Thursday, June 29, 2017

On July 4th, are you photographing fireworks?

Fourth of July fireworks at the Philadelphia Museum of ArtThe U.S. has celebrated its independence with fireworks in towns and cities across the nation since 1777. History tells us John Adams, second President of the U.S. is in large part responsible for the way we celebrate the Fourth of July. In his July 3, 1776 letter to his wife, Abigail, he said that the occasion should be celebrated “with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

The first Independence Day commemoration occurred the next year in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Evening Post stated, “The evening closed with the ring of bells and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons and the city was beautifully illuminated.”

Photographing fireworks is making images of extremely bright light which persists for a few seconds, which you have to anticipate occurring, against a black background, so working out exposure and focus isn't necessarily straight-forward. Here are my tips for photographing fireworks using a digital camera:
  • Scout for a location and choose wisely — Fireworks draw large crowds. 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. Consider the setting, background, and look out for tree branches.
    Tip: Take an upwind position to avoid the smoke from the fireworks which can obscure your images.
  • Arrive early — Make sure you can claim the great spot you scouted by arriving early. That will give you time to set-up too.
    Tip: Take non-fireworks test photos before the show begins to ensure there will be nothing unexpected in your photos, such as a light or branch.
  • Always use a tripod — Good fireworks photography requires exposures lasting several seconds to capture both light trails and full burts together in photos. That requires camera support to ensure sharp images. Use a tripod appropriate for your equipment.
  • Use a remote shutter release — Minute movements of your camera can blur your images. Use a remote shutter release, if possible, to avoid camera shake caused by pressing the shutter release. 
  • Start with a fully charged battery — You don't want to run out of power before the end of the show. 
  • Use an image free memory card with enough capacity for the show — I try to take photos of every fireworks' burst. I calculate how many shots I'll make during the show and use a memory card which can easily store them all. I format the card before I start to have full capacity and be sure it's ready. 
  • Use manual focus — The fireworks, presumably several hundred yards/meters away, will be difficult to put in focus in darkness, so focus manually and set it to infinity. For cameras that don't have manual focus, use landscape mode to approximate it. 
  • 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) to avoid JPG compression artifacts which often occur in scenes with high luminance and color contrast as in fireworks' images. 
  • Chose a low ISO setting for your photos — To minimize digital noise in your fireworks photos use a low ISO setting of 50–200. 
  • While it’s night and dark, you don't need extremely long exposures — Fireworks are very bright lights. Set your camera to manual exposure mode. I expose my fireworks photos from 1 to 4 seconds to capture the trail and full burst. Use your DSLR’s B (Bulb) shutter setting to control your exposure. Try to anticipate the beginning of the burst and open the shutter. Close it immediately after it reaches its peak. 
  • 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 
  • Base your aperture 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 shoot 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.
  • White Balance — Set your white balance to daylight. 
  • Frame your photo well — Vertical format is generally better as the trail of a skyrocket is usually upward and not wide.
  • 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. 
  • Turn off your flash — Your flash is useless for photographing fireworks themselves. Only use it 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, silhouettes of the crowd, a tree or bridge or building in the foreground for context or interest, like I used the museum in my photo.
Have a blast shooting fireworks on July 4th.

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