Happy 4th of July! - How to Photograph Fireworks
I just got back from visiting some family in Oak Ridge and Knoxville, TN. Of course our Independence Day celebration had to include a firework show and of course I had to bring my camera along to capture some of the action.
Taking pictures of fireworks would appear to be pretty simple at first glance but it doesn't always turn out that way. Very low light conditions, sporadic bursts of bright light and a subject that the camera can only focus on for a brief moment can fool a cameras auto-setting into giving you a less than spectacular result. With the right setup, however, we can eliminate a few of the more delicate issues and reduce the process down to just pushing the shutter button.
To do this right, you really need to have a few things as far as accessories and camera options. First, it is a must that you have a tripod. Without a tripod you will never get a sharp picture in low light conditions, it doesn't matter what your taking a picture of.
I also recommend a wide angle lens. Most of the pics I took were around 15-22mm, which was necessary to get enough of the sky into the frame. If you don't have a wide-angle lens, try zooming all the way out and angling the camera upward to where the majority of the light show is taking place. You might not be able to get everything in the frame but you should be able to get enough that you are able to capture some decent action.
It will also be helpful to have a camera that has a manual mode that will let you select the aperture and shutter speed. The reason this is important is because we need to set the camera up for the conditions we need when the picture is actually taken, not necessarily when you are getting ready to take the photo. Most auto function cameras will adjust the camera setting based on what the camera sees at the time the shutter button is pushed.
Finally I recommend a remote shutter trigger. Using a remote to take the photo lets you operate the camera without touching it. You can also use your cameras self timer but considering most timers default to 10 seconds it may be too long to effectively time these shots. If you are able to change this, then do so. My cameras remote timer is only 3 seconds. I was able to time the shots easily knowing that I had to push the button on the remote just a few seconds before I wanted the shutter to open. I just timed the amount of time it took from when I noticed the firework had been shot to when it exploded. After a few practice shots I was able to get a good capture 80% of the time.
So once you have your gear setup it's time to start dialing in the settings. The first thing I did was set my aperture. Even though the fireworks were somewhat far away, there wasn't anything in the foreground (or anything behind the fireworks) that I needed to render with a sharp, exact exposure. For all intents and purposes all of my subject was the same distance away. With this in mind, I choose an aperture of f8.0. I find apertures of f8.0 to f11.0 to be a good starting points as it produces a sharpest image in most cases.
After I selected my aperture. I set my focus. Initially the lens was set to auto-focus. As soon as I saw a nice bright firework, I pushed the shutter button halfway to engage the auto-focus and set the focus. Once I got a reading that I was happy with I turned the lens to manual focus and didn't mess with the lens for the rest of the show.
The next step was to determine my shutter speed and ISO setting. I wanted to keep my ISO as low as possible as most cameras have a tendency to introduce excessive noise at higher ISO settings. I knew I could get by with an ISO around 200 - 400 so I started at 200 and proceeded to set my shutter speed.
Once the ISO was set, I adjusted my shutter speed to an arbitrary 2 seconds and took a few shots to see how they looked. As I thought, I was pretty close. I wanted to show some of the movement of the exploding firework but I didn't want the lights to be too blurred and streaky. It turned out 2 seconds was just a little too long so I adjusted the shutter to one second and tried again. This time, I got pretty much what I wanted and left the shutter speed at 1 second for the rest of the show. Had one or two seconds not given me the result I wanted, I could have bumped the ISO up to 400 and that would have let me shorten the shutter speed accordingly.
That's it in a nut shell. It took me about 3 minutes to make these adjustments and for the rest of the show I just sat next to the camera with my family, enjoyed the show and clicked the remote every time I wanted to take a picture. I must have taken about 50-60 photos total over the course of 20 minutes.
When I got back to the computer, the fun continued. I downloaded all my photos and selected a few I liked to merge together in Adobe Photoshop Elements. The photo to the right is actually three different captures that I layered in Photoshop. This is just a quick one I did for the sake of this example but with enough time and some photoshop know-how, it's possible to come up with a very convincing collage.
I hope everyone had a great 4th and maybe even learned a thing or two from this tutorial. Till next time...