Tis The Season For Pretty Explosions!!!
For the average American July 4th brings thoughts of barbecues, family and fireworks. For most photo enthusiasts there is also one more thing; how to get that great firework picture?
Overexposed, colorless images of very blurry streaks in the air tend to be the norm for most people on their first couple attempts at capturing fireworks. If your camera is set to Auto or Program mode, the meter is looking at the dark scene around you and choosing far too long of a shutter speed. When you take control and set the camera to full Manual, you eliminate the chance of the camera overexposing your fireworks. Before you start snapping away, you will need a few things…
Tools of the Trade
- A Tripod This doesn’t have to be an expensive carbon tripod, as long as it is sturdy enough to hold your expensive camera gear.
- A Cable Release You can try to use the 2-second timer on your camera, but it can be very frustrating trying to time the explosions with a shutter delay.
- A Good Sized Memory Card You will be taking a lot of pictures to delete later. Nothing is worse than filling your card just before the finale.
- A Fully Charged Battery Do I really need to explain this one?
Now that you have your tools all squared away, lets get to the image. To start out, focus on something bright like a far away street light and then set the focus on your camera or lens to manual. This will make sure the camera is not trying to focus on a dark scene while you are trying to shoot later. When it comes to the look of your firework images, your shutter speed is the most important exposure variable to consider. For a better understanding of exposure and how it influences your picture, check out my tutorial on the exposure equation, here.
If your shutter is open, the camera is recording all of the light that passes in front of your lens. If a firework is exploding violently through the sky and your shutter is open for a long period of time, you will have longer streaks. If the shutter is open for a short amount of time, you will have much smaller streaks. Don’t trigger the camera as soon as the explosion occurs though. Wait a split second for the firework to bloom a bit. You will have to do a little experimenting, but I find that a shutter speed between 1/15 and 1 second tend to give me the best results depending on how fast the explosion is moving. Sparkling ash fluttering through the sky will take longer to streak in your shot than new violently exploding bursts.
So far we have only set the shutter speed. Your exposure has two more parts to set before we ready to take full advantage of the festivities. If you want to have people’s heads silhouetted in the foreground, you would need to consider your aperture and the depth of field. If there is nothing in the foreground of your image then you really could set your aperture anywhere you want. That being said I usually will set the aperture somewhere in the middle like f8 for instance. The color and the brightness of the fireworks will truly determine your final exposure. I will start at ISO 400 and see if a test exposure is too bright or too dark by shooting a couple of explosions and looking at it on the rear screen. If you end up with white fireworks, you need to take some light away from your exposure. If they are very dim but you can see color, you should increase your exposure.
My First Test Exposure
1/4 sec f8 ISO 400
This is a good test exposure to start at. Take a couple of shots at this exposure while the first few fireworks are illuminating the sky. Check the screen on your camera. Zoom in and move around the shots a bit. If it is too bright and you can’t see the colors well, try dropping your ISO to 200 and repeat. Different colors will take more or less time to expose, so you will want to find an exposure that captures the widest range of colors in your scene.
Time To Play Around A Bit
Now that you have color in your fireworks, try changing your shutter speed. Use the “counting your clicks” method described in the above mentioned exposure equation tutorial. Try longer and shorter shutter speeds to see the results in your image.
To create an image with lots of fireworks, the secret is multiple exposures. If you were to leave the shutter open long enough to capture multiple blasts, the streaks would be so long they would obscure the whole image. Most current cameras have a multiple exposure mode in the menus. If you don’t have a multiple exposure mode in your camera, layering and blending images in Photoshop can achieve similar results. For the image to the left, the camera was set to take 3 exposures. Using the same shutter speed, aperture and ISO as your single blast shot, head into the menu and turn on your multiple exposure. Set the desired amount of images (if you have this option) and start clicking away. Now it comes down to hitting the shutter at the correct time to get the blasts to look like you want. Try sticking to 2 or 3 exposures. Too many can look far too busy.
Now all that’s left is to get out there and shoot! Try a few different things and shoot a lot of images. Especially when you are trying to learn a technique, remember it doesn’t cost you anything to take a picture but time. You will get a feeling sooner or later for when to fire the shutter and the settings that are giving you the desired results.