I’ve discovered something about myself in recent years. I’m a wuss. I don’t think of myself that way, but every fourth of July I have to admit I’m a coward when the fireworks come out. I cringe and duck, I worry the whole time about burns, I watch every spark to see where it lands and if it’s going to start a fire, I struggle the whole time to not plug my ears and I am secretly glad when they are over. I do not enjoy fireworks. But, I really really really enjoy taking pictures of them. They combine all my favorite things in one picture: the joy and excitement of my children experiencing something memorable, family interactions as loved ones gather together, and interesting light that lets me get creative and experiment with settings.
When taking pictures of fireworks, you need to remember a few things:
1. Your light is constantly changing and you need to adapt to it. Chances are, you’ll start taking pictures at sunset or thereabouts and continue until it’s dark. In those twilight hours, or I should say minutes, the light changes so rapidly that you need to be constantly checking and adjusting your settings. You can simplify things by setting your dslr to shutter speed priority mode. The name for this mode will differ depending on your camera. It may show up on your dial as something with an S in it (mine is just “S” but my old camera was “SP” and I have seen other variations) and I think Canon uses something like TV. What this mode does is it allows you to choose your shutter speed, and then the camera chooses the best aperture to go with that in order to expose the shot. Remember, the longer the shutter is staying open, the more light it will let in and the more movement it will record, which usually results in blurry pictures so we try to avoid it. But with fireworks, a slow shutter speed can be desirable to show trails of light. (especially fun with sparklers)
Note that the shutter speed in the above picture is 3.0, not 1/30. That means the shutter is staying open for a whole 3 seconds, an eternity in photographing people. Remember to use a tripod or something stable to put your camera on so your own movement doesn’t add more blur to the picture.
2. Don’t forget the people watching the fireworks! Yes, fireworks are pretty, but how many pictures of fireworks do you honestly want to look at later on in life? Turn around and catch the expressions of the people watching the fireworks.
3. In photography, light is so important, it’s (almost) everything. When you’re taking pictures of fireworks, it’s generally pretty dark. You might be tempted to use your flash. Remember, the flash is only going to illuminate what is right in front of it so it’s not going to help light up the sky any better. It will light up the people on the ground. That can be great if that’s your goal, and if you want to experiment with off-camera flash you can come up with some amazing pictures of people with a fireworks background. But it won’t be helpful for pictures of just the fireworks themselves. To let in more light, go slower on your shutter speed (see tip #1). And even if you want to capture people, you don’t necessarily need a flash. The flash will change the light of the scene and it can ruin the whole mood of the moment. Look around and see where your light is coming from. Porch lights? Flashlights? Twilight? Don’t forget your main source of light, the fireworks themselves! They can actually be used to light your subjects’ faces, and they will give you an ever-changing, interesting light source that is so fun to play with. When the fireworks go off, the can light up an entire area that was dark a few seconds earlier.
4. A good way to catch both the fireworks and the people watching them is by doing a silhouette. When doing a silhouette, you’re exposing the fireworks correctly so the people end up completely dark. Just remember that if you want the people to show up, they have to be in front of a light background or else they will just blend right in to the the shadows.
5. It’s not just your settings you can play with. Try playing with your focus as well and see what you come up with.
And of course I’m going to challenge you to get out and try this. You have a couple weeks to practice. So get some earplugs and have your fire extinguisher on hand, and don’t forget to share what you catch in our new flickr group! (if you don’t have a flickr account it’s easy and free to sign up)
Anyone want to guess what my shutter speed was in this picture? I’ll give you a hint: my ISO was 1250, my aperture was 1.4, it was after sunset and fairly dark.
Good luck, have a great Fourth, and I hope no one starts a forest fire!