Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How to Photograph Fireworks

By Brendan Keenan, Penn Camera Tysons Corner
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With the Fourth of July just around the corner, one of the best opportunities to start shooting low light photographs is almost upon us. Fireworks are an American tradition that capture a patriotic spirit, and delight people of all ages, young and old. With a little knowledge, and the right tools and equipment you can get fantastic photographs of fireworks displays.

- Use a tripod. This is the most important piece of equipment that you can have for any type of low light photography, including fireworks displays. Because you will be shooting at slow shutter speeds, a tripod is essential to reduce camera blur. Hand holding a camera simply will not work if you want truly excellent fireworks photos. There are some great inexpensive models available from Promaster and Slik, and if you are looking for a higher end product, check out the Manfrotto or Gitzo line for top quality tripods.

- Use an off camera shutter release. By using a wireless or a tethered cable to control your camera, you can further reduce the element of camera shake by simply taking your hands off of the camera when you shoot. Even minor vibrations can cause blurring at slow shutter speeds, so use a wireless remote, or a cable release to get the best shots. Some remotes, called timer remotes, will even allow you to set duration of shutter speed from the remote, without having to touch the camera.

- Composition is key. Use your surroundings to enhance your fireworks shots. If shooting at the beach, try to include the water, for good reflections. If you are shooting in the city, like locally in D.C., use the monuments and other historical buildings to bring that all-American feel to your fireworks photos. This brings us to our next tip.

- Scout out your location early. Find a good place that will allow you to incorporate those elements of the location around you into your photographs. Show up early, try different locations, then pick your spot. Composition is one of the hardest parts of shooting fireworks. Once properly set up, experiment with different focal lengths and exposures to get the proper composition and adjustment.

- Anticipate your shots. This is probably the hardest part of shooting a fireworks display. You don't want a shot of the firework shooting into the air, you want the colorful explosion that follows to really make the shot. One thing that will really help with anticipation and composition as well as timing the shots is using a wider focal length. You can always crop later on with an editing program; since trying for tight shots, while not impossible, is not an easy thing to do well. Go wide, crop later. This will allow you to capture a good deal of sky, allowing for some leeway later on when it comes time to edit, but still giving you the opportunity to capture multiple bursts in one exposure.

- Experiment with exposure. Find the right shutter speed that will give you those shots you want, the long trails, the brilliant explosions of color. It should be long, at least a couple seconds (depending on how well you can anticipate), which is far too long for a hand held shot. Did I mention you will need a tripod? In addition, experiment with different ISO values. This can be tricky, since too high an ISO will introduce noise, but too low an ISO could cause underexposure, which is just as bad. Both will detract from the quality of the picture. So experiment, and find a happy medium. Try for good exposures in-between that range for the best results. Typically an ISO of 100 or 200 will give you very clean shots. Again, shutter speed will play a factor here, as will aperture. Shutter speeds can vary somewhat but a good f-stop is around f8 or f16. For more info on using manual exposure controls, check out our Exposure Control blog.

- Always check the horizons. It should sound simple enough but making sure your camera is not tilted when you are framing the shot can make a big difference in your pictures, especially at wider focal lengths.

- Keep your eyes on the sky. This is the best way to anticipate and time your shots. Don’t shoot through a viewfinder only showing you a portion of the sky. Look up first, shoot second.

- Turn off the flash. The flash will make no difference in your pictures, except maybe to illuminate distracting foreground clutter. Turn it off.

- Check your results as you go. Good photography requires making changes on the fly. If you are not getting what you want, try adjusting your camera settings. Practice makes perfect.

These tips mostly apply to digital SLR cameras, or other interchangeable lens cameras like the Olympus or Panasonic Micro 4/3 cameras. Many point and shoots do offer a fireworks scene mode setting that will automatically set ideal exposure for that camera, but you will still need a tripod. Exposures will be long and hand held shots are almost always very blurry and unappealing.

So remember, concentrate on your exposure, your composition, and bring a tripod. Include elements in your surroundings to make it a truly memorable photograph. Go for the shot with the explosion reflected in the water. Get a great shot with a monument in the foreground. Now you’re ready to go shoot. Scout your location, setup in good spot with a wide view of the sky, arm yourself with a tripod and a shutter release, and have fun experimenting, anticipating and enjoying the fireworks display. Happy Fourth of July everybody, and keep shooting!

Stay tuned for my next blog, which will go more in-depth on all aspects of low-light photography. Until then, enjoy the holiday!