This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America's oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.
SHOOTING FIREWORKS WITH A DIGITAL CAMERA
My enthusiasm was quickly replaced by a mild case of insecurity. I have been shooting fireworks with film for years with great success. My confidence is a direct result of that familiar experience. Why mess with success? The client insisted the deadline was tight and the printer wanted a digital file, and there was no budget for rush film processing and scanning. Digital it had to be.
Make no mistake about it – I do love digital photography. I just didn’t think that my digital point-and-shoot camera was the ideal tool for this job. So as my left brain processed a profusion of technical questions, my right brain apparently triumphed. I replied, "No problem, I'd love to shoot the job for you."
Regardless of the camera equipment you use, making good photos of fireworks can be challenging. Here are some tips on digital fireworks photography as well as some basic things to consider whenever you are shooting a pyrotechnics display.
Arrive early. Take a little time, before the show, to scout the location. Chat up the pyrotechnic crew if possible. Try to determine where the fireworks will be launched and then try to find a clear, unobstructed view that meets your compositional requirements based on the terrain, the height at which the fireworks will explode, and your lens choices.
Position yourself wisely. You don't want to be in the middle of a crowd, with people wandering in front of the camera or worse kicking your tripod mid-exposure. Steer clear of artificial light sources such as streetlights to avoid the possibility of light flare. Watch out for tree branches that can sneak into your composition too.
Always use a tripod. Capturing the light trails of an aerial display requires long exposure times. Long exposure times require camera support to ensure sharp exposures. Whether you're using film or a digital camera, bring a sturdy tripod.
Don't forget the cable release. Another way to increase camera stability is to use a cable release. A cable release ensures that you won't have to physically touch the shutter release thus eliminating the possibility of camera shake. Many digital cameras won't accept a standard cable release. Some require a specific electronic remote triggering device. Check with the camera manufacturer.
Bring a small flashlight. Since you are going to be shooting in the dark bring a small light so you are not fumbling with your camera's controls and settings, not to mention changing memory cards etc. I use a small, Maglight® flashlight. It's lightweight yet sturdy, turns on and off with a quick twist-of-the-wrist, and goes forever on a couple of AA batteries.
Bring extra batteries. Digital cameras can drain batteries quickly. Have backup batteries in the event that your primary batteries give out during the show.
Bring plenty of memory cards. I admit it. I am guilty of running out of film during a fireworks show. Don't get so excited in the beginning that you fill your card before the grand finale. That's when the pyrotechnic pros get to show-off their most impressive aerial displays. A good finale will produce peak light, color, and excitement. So make sure you have ample storage space available when the "big guns" go off. Also make sure that your batteries have enough power to photograph the finale. You aren't likely to have time to change them when the final bursts are headed skyward.
Landscape mode. Set your camera to Landscape mode, if it has one – typically designated by an icon that looks like a small mountain range. It’s the same as setting the lens on a film camera to Infinity. With the camera in Landscape mode you won’t have to concern yourself with focusing issues.
Use the highest Quality-setting. By choosing a high Quality-setting you will reduce the amount of compression applied to your images. JPEG compression degrades image quality and can even introduce artifacts into your image. This is a particular problem for this subject matter because compression artifacts are typically found in areas of high tonal and color contrast, like the bright colored light of fireworks bursting against an inky black sky. Less compression means fewer image artifacts and ultimately better image quality.
Exposure.Shooting with a digital camera is somewhat like shooting slide film. If you're not careful, you can overexpose and lose detail in the highlights. Since fireworks are, by definition, highlights, using a digital camera to capture them can be tricky.
You'll need to be able to control how long the shutter is open. For fireworks photos, I expose anywhere between 1 and 4 seconds. Shorter exposures don't always capture the full burst and longer exposures tend to produce washed-out results. Since the shutter speed must be long enough to record the explosion of the shell, I control the exposure by choosing the correct aperture size.
If you have a B (Bulb) shutter speed setting you can use it to control exactly how long your shutter is open. This is always my choice. The trick is to open the shutter right at the beginning of the burst and close it when it reaches its peak. Anticipating the explosion can be difficult, but not impossible. If you don't have a B setting you can choose a fixed setting, such as 1 second.
Using one of the suggested apertures listed below, you can use your preview to test and then compensate the aperture accordingly.
The aperture you use will be based on the ISO setting of your camera or film.
This chart will work with most digital cameras that allow you to set shutter speed and aperture. While most film-based point-and-shoot models won’t allow you to do this, most of the sophisticated digital point-and-shoot models permit the photographer to set these controls. If you’ve never done this before, you’ll have to figure out how to use these controls by looking at your camera’s instruction book. If you’re using a digital SLR, then try these settings too.
The noise should be reduced significantly.
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