Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Shooting new year's fireworks in cold weather

Fireworks in PhiladelphiaWhile it's not as cold in most of the northern hemisphere as it is in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and Longyearbyen, Svalbard, it still can be frigid enough to affect your new year's fireworks photography.

To photograph new year's fireworks in icy weather, photographers must combine good cold weather practices, night photography techniques, and the specific exposure requirements necessary to capture fireworks images. If you don't have a DSLR, don't think you can't make great fireworks images. With intelligent use, quality digital point and shoot cameras can make these photos too.

  • Battery Power — Having enough battery power is essential for digital cameras in frigid weather. Freezing temperatures sap battery strength quickly, even when the camera's turned off. Carry spare batteries in your parka’s inside pockets, against your body, to keep them warm. The warmer the battery, the longer it will work. When shooting for a long time, rotate your batteries to enable you to shoot longer.
  • Insulate your Camera — If you're in an area with temperatures below 20ºF (-7ºC) consider insulating your camera, especially if out for more than an hour or two. I use an insulated camera bag with pockets for hand warmer packets to keep my DSLR warm.
  • While waiting for the show to start — Keep your camera as warm and dry as possible. I keep my camera under my parka until the last minute, in frigid weather.
  • Damaging Weather — Falling snow can cause as much damage to your camera/lens as rain. In any precipitation keep your camera/lens protected with a rain cover which allows you to safely shoot in snow squalls, sleet or downpours.
  • Bringing your Camera Inside — Returning to the warmth of your hotel or home after shooting in cold weather can cause severe condensation problems for your camera/lens. Upon returning, the humidity in your hotel or home's warm air will condense on the camera’s cold surfaces. Lenses and the mechanical and electronic components inside your camera can become completely covered with moisture, which may can cause electrical and mechanical havoc. Avoid the problem by placing your cold camera/lens in a plastic bag kept outside, before coming inside. That way, the humidity in the air will condense on the outside of the bag, rather than on the camera’s exterior and interior surfaces. Make sure your camera is turned off before bringing it inside.
  • Scout for a great location — Before the fireworks show, scout for a location to shoot the action with an unobstructed view. Consider topography, lenses, zoom capability, and how high the fireworks will go in the air. Find a spot sheltered from the wind to make it easier to keep the camera/lens steady and diminish “wind chill factor” effects. Stay away from streetlamps and and other lighting to avoid light flare. Look for tree branches and other overhead objects which might sneak into the photos.
  • Always use a tripod — Fireworks photography requires long exposure times to capture light trails and full bursts together in your photos, therefore a tripod is essential to ensure sharp exposures, regardless of what camera you’re using. 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 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 — Trying to make photos of almost every fireworks' burst could fill a memory card's capacity before the grand finale, so bring extra memory cards. When close to full, swap a card for an empty one at a lull in the show so you don't get caught needing to swap cards during the finale.
  • Use manual focus — You can’t actually focus your camera on the fireworks, which will generally be at least several hundred yards/meters away, so if you can, use manual focus and set your lens for infinity. You can set a Point and Shoot camera to landscape mode, if it has one, as a “work around.” It's essentially the same as setting focus distance to infinity.
  • Use the Highest Quality for your photo — If using a DSLR, shoot the fireworks in RAW format. If shooting 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, such as the bright colored lights of fireworks' bursts against a black sky.
  • It’s night, it’s dark, so you might think you need very long exposures — If you do, you're wrong. 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 will likely miss the full fireworks' burst. Longer exposures will produce washed-out images. Attempt to anticipate the beginning of the burst, and open the shutter. 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, you must choose an appropriate aperture for the long shutter speed.
  • The aperture you use will be based on the ISO setting — A good starting point would be ISO 100 with an aperture of f/8 to f/16 or ISO 200 with an aperture of f/11 to f/22. Check your photos periodically 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.
  • Use a normal to wide angle lens — Your position relative to the fireworks bursts will determine the best focal length to use. Frame the image to have a good sized foreground and space above the topmost fireworks bursts.
  • Generally turn off your flash — For the fireworks themselves your flash is useless, but it may 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, silhouettes of the crowd, a tree, bridge or building. Watch the horizons to keep it straight, especially if there are foreground subjects in your photos.

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