Monday, June 29, 2009

Photographing Fireworks with your Digital Camera

July 4th fireworks in PhiladelphiaOn Saturday, we in the US celebrate the birth of our nation. If you've traveled to Philadelphia, America’s birthplace, immediately after the Independence Day Concert in front of the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, more than 500,000 people who will have come out to watch Sheryl Crow headline the free concert, will enjoy one of the largest and most spectacular fireworks displays in the nation.

That’s my segue for my tips for photographing fireworks. Here’s what you need to do to capture them this July 4th.
  • Arrive early — Before the show, scout the location, determine from where the fireworks will be launched, and try to find an unobstructed view where you can compose your photos successfully. Consider topography, lenses, zoom capability, and how high the fireworks will go in the air.
  • Consider the location wisely — If you’ll be among lots of folks viewing the fireworks, you must choose a position which won’t have people wandering in front of the camera or accidentally kicking your equipment. Stay away from streetlamps and such, to avoid light flare, and look out for tree branches and other objects which might sneak into the photos.
  • Always use a tripod — Fireworks photography requires long exposures to capture the light trails and full bursts together in a photo. Long exposure times require camera support to ensure sharp exposures, regardless of what camera you’re using, so use a tripod appropriate for your equipment. Don’t have a tripod? If you must, place your camera on a makeshift solid platform, such as a fence post, a railing, or lean against wall.
  • Use a remote shutter release — If you can, use a remote shutter release to increase your camera’s stability. That way you won’t have to touch your camera, shaking it, to snap the photos.
  • Bring extra batteries — It’s always good to be prepared in case your battery(s) give out during the display.
  • July 4th fireworks in PhiladelphiaBring a flashlight — You’re going to be shooting in the dark. A small flashlight will enable you to see your camera’s controls and settings.
  • Bring extra memory cards — I try to take photos of almost every fireworks burst. So my excitement at the beginning of the show doesn’t fill all my memory cards before the grand finale, I have plenty of them with me.
  • Use manual focus — The fireworks, presumably several hundred yards/meters away, will be difficult to focus on due to the darkness, so if you can, use manual focus and set your lens for infinity. Digital Point and Shoot cameras generally don't have a manual focus mode. Set your Point and Shoot to landscape mode, if it has one, as a “work around.” It's essentially the same as setting a DSLR to infinity.
  • Use the Highest Quality for your photo — I shoot fireworks exclusively in RAW format. If you take your photos in JPG, chose the best quality and the largest size (least compression). This is especially important for fireworks photographs because JPG compression artifacts are often created when the photograph has a high range of luminance and color contrast, like the bright colored light of fireworks bursting against a black sky.
  • Reduce noise in your photos — Long exposures and high ISO settings, can cause noise in your digital photographs. Noise (colored pixel artifacts) will mostly be visible in the very dark areas of your fireworks photos. Therefore choose low ISO for your camera (50–200).
  • It’s night, it’s dark, so you might think you need very long exposures — On the contrary, the fireworks are very bright lights, which cause many to overexpose their images. To control my exposures I use my DSLR in manual mode. I expose my photos from 1 to 4 seconds. Shorter exposures could miss the full burst and longer exposures produce washed-out images. I use my DSLR’s B (Bulb) shutter setting to control how long my shutter is open. It’s hard, but try to anticipate the beginning of the burst and open the shutter, then close it immediately after it reaches its peak. Anticipating the explosion is difficult, but not impossible. If your Point and Shoot camera doesn’t have a B setting, choose a fixed setting, such as 2 seconds. Since the shutter speed must be long enough to record the burst, control the exposure by choosing the correct aperture. Using one of the suggested apertures listed below, you can use your preview to test and then compensate the aperture accordingly.
  • The aperture you use will be based on the ISO setting — A good starting point would be ISO 100 – f/8 to f/16 or ISO 200 f/11 to f/22. Check your photos as you go along and adjust the aperture as necessary.
  • Frame your photo well — Generally a vertical format is better as the trail of a skyrocket is usually upward and not wide. For my final framing decision I will consider the crowd, my position, and how the fireworks will be deployed.
  • For my DSLR I use a normal to wide angle lens — My position relative to the fireworks bursts will determine the exact focal length I use. I frame my image so I have a good sized foreground and "head-room" above the topmost fireworks trails.
  • July 4th fireworks in PhiladelphiaGenerally you should turn off your flash —  For photographing the fireworks themselves your flash is useless, but it can be useful if you’re trying to light something in the foreground to give your photo context and extra interest.
  • Consider adding foreground subjects to your fireworks photos — Consider including a statue in the foreground, or silhouettes of the crowd, a tree or bridge or building. Note how I used the river in my photos. Watch your horizons to keep them straight, especially if you have foreground subjects in your photos.


