pressing it down onto the tripod, pressed the shutter, and just held my finger there until the shot completed (didn't release my finger from the shutter).
  • Some of the fireworks were burned out in the middle of each tentacle. Maybe something smaller than f4 would've been slightly better, although the darker colored ones weren't showing up nearly as well as the really bright, light ones. 
  • I would've liked to have more photos with more fireworks in each; guess I'll experiment with longer shutter speeds again next time. 
  • Really, though, it's a crapshoot what you're going to get. because by the time you see what a firework looks like, it's too late to get its photo.  You don't know whether they're sending up one or a bunch, or whether they'll all be in the same spot one after the other (burns out the middle) or nicely spaced across the sky, etc. Just start shooting and keep shooting (and as I noted above, try to time it as rocket is going up or just as it explodes).
  • If you want photos of what the fireworks really looked like--such as the ones that explode as a smiley face or heart or whatever--you'll need a much faster shutter speed. I didn't even bother trying those.
  • We didn't know until the show started how low in the sky the fireworks were going to be and how the distant row of trees would block our view. It was a bit of a disappointment, although I don't think it's a bad thing to have something in the foreground. It was too dark and too crowded to try to move at that point.
  • In post-processing, I ended up reducing highlights on almost all the photos, so a smaller fstop even than f8 might have worked better. I also ended up cropping almost all the photos, but I think that's unavoidable if you just want to set up your camera and not move it around.
Good luck trying your own! Let me know if you do shoot some and how it worked for you.

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