Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Taking Better Fireworks Pictures

There are a lot of good fireworks photography tutorials out there; I just thought I'd share the newest tip I learned that worked well for me this year.  But first, a brief overview of better fireworks pictures with a DSLR camera:

1.  Use a tripod.  Some say you might also use another stable surface like a table or the roof of your car, but it will definitely be easier with a tripod so that you can easily move it and point your camera in the direction you need.  Using a tripod will enable you to use the slow shutter speeds necessary to capture the trailing light of the fireworks in a smooth line.

2.  Shoot in manual mode.  For some point and shoot cameras, I've read they may have a fireworks mode, but for the best pictures from your DSLR, you need to be in complete control of your settings.

3.  Low ISO.  Since you want to use a slow shutter speed, and the fireworks put off a lot of light, you don't need a high ISO setting.  I had mine set at 400 this year.

4.  Use a small aperture.  I've read you should set your f-stop anywhere from 8 on up.  I think the higher the better, because it's hard to manually focus in the dark, and the higher that number, the more you'll have in focus, and it will be easier for you to get a nice, clearly focused shot.

5.  Turn off your automatic focus.  Your camera probably won't be able to find anything to focus on in the dark.  When the fireworks start, look through your viewfinder (or use your LCD screen if that's easier for you), and turn the focus ring slowly until you can see the explosion clearly.  You may want to practice with manual focus beforehand to get a feel for it.

6.  Use a slow shutter speed.  I'll explain this in more detail below.

7.  Use a remote or your self-timer.  This can be helpful so that you don't shake the camera at all on the tripod when you press the shutter.  My camera has a setting where it will delay pressing the shutter for 2 seconds after I press the button, and that works quickly and well for me when I'm using longer shutter speeds.

 F-stop 5.6
ISO 400
Shutter Speed 1/30 second

The above picture was from my first shot at fireworks two years ago at a baseball game.  I didn't bring my tripod inside the stadium, because I was afraid they'd make me take it back to the car, and while at the time I thought I did okay, I now think that picture looks more like a galaxy far, far away than fireworks. 

First mistake:  fairly small aperture for the job.  I needed something higher than 5.6 to make sure I got everything in focus.  Secondly, while 1/30 is a much slower shutter speed than I normally use for other types of photography, it wasn't slow enough to get the long, smooth trails of light I was shooting for.  And without a tripod, it would probably have been hard for me to hold my hands still enough to use a slower shutter speed without shaking and causing the picture to look blurry. 

  F-stop 16
ISO 200
Shutter Speed 2.5 seconds

Last year my neighbors put on a pretty good show for the neighborhood, so I was able to try again with my tripod.  It made such a difference!  I had my aperture up way higher and was able to keep the shutter closed for 2 1/2 seconds, achieving the smoother light trail I wanted.  I think the picture speaks for itself compared to the first one.

  F-stop 18
ISO 400
Shutter Speed 13 seconds

This year I played around with some different shutter speeds, and you can see I went a whole lot longer than last year, with speeds of 13-20 or 30 seconds.  I became frustrated, though, with the really long shutter speeds because here at a big display with a lot of fireworks going off, I could still be waiting for one picture to take during a gap in the shooting, or there could be so many explosions I wasn't capturing one clearly.  That's when I decided to try BULB MODE.

In the past I'd seen bulb mode when I moved my shutter speed all the way down as slow as it would go.  It would hit a point, and the words Bulb Mode would pop up in the camera.  I mistakenly assumed this had something to do with using an external flash, and it wasn't anything I could use until I read a comment someone made on another post about firework photography.  Apparently, in bulb mode, your shutter speed will stay closed as long as you keep your finger on the button/trigger, so you're deciding exactly how long you want your shutter speed to be.  I wasn't sure if this would cause camera shake, but I'm so glad I gave it a try.  This allowed me to press the shutter down at the moment the firework exploded, and I'd hold it down until all the color and light disappeared from that particular firework.  It worked well, and I didn't feel like I was missing anything waiting on my camera.

 F-stop 22
ISO 400
Shutter Speed 14 seconds

As with anything, it's a little bit of trial and error with different shutter speeds.  But to sum up, you will mainly need a tripod, small aperture (high number!), and at least 3-20 second shutter speed, depending on how big of a display you're photographing.
My one other tip?  I really wanted to take a picture of James and KJ watching the show, so I kept my camera in bulb mode, flipped up my flash, and let it fire while keeping the shutter speed long to capture the fireworks.  This allowed the people closest to me to be illuminated, while still capturing the show in the sky.  I was pleased with it and look forward to having some more fun with that next year.

 F-Stop 18
ISO 400
Shutter Speed 10 seconds

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