Saturday, August 13, 2011

How to Photograph Fireworks

Summer means fireworks, and that of course means photographic opportunities. Capturing fireworks is it's own unique discipline, as it is about capturing essence of movement in a stationary image. Because of this, more so than other forms of picture taking, fireworks shooting involves a high degree of interpretation on the part of the photographer.... it is not possible to sit back and capture what the eye 'sees', because it is not possible to coherently capture all of the movement in one single picture. The end result tends to be vary individualistic. Take two  people and put them side by side and you'll find that the pictures from both take on a distinctive look for each photographer.

ISO 100, f/5.6, 2s, -2/3 EV

But before we begin, let's get the basics out of the way. You'll need: 
  • A tripod
  • A remote release. A cheap infrared remote will do
  • Camera set to bulb mode
  • A zoom lens that is appropriate for the occasion. This is not the time to fiddle with your favourite prime.
  • Lots of patience.
  • A big bladder if it's a large crowd and you have to do serious navigating to get to a toilet. Our annual display nights in Vancouver drawing over 400,000 people each night...

First and foremost, composition is key. Fireworks companies go to great lengths to compose a display. it only follows that photographers would go to the same lengths to compose their pictures of the display. Every display is staged in a certain way, and it is not hard to see how if you sit through a few minutes of an organized display. You have your low fountains, a middle transition area and the highest and widest portion of the sky for the grandest crescendos of the display. Naturally, not all of these staging areas are used all of the time, it would be the equivalent of listening to music that was permanently loud and dramatic the whole way through the score... spectacular as it may be it gets boring. So the first thing about composing a fireworks shot is to think about which portions of the sky are being used, and when you want to capture the image.

Another important thing about composition is that fireworks always look grander when you place them in the context of a background or a foreground...preferably both. The temptation is to point your camera into the sky, but what you capture will lose a sense of scale and purpose. Take the picture above. The boats in the foreground and the distant city lights in the background lay out the distance of the scene being captured. Compare that to the following, which is an intricately captured pattern, but which has no foreground context. For all you know, it could have been a snap of a handheld sparkler.

ISO 200, f/5.6, 0.5s
Size and spacing are another matter. You can't control when and where the fireworks will go off, but you can time your shots so that you get a pleasing variety of bursts on the same frame. Often, this is a matter of luck and the sheer number of shutter clicks that you will need, but it goes to say, your compositions will be more pleasing if the bursts don't all overlap one another, or if they are all the same size.

ISO 200, f/4.5, 0.77s


Exposure control is one of the hardest things about capturing fireworks displays. If you are serious about it, you'll have to vary your exposure by quite a bit during the course of the display. The fainter
bursts will require you to open up your lens, somewhere f/3.5 to f/4.5. Middle intensities will require anywhere between f/5.6 to f/8, and for the finales when everything goes off, you might need to adjust as far down as f/18 to keep the frame from burning out. An additional hassle is the smoke that the fireworks leave behind... as it accumulates during the display, it adds to the light pollution, requiring you to stop down ever more as the display progresses.

ISO 160, f/6.3, 1s
The above shot is an example of how you don't have to wait until it's pitch black to shoot fireworks. The exposure is a balance of capturing the remaining twilight while trying to not completely burn out the fireworks trails. If you look closely, the light reflecting from the burst in the water is actually green, but most of the colour is burnt out. No matter. Quick tip... you can control the appearance of the fire trails by the selective use of levels/curves or unsharp mask when post processing in your favourite image editor.


Closely related to exposure is the aspect of timing. How long you hold the shutter open will influence how the fireworks appear in your captured image. There are two ways to go about it. The first is to open the shutter  before the burst goes off, thereby capturing radiating lines of light from the very center of the burst. The key point of this technique is to known when to close the shutter. If you hold the shutter open for too long, you run the risk of overlapping light streaks muddying the capture.

ISO 200, f/8, 2.1s

The only downside to opening the shutter before the burst goes off is that your eyes and memory don't really perceive the fireworks this way. You perceive the bursts radiating from the center of the 'blast', but it's not really how your mental image is stored. So using this technique, sometimes the results can look a little 'alien':

ISO 200, f/6.3, 3.1s

The alternative way is to open the shutter after the burst has gone off. This requires a lot of timing and luck, but the end result produces a more natural looking result:

ISO 160, f/11, 0.62s

However if you wait too long to open the shutter, you'll end up with a blank center in the bursts like this:

ISO 200, f/4.5, 0.5s

Alternatively, you could stop down and hold the shutter open for a very long time... comparatively speaking that is. The small aperture opening robs the light trails of a lot of their subtly, but it does help to preserve the colour of the bursts.  The end result is a bit more impressionistic rather than being purely an image capture.

ISO 200, f/18, 1.5s

Putting It All Together

Well, to be honest, you can't... not all in one shot. If you shoot only one way during a fireworks display, your pictures will have a tendency to all look the same. A typical fireworks display will last for a good number of minutes... our summer festival displays go on for twenty minutes. During that time, it's a matter of trying and experimenting many times over... you'll have to sort it out later, but if you take the time to vary your approach, you'll be rewarded with a few keepers.

ISO 200, f/5.6, 2.2s

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