With summertime around the corner, Canada Day, and other festivals, here is an appetizer for taking pictures of fireworks.
What You’ll Need
1. A camera that can have its shutter open for 2 seconds or longer (almost all cameras have this capacity, except for the most basic film point & shoot models)
2. A tripod
3. (Where applicable) The camera’s remote control or cable release; if you have a DSLR, it usually has to be purchased separately
This will be your best friend; image from Wikimedia Commons, created by user Rfc1394/Paul Robinson.
Familiarize yourself with your camera’s settings long before the day of the event. Mount your camera on the tripod and practice taking some night shots around your yard, or in wide open area, like a park or on top of a hill. You should be able to locate your settings by touch in low lighting, especially if you are using a DSLR. If you have a choice between “live view” and an eyepiece, try using the eyepiece as much as possible, since the rear LCD screen is illuminated and can interfere with your night vision. (The screen is also distracting to anyone who happens to be behind you.)
If you are using a point & shoot camera, experiment with the different options for nighttime photography (even the most basic digital camera should have options for exposures between 5 and 30 seconds; for fireworks, you should need no more than a 10-second exposure). The most challenging part of this type of photography with a point & shoot camera is to keep it in focus – if you do not have a manual option – between exposures. Sometimes focusing to infinity (a setting usually marked by an icon resembling mountains in the distance) does not always work, as your scene may be closer than the camera’s definition of infinity. If you are able to go to the site a few days beforehand, you can take test shots and see what are the best options for focusing on a scene.
Remember, most firework displays tend to be in the 15-minute range. You do not have much time to work with and enjoy the show at the same time.
Pick a Location
Don’t just aim your camera at a blank spot in the air and wait for it to fill up with the pyrotechnics; include some reference points to your setting (e.g. cityscape, dock, etc.) For safety, most firework displays are set up over a body of water, which also provides you with a horizon and reflections to add to your scene.
Since fireworks can be seen from quite a distance, you may prefer picking a location away from the main venue, which will be less crowded and may also have less ground illumination interfering with your pictures.
For the third year in a row, the Timmins Canada Day fireworks display was set up by the McIntyre Headframe – more information about the setting at the end of this appetizer. For a break from the front-on view with the lake, I picked a less crowded location about a kilometer to the west, which created a different effect. Note: This is a 5-second exposure at f/7.1., which creates the illusion of daylight; however, at 10:20pm, it was still twilight.
Try to get to your location long before it gets dark in order to be able to set up your camera on its tripod, get your scene in focus, and take some test shots. You may have to change some of your settings (e.g. exposure time) as it gets darker, but keep in mind the fireworks give off quite a bit of illumination.
Allow for about a good 6 feet (2m) radius of where you set up with your tripod, as you may have to move everything from side to side to get the desired scene, and try not to get in the way of other people. Try to avoid setting up around young children running around, and always be aware of your surroundings.
If you have a remote control, especially one that plugs into the side of the camera like a cable release, you may want to use it to reduce the risk of the camera body from moving between shots.
Resist Using These Features
Flash: Make sure your camera’s built-in flash has been turned off; it is often turned on by default in some nighttime shooting modes. In addition to being distracting, having the flash on means the camera will be taking exposures of 1/60th a second or faster, and any objects in its immediate vicinity will be illuminated. You will end up with bright foreground/backs of people’s heads and dots of light from the fireworks in the distance.
Fireworks Mode: Although many point & shoot cameras have a fireworks setting, try not to rely on it solely, as you do not have much control over the results. In addition to a fixed exposure time of a few seconds (good for getting the firework trails), this setting may have built-in colour saturation that could give an artificial feel to the pictures. Use it in moderation.
High ISO Numbers: If you can adjust the ISO (the image sensor light sensitivity), try to avoid going over 1600. Although you will get brighter pictures with shorter exposure times, the darker areas of your scene can become quite grainy (resembling a fuzzy television signal), which can be quite noticeable if you make large photographic prints.
Really Long Exposures (“Bulb” Mode, not on all cameras): Although it may seem like a creative endeavour to get a minute or more worth of fireworks in a single shot, what will actually result is an overexposed frame resembling daylight with pale streaks of fireworks. You should be able to get good pictures using exposures of 15 seconds or less.
The Bulb setting also requires the shutter release to be held open manually, and unless you have an accessory remote control that can lock the shutter release, you will end up having to hold down the button by hand. Even with a tripod, it will be a matter of only a few seconds before your body shake transfers to the camera and blurs the image.
Some Settings to Try
If you are comfortable using your camera in Manual mode, and have a good feel for what you can expect for lighting, you can experiment with a small aperture (f/16 or higher) and exposure times varying from 5 to 30 seconds in length. (For aperture size, a bigger number designates a smaller opening to let in light.) You can try setting a larger aperture (up to about f/4) with shorter exposure length, and still get a good sense of depth in your scene.
