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How to Photograph Fireworks
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Fireworks!!!

Fireworks!!! (Nikon D800E, Nikon 24mm f/1.4 G, program auto gave f/1.4 at 1/30 at Auto ISO 6,400, Matrix meter, autofocused once on Ryan then set to MANUAL focus to hold, VIVID Picture Control at +3 Saturation, A3 M1 AWB.) bigger.

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4th of July, 2012       Better Pictures   Nikon   Canon    Fuji    LEICA   All Reviews

 

Introduction

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First I'm going to explain how to make the usual photos of fireworks everyone loves, and at the end, I'll explain how I made this photo of my family watching the fireworks.

 

Method

Fireworks are simple to photograph. Fireworks are photographed by opening the camera's shutter over a period of several seconds to let the fireworks' streamers draw lines on the film.

We open the camera shutter for a burst, and as the bright streamers fly through the sky, they draw the pretty effects you're used to seeing.

Here's how to do it:

 

SLR (fancy) Cameras

1.) Turn off your flash.

2.) Set the lens to manual focus and set it to the ∞ (infinity) mark. With most autofocus cameras, use autofocus to focus on something very far away, and then reset it to Manual focus to lock the focus at infinity for the rest of the night.

3.) Put the camera on tripod. Use a cable release or remote control so you won't have to jiggle the camera.

If you don't use a tripod, the smooth streaks will become squiggles. If you want weird special effects, be my guest and wiggle the camera around to see what happens.

4.) If your camera has it, shoot on M or Manual exposure mode.

5.) Set the camera on "B" or "Bulb." When you press the shutter, the camera opens to light, and stays open until you remove your finger.

Some cameras have a "T" (time) setting, which instead stays open by itself and closes when you press the shutter a second time. This isn't as convenient.

If you have neither of these, set a long manual exposure of many seconds, and start the exposure the usual way. Use your hand in front of the lens to stop it. If you have no remote control or cable release, set a long exposure and use your hand or a hat to start and stop the exposure.

If you have none of these settings, so long as you turn off your flash, you will be as good to go as possible.

Check your camera's instructions if you can't find these settings. If you can't find them, for the USA, phone Nikon at (800) NIKON-UX for digital, (800) NIKON-US for film, and (800) OK-CANON for Canon.

6.) Shoot at the lowest ISO for the best results. Turn off ISO AUTO because it will try to set a high ISO in the dark. If you have no idea what ISO is, forget about it.

7.) Try an aperture of f/5.6 at ISO 50 and ISO 100, and f/8 at ISO 200 for starters. If you don't know what an aperture is, or your camera doesn't have this adjustment, don't worry.

8.) Open the shutter before the first burst. Hold it open several seconds, until one burst completes, or hold it open longer for several bursts.

As more bursts happen, they "draw" on you film or digital, and add together to look like they all happened at once. If you only open the shutter for one burst, you get one. If you hold it open for several consecutive bursts, you'll get a photo loaded with all of them.

9.) How's it look? Too dark? Open up the aperture (set more towards f/4). Too washed-out? Stop down (towards f/11). Try again until you get an exposure you like, at whatever aperture you need.

10.) The brightness of the burst depends only on ISO and the aperture (f/stop). They don't vary with the amount of time the shutter is open.

11.) The brightness of the sky, but not the bursts, also varies with the length of the exposure.

12.) For a bluer sky, I prefer the Tungsten white balance setting. For more orange, try the cloudy or shade settings (see white balance for more).

 

Compact Cameras

Pocket digital cameras rarely have a Bulb setting. For these, use the long time exposure. Almost every Canon compact can make exposures as long as 15 seconds, and you don't need a cable release. Here's how:

1.) Set it to the icon of the camera with the M.

2.) Press FUNC SET

3.) Click down to +-0.

4.) Press MENU.

5.) Select as many seconds as you like.

(This will vary by camera, call Canon at (800) OK-CANON if you can't find your instructions. Other brands do this, too.)

 

No Manual Mode?

If you have no manual exposure mode, use the Aperture-Priority (A or Av) mode instead. Choose the aperture as above, press the shutter before the first burst, and use your hand to cover the lens if the camera stays open longer than you want it to.

 

Film or Digital

Either one works great, but if you have your choice, Film wins.

Film easily can capture the huge range between bright streamers and the dark sky.

Many digital cameras may lose color in the streamers and wash them out to white, while film won't. Newer digital cameras are much, much better than older ones.

 

Family Watching Fireworks    top

Fireworks!!!

Fireworks!!! (Nikon D800E, Nikon 24mm f/1.4 G, program auto gave f/1.4 at 1/30 at Auto ISO 6,400, Matrix meter, autofocused once on Ryan then set to MANUAL focus to hold, VIVID Picture Control at +3 Saturation, A3 M1 AWB.) bigger.

This photo was made in almost total darkness. The dots of light among the people are kids with dim glow-sticks. Since this photo is significantly brighter than the darkness in which it was photographed, the dim glow-sticks look like brilliant points of light.

When my son Ryan saw this picture of us, he asked why it is so much brighter than how it actually looked. I explained that if I made the photo look exactly like it looked to us at the time, that it would have been nearly all black, and no one would see anything!

The secret to this photo is that I shot it with a very sensitive camera, and I made a lot of snaps to hope to get a shot at the same instant at which some of the bright fireworks lit the ground.

I chose a 24mm f/1.4 lens because it has a much, much deeper depth-of-field than a common 50mm lens. I also chose the 24mm lens because I knew it would have the right angle to show both fireworks and my family in the same frame. I only carried one lens.

It was too dark to focus, so I set my Nikon D800E to AF-S, single-point, and focused on Ryan (the cute little boy on the center right) during a burst of light. Once focused, I set the lens to "M" (manual-focus) so it wouldn't change the focused distance. I used a semi-exotic Nikon 24mm f/1.4 G which is extremely sensitive to light, but it also has a big manual focus ring I had to avoid touching as not to shift the focus. The fireworks are out of focus, but that's OK because Ryan is sharp. At f/1.4, very little is in focus. With a 50mm lens, it would have been hopeless, but with a 24mm, no big deal.

That was the hard part. Everything else about my D800E was left on my usual all-auto settings: Pro-mode ("P") exposure mode, Auto ISO with slowest speed 1/30, and Auto White Balance.

I left the WB trim at my usual A3 M1, and set Picture Control (color rendition) at VIVID and +3 saturation.

If I had a Canon 24mm f/1.4 L II, the Canon 5D Mark III would have worked much better at the high ISO I used, and would have let me work at an even higher ISO than the D800E. The lens is much more important than the camera, so since I had a Nikon 24/1.4, I shot Nikon.

By setting my camera to all auto settings, I can shoot just about anything without having to stop and set anything.

Since the fireworks are all sorts of crazy colors, my shots were all sorts of crazy colors. The bursts were coming and going with always different light levels. The auto exposure system did its best to track light from one moment to the next, but many frames had bad exposures.

I shot a lot of frames on Continuous Fast mode (4 FPS) during each burst, and sorted them out later.

I picked the best one, and lightened the image with a curves adjustment layer in Photoshop CS6.

 

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Mr. & Mrs. Ken Rockwell, Ryan and Katie.

 

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