Monday, June 30th, 2008 by Reed Hoffmann
Well, it's time for a topical subject. With the fourth of July a few days away, this is a great time to go through the ins and outs of fireworks photography. I've been doing these shots for about 35 years, the most involved being the 12-exposure shot shown here that I did with a Hasselblad. It's changed a bit since those days of film, but the basics remain the same.
You’re going to tackle this in one of two ways; you’ll either shoot a fairly short shutter speed to catch one burst, or you’ll go for a multi-second time exposure to catch multiple explosions. Each one has advantages and disadvantages. However, digital takes away much of the guesswork required before. By looking at the result on the rear LCD, you can check exposure right away and know you’re getting the shot. And don’t forget, you’ll want to use your Manual exposure mode so you control the exposure.
A short exposure means you can probably get away with shooting without a tripod. You’ll probably want to start with an ISO of 400 to 800, a mid-range aperture (F/4.5?) and a shutter speed of perhaps 1/30 second. If you’ve got any type of vibration-reduction or image stabilization feature in the lens or camera, be sure it’s turned on. Take a few shots of bursts, check the results on the LCD, adjust, then shoot some more. The downside to this technique is you can’t capture multiple bursts, and since you can’t use a slow shutter speed, the odds of getting anything to show other than the fireworks are low. After all, those fireworks are bright, and the way to get other stuff in the area to show up in the picture is to keep the shutter open longer.
However, if you’ve bothered to carry a tripod along, use it. Now you can adjust the two exposure variables for two different results. You’ll adjust the aperture for the bright bursts of light. Try ISO 200 and F/8 or F/11 as a starting point. Now set the shutter speed for the rest of the scene. If there’s much ambient light, maybe as fast as 1/4 second will show some of the scene. I prefer five or even ten seconds, since that also lets me capture multiple bursts, which can be pretty.
Aside from the technical, you need to consider the aesthetic. Fireworks exploding in a night sky are pretty and easy to get, but not all that interesting. Having a foreground (people?) or background (buildings?) can really add to the shot. Finding a location with water in the foreground works well, as the reflections add a nice element to the scene. As with many pictures, the location can be just as, or even more important, than the subject (in this case, the fireworks). And don’t forget the sky. If you want it to be dark (black or close to black) you want a night without clouds (they’ll reflect the light and you’ll see them) and you’ll want to shoot your photos early in the show, before there’s a lot of smoke in the air.
So how did I do the twelve-exposure shot at the beginning of this story? Simple. I just locked the shutter open, then held a black card in front of the lens to block the light. When I wanted to expose the film, I pulled the card away for a few seconds or longer, depending on how bright the fireworks or lasers were, and figured out a long base exposure for the surround area. The shutter was open for about ten minutes. And it only took me three nights of trying to get one shot I liked!