Some Fireworks Photography Tips
June 30, 2012
Many thanks to Frederic B. Hore (www.RemarkableImages.ca) of Media Pro Enterprises in Montreal, Quebec, Canada for permission to publish his tips on exposure techniques for shooting fireworks.
These tips appeared on the Nikonians website forum. (http://www.nikonians.org) For those of you who use Nikon equipment, this is a fantastic site and a wealth of information.
The Montreal region is graced with many fireworks festivals and shows throughout the year, form the International Fireworks competition at La Ronde, to municipal displays celebrating assorted holidays. Then there are the famous New Year’s Eve Fireworks in Sydney Australia, theEiffel TowerinParis, the Carnaval pyrotechnics over the Baie des Anges during the Carnaval de Nice (France) and of course the Independence Day celebrations on the 4th of July in most major cities in the United Sates.
Fireworks are bright, almost as intense as an afternoon sun, so your aperture should be set as if shooting during the day. The exception will be what you do with your shutterspeed. Here are some basic settings:
Auto focus – OFF! Focus your lens at infinity and leave it there… its one less variable to think about! Besides, firework displays are usually (I hope!) more than 100 feet away from you, so even with a telephoto lens, focus is not an issue.
ISO 100/200 – Depending upon your camera model, set it to the lowest ISO setting. This is the optimum setting for best quality to reduce digital noise. This will also lessen the chance of overexposing the sensor.
Aperture - On average start with f/11. If the light looks weak and faint, OPEN the aperture to f/8. If it’s bright with lots of fireworks exploding, close down to f/16 or f/22.
Shutter speed – set your camera to MANUAL MODE, then set your shutter speed to BULB for manual shutter control. Plug in a shutter release cable or manual remote control (wireless remote for some models).
When the fireworks start, trip the shutter and count out loud – “one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three” and so on… s-l-o-w-l-y, so that you achieve 2 seconds exposures for a full burst, or from 4 to 6 seconds if you are shooting with a wide angle lens and wish to fill the frame, or to capture more background details.
Watch the show and practice this technique so you get the rhythm right. Avoid using your camera’s fixed shutter speeds. If you do, you will be trying to manually change your shutter speed on the fly… in the dark… with all the explosions going off! You will find this method to be very time consuming… and frustrating!
White Balance – set to Daylight/Sunny mode or 5400 degrees Kelvin (the Sun icon on your LCD display). If you want a sky that is more blue (to correct for light pollution), with city lights a more realistic colour, select the “Incandescent” mode. I have found, however, that the sunny setting is the best for rich and consistent colours. If you use Auto White, the colour rendition may change from image to image, without any consistency. Sunny is the way to go. Did I say SUNNY enough times?
Highlights - Turn on the “highlights” setting. On some Nikon cameras, this is achieved by going to the Playback menu (the “arrow” symbol), then select “Display mode.” Click on “highlight,” then go to “done” with the cursor, or press “enter” or OK. On other cameras, the “highlights” feature may be found by pressing the DISP (display) button, which scrolls through different menus displaying the histogram, shutter speed, aperture and more. Check your camera manual or menu for more details.
Upon reviewing your images, scroll through the data screens on the your monitor (with the DISP button or selector button) until a little symbol flashes indicating it will show bright spots as flashing light. Some people call these the “blinkies” which say “I’m too hot! I’m too hot!” This important feature indicates if you have overexposed an image. On some Nikon cameras, this setting is indicated by a small flashing icon marked “RGB.”
OK, now all you need to do is zoom in and compose your image. Of course during a 15 to 30 minute show, you will see small bursts and big ones, so your composition may need to be adjusted from shot to shot. From where you are positioned, when the show starts, set your zoom at one setting, take a few shots, then review your images quickly.
1. First check – are there any highlights flashing?
NO… then your exposure is OK. Expect some flashing at the nucleus or center of the burst – this is normal as it’s the brightest point in an explosion.
YES – you are overexposing and will have to close down your aperture (to f/11, f/16, f/22 or points in between). You may also have to shorten your shutter speed too. It is a combination of both. The aperture controls the amount of light, the shutter – the duration of the exposure.
2. If you photographed a burst and it was mainly red, or blue or green etc – are you seeing this correctly displayed on the replay on your cams’s LCD monitor?
If YES – your exposure is correct!
If NO – and you are seeing mostly white, the colours are overlapping, though you may not have blown out the highlights. You will have to close down the aperture again to f/11, f/16 etc, or reduce your shutter speed.
3. The explosions are happening fast and furious, and all you are seeing are images that are white! white! white!
Question : What colour do you get when you combine red, blue and green? You get – white!
The only way to capture these colours, especially as the climax or finale of the show reaches a crescendo, is to set your aperture at f/22 and shoot for 1 second or LESS. The fireworks at this point are overlapping and your very sensitive sensor, is recording this by combining all the colours to give you… white.
Finally, achieving good fireworks photography takes patience and practice. Don’t go to a show with the intent of taking 200 images, because you will end up with probably one lucky shot, and 199 that are either poor or average. Less is more!
Watch the display, and pay attention to how bright the light is. This is crucial! If the explosions are bright, close down your aperture… if weak… open up. One hand on the camera controlling your aperture, the other hand on your remote control, opening and closing your shutter.
From experience, most of my successful images were taken between f/11 and f/22 for an average of 1 to 4 seconds each. During the shows climax when perhaps hundreds of rockets are filling the sky, much shorter exposure times will be required, to 1/4 second or less! With your remote control (or shutter release cable) that means push, release; push release in a steady rhythm.
Don’t forget to periodically review your images with the histogram to verify your exposures.
If your camera’s histogram has an RGB setting, display all three color channels to make sure you are not overexposing any of them, especially the RED channel which usually clips first (by climbing “the wall” on the right side of the display).
Perhaps you will end up photographing only 60 or 70 images (an average of 2 or 3 per minute in a 30 minute show), however your chances of achieving say 10 or more really good images, or “keepers”… will be much better than if you had shot “hundreds.”