Sunday, June 30, 2013

Traveling in the US: July 4th, and its fireworks are just days away

Fireworks at the Philadelphia Museum of ArtNext week, in the United States we'll celebrate our nation's birth. In Philadelphia, America’s birthplace and it's first capital, that means after a concert at the foot of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, more than a half million people will enjoy one of the largest, most spectacular fireworks displays in the nation.

I'll be there. If you're there too, look for me south of the Art Museum.

This year I'm going to be experimenting while photographing the fireworks at the Art Museum. I'm going to use some neutral density filters to enable me to use longer exposures, enabling me to capture more fireworks' bursts in my images. I'll be experimenting with neutral density filters which add 1, 2, or 3 f/stops to my exposure. I'll explain below what that means in terms of shutter times.

Here are some of my general tips for photographing fireworks using your digital camera:
  • Scout for a location to photograph the fireworks, and choose wisely — Find a position which won’t have people wandering in front of you, and accidentally kick your equipment. Stay away from streetlamps to avoid unwanted light. Watch out for unwanted objects in your images such as tree limbs.
  • Arrive early — You've scouted a great view for your fireworks photography, so arrive early to be sure you get the spot. That will give you enough setup time too.
  • Make non-fireworks test photos — before the show begins to see if there is something unexpected in the photo, so you can recompose before the fireworks begin.
  • Always use a tripod — Good fireworks photography requires exposures lasting several seconds, or longer, to capture light trails, their full bursts and possibly multiple bursts in your images. A tripod, appropriate for your equipment is essential.
  • Use a remote shutter release — Even a minute movement of your camera can cause blurred images. Use a remote shutter release to avoid camera shake when you press the shutter release.
  • Fully charge your camera's battery(s) — You don't want your battery(s) to give out before the show's finale.
  • Bring an extra memory card — Format your memory cards to ensure they have maximum capacity, and bring an extra card to ensure you don't miss saving a single image.
  • Use manual focus — The fireworks, presumably several hundred yards/meters away, will be difficult to focus on due to the darkness, so 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 setting for your photos — 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.
  • Chose a low ISO setting for your photos — Long exposures and high ISO settings, can cause noise in digital photographs. Noise (colored pixel artifacts) will be most visible in the dark areas of your fireworks photos. Choose a low ISO for your camera (50–200).
  • Choose an aperture based on your 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.
  • It’s night, it’s dark, so you might think you need very long exposures — On the contrary, fireworks are very bright lights, which cause many to overexpose their images. To control the exposure use your camera in manual mode. I expose my fireworks photos from 2 to 4 seconds, to capture the trail and full burst. Longer exposures can produce washed-out images. Use your DSLR’s B (Bulb) shutter setting to control your exposure. 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. Shorter times may require you to open your aperture more.
  • When using a neutral density filter to lengthen your exposure — you'll need to calculate a new shutter range to use. At ISO 100, and f/8 to f/16 you'll need to lengthen the exposure to 4 to 8 seconds for a 1 stop filter, or 8 to 15 seconds for a 2 stop filter, for example.
  • Bring a small flashlight — A flashlight will enable you to see your camera’s controls and settings.
  • Set your White Balance — to daylight.
  • Frame your photo well — More often than not, but not always, a vertical format is a good choice as the trail of a skyrocket is usually upward and not wide. Consider the crowd, your position, and how the fireworks are deployed.
  • Use a normal to wide angle lens — Your position relative to the fireworks' bursts will determine the exact focal length to use. Frame your image so you have a reasonably sized foreground and "head-room" above the topmost fireworks' bursts.
  • 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 museum in my photo. Watch your horizons to keep them straight, especially if you have foreground subjects in your photos.
  • Generally turn off your flash — Your flash is useless for photographing the fireworks themselves, but might be helpful if you’re trying to light something or someone in the foreground to give your photo context and extra interest.


Niki - Vegas said...

Your idea to use a neutral density filter is an interesting one. It may be time to purchase one or two of them at this point, for fireworks and other images. Thanks.

Irv - Chicago said...

Great article. Purchased a couple of ND Filters. Will take your advice on the 4th. Thanks.

Peter - Pittsburgh said...

I've got my ND filters from using them along the seashore and I'll be experimenting with along with you, but I'll be in Pittsburgh.

Have a great 4th everyone.

Arlene - Springfield said...

Great article. Thanks. I'm out of the country right now, but I'm going to Disneyworld later this year and will take your advice there.

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