Low light photography can be intimidating. And, firework displays, which combine dark sky with bright lights can be even more intimidating to a beginning photographer. However, when shot correctly, these images provide a memorable glimpse into a moment in time.
Firework displays are not limited to July Fourth week-end in Indiana. Attend Symphony On The Prairie, an Indians game or the State Fair, and you can expect to see these colorful light shows throughout our Indiana summer. This gives you plenty of opportunities to practice and perfect your firework shooting abilities.
Plan – Search for fireworks displays. Then, research the surrounding area of where you plan to go in order to find the best shooting positions. Google Earth is a great tool for getting a better view of your site.
Position – Try to find a spot some distance away from the fireworks launch point in order to capture the face of the light show. You also want to avoid obstructions, such as trees, buildings and phone poles and wires, which cut through the middle of your shot. Look for wide-open spaces that allow you to focus in on the fireworks display or capture an unhindered view of a skyline or picturesque foreground.
Avoid shooting toward well-lit spaces (spots with many street lamps, etc.) so that you don’t create a distracting scenario where the activity on the ground detracts from the fireworks.
Know which way the wind is blowing so that you don’t get smoke "blow back" in your pictures.
Perspective – Look for unique angles and perspectives that incorporate more than just the fireworks. Shoot from low to the ground to give a spectator’s perspective, use water as a reflective surface, catch people’s reactions, or frame the shot using a skyline, buildings, monuments, or trees.
If your foreground is too busy, consider shooting from a balcony or bridge, or even climb up on a picnic table to get you above activity that could otherwise be distracting.
Getting the shot
Set-up – Turn off your camera’s flash and auto-focus. The flash will wash out your shot. The auto-focus is useless. Your camera cannot effectively read the bright fireworks against the dark sky in order to focus correctly. You’ll soon figure this out if you leave your auto-focus on, because you’ll spend more time waiting as your camera lens focuses and re-focuses than you will shooting fireworks. Save yourself the time and frustration. Set your camera to manual mode and set the focus to infinity.
Low-light photography really is best approached using a tri-pod. While you can do your best to steady the camera without a tri-pod, by placing it on a flat surface, more than likely, you will have blurry, out-of-focus shots.
One of the tricks to shooting in low light is to give yourself permission to play around with your settings in order to achieve your desired result. Some people prefer images that only capture the brief moment after the initial burst. Others love to capture the colorful trails of light as the fireworks cascade down from the sky. Finding the balance between dark, overexposed or fuzzy shots and sharp, properly exposed images will take a little patience. The end result will be gratifying, though.
Use your time before the start of the fireworks show to get yourself set up properly. Do some test shoots using different ISOs and apertures.
Shutter release - If you have one, use a remote shutter release. This allows you greater control over when to open and close the shutter during the fireworks display. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, try using your camera’s self-timer. This will help avoid capturing the "kick-back" of your finger releasing the shutter, which can cause your photos to be fuzzy. If you do decide to manually release the shutter, check from time-to-time during the shoot to make sure that your images are clean and sharp.
Shutter speed – Set a slow shutter speed. You can capture both the initial explosion and the light trails by either using the remote shutter release with your camera on T or B mode (check your DSLR’s LCD menu for these release settings) or by putting your camera in shutter priority mode and setting your exposure time for 1 to 5 seconds. Play around with the timing for different effects.
ISO – Try to stay between ISO 100 and 400 ISO for the clearest shots. Since you will be using a tri-pod and a longer exposure, you can compensate with the lower ISO.
Don’t forget that, while using a low ISO 100 creates a cleaner image, your trade-off requires you to also shoot with a lower aperture so that you can capture enough light. You may want to choose an ISO of 400 in order to provide more flexibility in choosing your depth-of-field. Play around with these settings before the light show begins to find what works best.
Lens and focal length – If you are close up to the show, you will want to use a wide angle lens. If you are further away, you can use a telephoto to adjust the focal length and capture a wide skyscraper, or go in closer for more narrow shots. Just remember, at the finale, you will want to widen your focal length in order to capture a fireworks display that will increase in height and width.
Anticipate – The advantage to shooting fireworks is that you have clues as to when the action will occur. Before every burst of light, you hear the quiet scream of each rocket as it launches skyward. Watch closely, and use that time to prepare to release the shutter. You will become more comfortable anticipating the actions as you continue to shoot. Use the early part of the show to finalize all of your settings — ISO, aperture and exposure. The preparation that you did ahead of the show, along with this quick adjustment in the first two or three minutes, will pay off by providing you with perfect fireworks photos.
Written by Beth Buddenbaum