Art said...

Thanks for the great tips. I'll be using them in NYC Saturday. I've always wanted to take fireworks pictures, but in the past they came out overexposed. I didn't know why then, but know now from your article.

Thanks again.


Suzanne said...

Great post. My fireworks photos always have lots of noise, and I've had trouble getting getting the whole burst. Now I know it's because I haven't been exposing my photos for a long enough time, and I set my ISO too high.

I'll use your advice and change my settings this Saturday.



Jane said...

Your tip on extra batteries is one that everyone should heed. I was in New York last year for the 4th and ran out of juice before the finale. I hadn't checked my battery or taken a spare. It will never happen again. This year I'm in Philadelphia and will be at the concert. I'll see if I can find you. I'd love to meet you.


Sarah said...

Bring a Flashlight!

Now why didn't I think of that while fumbling around in the dark trying to set my camera.

Great article as always.



John said...

Thanks for another good article Ned. I have noticed on many P&S cameras (I have a Nikon S6)that they have a specific fireworks setting. Does this adequately compensate?

But these are great tips and I will use them this Saturday--actually just got my remote release a month or so ago--now's the perfect time to try it out!

Steve said...

I have a point and shoot camera which doesn't have manual focus. I had no idea I could use Landscape mode. Thanks. I've been having trouble focusing when it's dark trying to get night cityscape scenes. I assume this will work for that too. I'll let you know how I make out tomorrow.

Thanks for your great articles. They've helped me a lot. I'm thinking about moving to a DSLR, now that I know a lot more about what I'm doing since coming across your blog.


Ned S. Levi said...

Hi John,

The "fireworks show" mode on your Nikon Coolpix S6 should work fine, though I haven't ever personally used that camera.

When set to "fireworks show" mode (check out page 28 of your manual) the camera sets your flash off, and sets your focus to infinity. It also is programmed to use slow shutter speeds in that mode.

Good luck. Let me know how you make out.



Harriet said...

Hi Ned,

I understand how to set my Canon PowerShot SD960 IS to the largest photo size, but what do you mean when you suggest using the highest quality.

I'm new to photography and this is my first digital camera.



Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Harriet,

The Canon SD960 has two quality (compression) settings; normal and fine. You want to choose fine. Frankly, in my opinion, I'd set your camera to fine, then forget about the setting. Your prints, even at 4x6 will look better.

Good luck with your fireworks photos.



John said...

Hi Ned,

John here. I know pros use expense tripods, but they have big cameras and big lenses. I have a Canon Powershot. Do I really need to spend $500 or more to get a tripod to handle my camera?


Ned S. Levi said...

Hi John,

To answer your basic question in a word, NO!

I have a couple of expensive carbon fiber tripods; one big one for studio work and for local photos, and one for travel which is not quite as strong, but really folds up small. Of course, I'm using a Nikon DSLR, sometimes with long, heavy lenses, and I'm producing photos for sale.

You can use a much lighter weight, far less expensive tripod for your camera. Something like the Velbon CX-690 DLX at around $60 might work well for you. Two of the things you've got to check on are how much weight can the tripod hold, and how tall is it without the center column up. For you, you want the tripod to hold at least 5-10 pounds (Yes I know that's a big range and more is better.) and get the camera up to your eye without you needing to bend over much, if at all. There's a ton of other criteria to watch for, but I think that needs to be in another article, and those are the most important aspects for you.

Good luck.



Gene said...

Ned, Hi. Why would anyone need a wide angle lens for fireworks. We're so far away from them, a normal lens seems appropriate, and perhaps we'd need a telephoto lens.


Ned S. Levi said...

Good question Gene.

If you need a telephoto lens you should try getting closer if you can. Sometimes, I know you can't do that, and a telephone lens may be appropriate. For example, the NYC Macy's fireworks this year has moved. It's now on the Hudson River, so Hoboken is a great place to view it. A short telephoto lens might be perfect for the fireworks there this year.

On the other hand, the grand finale in NYC typically has a very wide display, so a normal or wide angle lens, even from across the Hudson river might be best.

My suggestion for a wide angle or normal lens is for the typical person taking fireworks photos from a typical nearby position. Hence I don't mention telephoto lenses for particular situations.

