Wednesday, June 30, 2010

It's July 4th...time for the fireworks challenge.

July 4th fireworks in PhiladelphiaOn Sunday, we in the US celebrate the birth of our nation. If you've traveled to Philadelphia, the nation's first capital and America’s birthplace, immediately after the Life, Liberty & You Concert in front of the steps (Some call them the “Rocky” steps from the Rocky movies in which the fictional character, Rocky Balboa runs up the steps.) to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, more than 500,000 people 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.

    Extra Tip: Take non-fireworks test photos before the fireworks' show begins to see if there is something unexpected in the photo, such as a light or branch, so you can recompose before the fireworks begin.
  • 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 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). Noise is like the grain found in film photographs.

    Extra Tip: Noise in digital photographs is accentuated when using timed (longer) exposures, so it's even more important than for regular photographs to keep your ISO setting low.
  • 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.

    Extra Tip: Bring 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.
  • 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.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

A nice update Ned. This article is my fireworks photography bible.

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