Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Photographing July 4th fireworks with your camera or smartphone

Philadelphia Museum of Art, July 4th FireworksThursday is July 4, Independence Day, in the U.S. The nation's second president, John Adams, is in large part responsible for how it's celebrated. In his July 3, 1776 letter to Abigail, his wife, he said that the day 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 Pennsylvania Evening Post stated that in Philadelphia on July 4, 1777, “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.”

Fireworks are extremely bright and persist for a few seconds, typically against an almost black background. Focus and particularly the exposure settings for fireworks' photos aren't straight-forward. If you're traveling in the U.S. this week, here are my fireworks' photography tips for digital cameras and smartphones.

Scout for a location and choose wisely:
Fireworks draw large crowds. Find a position where people won't wander in front of you and accidentally knock into your equipment. Choose an upwind location from the fireworks to avoid their smoke, which can obscure your images. Avoid unwanted light from street lamps. Consider the setting's background. Look out for tree branches that could intrude into your photo.

Arrive early:
To be able to claim the great spot you scouted, arrive early. Make a few test photos to ensure nothing unexpected shows up in your images, like a light or branch.

Always use a tripod:
Whether you're shooting with a camera or smartphone, fireworks' photography requires long exposures to capture both light trails and full bursts in your photos. That requires camera support to ensure sharp images. Use a tripod appropriate for your equipment.

For smartphones get a camera app that allows manual shooting:
Fireworks' images are best made when you can manually set your smartphone camera's exposure settings manually. Most camera apps that come standard on smartphones have limited manual capability or don't have it at all. For Android, consider Camera FV-5 ($3.95). For the iPhone, I use ProCam 6 ($5.99). Both of these apps provide extensive manual control to make great fireworks' photos.

Use a remote shutter release:
Minute movements of your camera or smartphone can blur your images. When using either, use a remote shutter release, if possible, to avoid shake caused by pressing the shutter release button. Most cameras accept wireless or wired remote shutter releases. For iPhones, if you have an Apple Watch, you can use it as a remote shutter release with the ProCam 6 app.

Start with a fully charged battery:
You don't want to run out of power before the end of the show.

Have enough free memory:
I typically take photos of every fireworks' burst. I format the largest memory card I have, so it's at full capacity in my camera. For smartphones, consider off-loading as many photo and video files as possible, so you have plenty of room for shooting the fireworks.

Use manual focus:
The fireworks will likely be several hundred yards/meters away or more. It's difficult to focus in darkness, so focus manually and set it to infinity. For cameras or smartphones 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.

It’s night, but 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(s) and burst(s). If your camera or smartphone app has a B (Bulb) shutter setting, you can use it for long exposures. Try to anticipate the beginning of the burst and open the shutter. Close it immediately after it reaches its peak.

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 on your camera. On smartphones you'll need to experiment to find the best exposure value (EV). Check your photos as you shoot and adjust the aperture or EV as necessary.

White Balance:
Set your white balance to daylight.

Frame your photo well:
A vertical format is generally better as the trail of a skyrocket is usually upward and not wide. Frame your image so you have a reasonably sized foreground and "head-room" above the topmost fireworks' bursts. For cameras, your position relative to the firework's display will determine your optimal lens focal length.

Turn off your flash:
Your flash is useless for photographing fireworks themselves, though it might be used to light something in the foreground to give your photo context and extra interest.

Add a foreground subject:
Possibly add a statue, crowd silhouettes, a tree or building in the foreground for context and interest.

Have a blast shooting fireworks on July 4th.

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