As I'm sure you understand, my articles are geared for the widest readership possible, and the articles' length, usually no more than 800 words (often readers will not read articles they perceive to be too long and 800 words seems to be the cutoff) limits the total content. Every once in a while I'll divide an article into parts, when there's more content, which I believe to be essential, than can fit into an 800 word article.

Thanks to you and everyone else for your readership. If you have suggestions for new articles, please email me.



Tom said...

Like Sarah, I can't believe I've never thought of using a flashlight when taking photos at night. Oh my!

Thanks Ned.

Jasmine said...

Ned, like Sarah and Tom, I can't believe I never thought of the flashlight idea.


Roger said...

Ned, it goes without saying, "Your the best!" Who else consistently comes up with simple and inexpensive solutions to difficult problems like seeing your camera settings in the dark by bringing along a flashlight?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi All,

I've been carrying a flashlight in my travel kit, and my photo kit since it was suggested to me just a few years ago (LOL) in junior high school by my photography teacher (can't remember his name (I do remember it was a he.) - senior moment).

To be honest, I've seen this suggestion on the Internet before, and it's pretty much a standard item in most professional photographers kits who take urban or wildlife or any outdoor photos for that matter. You've got to be prepared.

Thanks to all for your kind words.


Sandy said...

Ned, if I keep my flash on my DSLR to light up someone in the foreground of a fireworks photo, aren't I going to overexpose the fireworks, which as you said are already very bright?

Thanks for your answer.

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Sandy,

I'm going to assume you're going to be at least a couple of hundred yards/meters from the fireworks to make sure you're safe.

Assuming I'm right, since the light from your flash doesn't have enough power to get that far, it will have no effect on the fireworks themselves.

I'm also going to assume that the light from the flash is going to provide most of the light for the person in the foreground, that there are no street lights or other lights giving significant light on them.

Use your flash manually. Set its power to properly light your subject in the foreground at the f/setting you've chosen for your shot of the fireworks. The duration of the flash will be much shorter than the total time your shutter is open to catch the light of the fireworks. Make sure you set your flash sync to be normal, so the flash shoots off at the beginning of your exposure. When your shutter closes, you'll have your shot of the person in the foreground properly exposed by the flash, and the fireworks properly exposed via your shutter open duration.

If there is reasonable ambient light on your foreground person and your flash is supplementing it, consider rear sync for the light to avoid strange looks of the person if they move at all during the overall exposure. In rear sync the flash will go off at the end of the exposure. In this case, don't use bulb exposure. Use a set number of seconds on the shutter speed dial, or rear sync won't work properly if at all.

Good luck and let me know how it turns out.


Jackie said...

Ned, every time I go to a fireworks display there are always thousands of people milling around watching. Where do you go to get out of their way?

Ned S. Levi said...

Jackie, sometimes it's not easy.

I do a couple of things to secure a good spot, which is similar to what I do when taking any event photos.

First, I try to go to the location at least a day before the event. If there are going to be special temporary stands, barriers, or other obstacles set up, then I make a point to go the day before or the morning of the event, if it's late in the day or in the evening, to see where I might set up, and where I can't set up.

If I can find a location with some natural or man (woman) made barriers I might choose that location.

Sometimes, there really is no good location which will isolate me from a crowd, so I have to create one. So second, I always have a photographer's 5 step ladder with me. It gets me above the crowd (I try to set it up where it won't interfere with the enjoyment of the event by others.) and keeps my tripod or monopod with camera protected and somewhat isolated.

The most important thing to do is scout out the location in advance. Often I'm at the event, well before it starts too. I might be able to engage some people in talk and get some fine photos. I might be able to get into a special spot with permission. I make sure, that way, I won't miss anything important. Timing of events often isn't exact, so you've got to take that into account.


Jackie said...

What's the difference between the photographer's step ladder and any step ladder?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Jackie,

The difference is stability, mobility and the size of the steps.

A typical step ladder has steps that are about 12"-15" deep, max. The top of the step ladder has no safety bar.

My photographer's step ladder's steps are 20" and the top step is 30". Protruding up is an aluminum safety rail which has a rubber sleeve. The photographer's step ladder is far more stable front to back and side to side. It's has to be, as it's designed to be stood on for hours at a time. It has to support the photographer and equipment and have a platform which can hold a tripod or monopod. Mine has a 300 lbs. capacity. The railing which rises above the top step (platform) can be held onto, or you can brace your legs against for stability.

The photographer's step ladder also has large retractable wheels to help move it around easily.

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