Sunday, May 13, 2007

FAQ: How to take fireworks pictures

I got a lot of people asking me about this after I posted these fireworks pictures so I thought I'd do a little writeup, much like I did for the underwater photography one earlier. It's not meant to be exhaustive, it's just how I do it.

First off, imagine a single airburst. You have the bright leading edge, which is just a point, and then the trails off behind them. Well, that trail is some combination of persistence of vision and a faint glow. The camera won't pick it up. So if you just take a normal kind of fraction of a second shot, you'll just get a ball made up of the bright bits but they usually don't look that impressive. To really capture a burst, you need a long exposure.

So what you do is get a tripod, mount the camera, and make your best guess as to where the fireworks will be and get everything set up. Here's a shot I took just as it was getting dark - usually the best time before it gets pitch black. If you look at the next few shots you can see me zooming in a bit and adjusting because I guessed a bit wrong as to where the fireworks would appear. Still, it's faster if you're at least in the ballpark to start.

Turn off any kind of autofocus and manually focus at infinity (it's usually labeled). You really don't want your poor camera to be constantly trying to focus on the fireworks and getting confused while you're shooting. I don't want to launch a big discussion of how depth of field works, but if you're talking about professional fireworks "infinity" will be in focus, and if not, you're way, way too close!

Turn off the flash, it's not going to do a thing.

Put the camera in manual exposure mode. The aperture is really what controls the exposure. You need to tune it for how bright the explosions are. At a distance I ended up with f/7.1. Up close anywhere from f/8 to f/16 will be typical. Just pick something like f/8 to start and keep an eye on it the first few shots and adjust as needed (obviously digital's a big help here).

The white balance can be at either daylight or tungsten (probably a little light bulb icon). I think the color's more accurate with tungsten but it's really up to you.

So that leaves the time of the exposure. What you want to do if you can is set the camera to bulb mode, where it keeps the shutter open as long as you press down the button. Then you can just press the button, let a burst or two complete, then let ago. Everything in that time will be on the frame. If you get two bursts up high and as you are letting those finish two more are starting down low, all four bursts will be in the frame even though to your eye they happened at different times. It's a bit of a black art knowing how long to hold things open, but experiment. One issue is that if you have something that makes a shape, like a heart, you probably want a really short exposure so you can see the shape. The exposures for me might range from a fraction of a second to maybe 7 seconds.

If there is no bulb mode pick something in the 1-5 second range and just accept that your keeper rate will be lower. If you don't have a release it's not that big of a deal, it's just harder to watch the show if you actually have to be touching the camera.

So basically the workflow is the first few bursts you adjust the framing as best you can, and double check the exposure and if that's not right you adjust the aperture a couple of times. Then once it's pretty good just leave it be, don't look through the camera again, enjoy the show and keep pressing and releasing that release button as seems sensible. And again - enjoy the show - it's easy to forget to actually see the fireworks while shooting them!

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