If you want your camera to take over the guess work or experiment with different effects, here are few modes you can try.
Burst Setting: Most cameras have a mode for taking rapid-fire pictures back to back, dubbed the “burst” setting. The adjustment for that should be found where around the same area you can find a timer to delay the shutter release up to 10 seconds. Sometimes the adjustment will be labelled “Drive” and you should see an icon that changes from a single rectangular frame to three frames overlapping each other. When you select this mode, you will be able to take a “burst” of images by holding down the shutter release button for a few seconds, and then letting go. Depending on the camera, it can take anywhere from 3 to 14 frames per second*. This is good for using with the rapid speed and sequence of fireworks, but you will also be deleting quite a few “okay” shots for every really good one you have.
When using the “burst” setting, you have to keep in mind that you will end up with exposures are going to be fractions of a second long. Depending on how dark your location is, you will have to use a larger aperture opening and a higher ISO. The pictures created will have a good sensation of “frozen in time”, but they may have a static feel to them.
The burst mode of my DSLR created a 0.6-second exposure of fireworks in action. In order to make a decent exposure, the lens aperture was set to f/4 and the ISO at 800. This is the best of several frames in sequence.
* Note: This latter figure is for high-end professional DSLRs.
Aperture Priority Mode (A or Av)
You can try setting your camera to the aperture priority mode (“A” or “Av”, depending on the make of camera), and then set the aperture to a small size like f/20. The camera’s computer then calculates what would be the best length of time for the shutter to stay open to make a proper exposure. What should result is an exposure several seconds long, which will include the firework trails and give you a sense of motion in the scene.
The aperture was set to f/20 and the ISO to 800 – the camera determined an exposure time of 15 seconds.
Shutter Priority Mode (S or Tv)
Shutter priority mode essentially works the opposite way Aperture priority; you set the exposure time (and ISO, if applicable), and the camera determines what aperture would give the best exposure. A disadvantage to Shutter priority – especially if you start a longer exposure in low lighting – is that the aperture could be quite large, overexposing the scene as it becomes more illuminated over a short course of time.
Extra: A Few Inexpensive Special Effects
Although fireworks on their own are usually spectacular, you may want to try something a little different withe some shots. Two methods of making interesting special effects without spending a fortune on filters are diffraction glasses and a simple kaleidoscope. Simply hold either up to the lens (you may lose some focusing on the scene) when you take the picture.
Diffraction Glasses: These are sometimes called fireworks glasses or rainbow glasses and can be found at party supply stores, science toy stores, or are sometimes given away at large fireworks venues (and of course, you can find them on ebay). They consist of a thin translucent film that breaks all viewed light into its component colours, like looking through a prism. The most economical ones have film lenses with cardboard frames, while more sturdy ones have plastic lenses and frames. Sometimes you can find diffracting lenses sold one their own, too. As individual units, diffracting glasses should not cost more than a couple dollars, but you may end up having to buy them in bulk if you have to order them online. (Here’s the link to a retailer in Nova Scotia: http://fireworksfx.com/rainbow-glasses.html; you can also find them on ebay, or some may be sold at fireworks venues.)
These photographs were taken using a diffraction filter called a “Jupiter Scope”, which looks to have been sold between the late 1960s and 1980s; there’s more information here.
Open-ended Kaleidoscope: There some inexpensive toy kaleidoscopes consist simply of a multifaceted piece of clear plastic on the end of a housing with an eye hole on it, which could work against the small lens of some point & shoot cameras, but if you want something that can be held up to the end of a DSLR lens, you’ll need something bigger. You can take the eyepiece and end off a toy tubular kaleidoscope (be sure it isn’t a valuable antique!), or you can make a basic kaleidoscope three long, thin mirrors – or similar shiny material with an opaque backing, which can then be held up to your camera’s lens. If you have a younger family member or friend, making a kaleidoscope and using it for fireworks photography could be a good summer activity.
An “Instructables” Project for Making a Kaleidoscope for Photography (Involves mirrors and a glass cutter):
A more child-friendly kaleidoscope project (not illustrated); skip steps 6 & 7 about filling the end with trinkets; step 8 is also optional:
Note: I have not yet tried using a kaleidoscope with my camera, but if anyone has experimented with this effect, please leave a comment and let me know how it worked out.
About the pictures: These photographs were taken in Schumacher, Ontario (a community about a kilometre east of Timmins) on Canada Day 2011 and 2012. In the 2011 photos, lake in the foreground is Pearl Lake and the structure in the background is the McIntyre Headframe – remains of the mine site by the same name. A headframe houses the hoisting mechanism for access to the mine shaft below. The illuminated “X” on the building is the logo for the Xstrata mining company, which sponsored the fireworks display that year. In the 2012 photos, only the top of the headframe is seen from the side. The sky was somewhat overcast and even as late as 10:20pm, it was still twilight, not dark.
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