Monday, December 28, 2009

Photographing fireworks in winter weather

July 4th fireworks in PhiladelphiaAs Thursday night becomes Friday morning this week, we’ll go from New Years Eve to New Years Day. Across much of the country that means fireworks.

Photographing fireworks takes planning and knowledge at anytime, but January 1st in much of North America also means it will be cold. Cold weather offers additional challenges for fireworks photography.

Here are my tips for photographing fireworks in cold weather.

  • Scout for a great location — Before the show, once you know from where the fireworks will be launched, scout the location to find an unobstructed view. Consider topography, lenses, zoom capability, and how high the fireworks will go in the air. Try to find a location sheltered from the wind. Wind significantly exacerbates the effects of cold weather.

  • 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.

  • When you go outside into the cold — It may be humid inside your hotel, so when you go outside there may be some initial fog on your lens. Don’t wipe the fog away, it will dissipate quickly on its own.

  • 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.

  • 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. This is critical in winter weather as cold temperatures can significantly reduce battery life. Keep your extra batteries close to your body, under your outerwear to keep them as warm and functioning as possible.

  • 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.

  • While waiting for the show to start — Keep your camera as warm and dry as possible. In freezing weather, I keep my camera under my parka, until the last minute.

  • 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 — You can’t actually focus your camera on the fireworks, presumably several hundred yards/meters away, so if you can, use manual focus and set your lens for infinity. You can 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 — To the contrary, fireworks are very bright lights, which cause many to overexpose their images. Using 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. 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 manual 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.

  • 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 final framing, consider the crowd, your position, and how the fireworks are 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.
Don’t forget to protect yourself from the cold weather. For more tips on cold weather photography see my article, Brrrr! 8 secrets for mastering travel photography in cold weather.


Harvey said...

Great update of your previous fireworks advice, with the extra information to help in cold weather.

Jon said...

Ned, does cold weather really affect digital camera's that much?

Ned S. Levi said...

More than anything, Jon, cold weather affects battery power and battery life, unless it gets around zero F or lower. Then you can have problems with the mechanical parts of the camera, like the overall shutter mechanism and lens focus system.

But for most people, the loss of battery power, which can easily drop it by half can be a killer.

In typical northeast US winter conditions you've got to keep your spare batteries warm, and your camera warm when not in use.

James said...

I just got back from our New Year's holiday. Having followed your advice, my New Year's fireworks photos are better than I've ever done.

Thanks so much for your great blog.


Wendy said...

Ned, like James I followed your advice to a "T" and was rewarded.

I look forward to your articles each week.


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