Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Tips for Fireworks Photography: Part 1

Apart from panoramic photography, I like fireworks and floral photography too a lot. With the 4th of July approaching I wish to share some fireworks photography tips with you, which I’ve learnt over several years.
Choosing the Location: 
An extremely important point, perhaps as important as your camera. There are several factors to consider while choosing a vantage point. I’m posting a few of them as guidelines only and exceptions can be made for each of these.  Ideally there should be important foreground and background object which would aid in telling the story, frame the display and provide a scale of measure of the display.
However at the same time these objects should not block any part of the display of exploding fireworks . Particularly look for tall trees, electric poles, electrical transmission lines etc. which might be quite good for framing , but if allowed to intrude into the frame, they can destroy most of your otherwise ‘keeper’ shots. 

For most big/medium cities the displays are held at more or less a fixed place.  My suggestion is to scout your location both physically and online. Watch photos and videos in flickr or youtube of the previous years displays and try to locate a few good locations which would give you the best of views. Visit personally the place if possible before the display and choose a good spot.

Watch videos online to know the pattern of fireworks combinations, their spread and proximity from framing points and shooting location. (Which typically doesn’t vary much for big city displays over the years) .

Smoke from fireworks should not get into the  frame and  its something you should avoid as much as possible by locating yourself  in a suitable postion with respect to the direction of wind blowing. I'll talk about it in the second part of this post.

Also note that all type of fireworks don’t yield same good pictures. More on that later.

I assume you know some basic stuff of fireworks photography. If not, just any internet based tutorial will guide you to know the basics of camera, tripod, aperture, shutter, speed etc. requirements for fireworks photography.

Here are a few excellent websites for general fireworks photography tips:



Tripod and  accessories:

For fireworks photography a sturdy tripod is a must. On the top of the tripod I prefer a pistol grip ball head for quick change from horizontal to vertical orientation of the camera. A standard ball head with long lever(s) for securing the movement is good too. However such horizontal to vertical change in position also requires to recompose the scene. An “L-Bracket” might come very handy this regard. The L-bracket bypasses the need to re-level the camera after the position switch. However, you might need a little practice before using the L-bracket during the actual event.

Camera settings:

I use a DSLR (Nikon D700) and would strongly recommend to SHUT the Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) feature. It takes quite some time to process each image using LENR and you’ll miss a lot of shots if you desire to use this feature.

Typically ISO should be set to 100-200 range and aperture 8-16. As fireworks are specular highlights, you control the amount of light by aperture/ISO only. If you want to properly expose buildings at a distance or city skyline etc. in the background, you might open up the aperture to 5.6 to 4.0 even. Use the method described in the second link above to check for proper exposure. Properly exposed fireworks streak should retain their color at their centers too.

I prefer to set the focusing to manual mode and focus at Infinity unless I’m focusing on something close in the foreground. The shutter is kept in ‘bulb’ mode, and I prefer 3 to 7 second exposures. IMHO if you allow for a longer exposure and capture too many bursts of fireworks, the photograph becomes too crowded and the details of individual burst gets obscured. This happens very often at the end of the display when a lot of fireworks are discharged simultaneously.
For most big displays a few ‘test’ shots are fired just before the start of the display, to check the integrity of the electronic devices which fire them. Take picture of these test fireworks immediately and adjust your camera’s ISO, shutter speed and possibly white balance too for the rest of the show.  I generally keep WB as ‘auto’ but there’s no harm in trying ‘daylight’ or other settings. Particularly the ‘tungsten’ mode can produce pics with bluish hue which you might find interesting as well.

I generally shoot RAW plus best quality JPEG. Unless you have memory card size limitation it is always preferred to shoot in RAW, which can be better edited in Photoshop or other photo editing software later on.
Lenses and filters:

I strongly recommend zoom lenses for shooting photographs. Typically I’ve used Nikon 14-24, Nikon 28-80, Nikon 70-200, Nikon 28-300 and Nikon 70-300 lenses. I guess two lenses, a wide angle zoom and short to medium telephoto zoom will cover most of your need.

The Nikon 14-24 is of exceptional quality and highly recommendable provided you want a very wide angle view of the event.  If you want to carry just one lens, I’ll recommend the Nikon 28-300.  If you’re a bit far from the display or want to shoot the fireworks very closely use a telephoto in the 200-300 mm range.
I don’t use any filters except for the clear UV ones. I earlier tried color enhancer filters like redhancer but without much success.

Fireworks displays are often made over large bodies of water like lakes, rivers or seas and sometimes the very bright reflection of the fireworks in water becomes an element of distraction. One can think of reverse mounting a square format graduated Neutral density filter to compensate for this effect. In reverse mounting the darker part covers the lower part of the lens. However this exposure compensation can be done in post processing too.

Auxiliary Viewfinder :
This is an interesting accessory at least for digital SLR cameras. I first read about the usage of it for
shooting fireworks in some web tutorial, used it and really liked it. When you press the shutter while taking a long exposure, the viewfinder goes dark for a few seconds. Auxiliary viewfinders can be mounted on camera flash hot shoe and can provide a clear view of the scene when the viewfinder goes dark. Thus, you can then see if more fireworks shot meanwhile, their possible types and trails and decide how long you’ll keep your shutter open to capture these bursts to follow. Such a better ‘situational awareness’ while looking through the aux. viewfinder generally help in getting better composed shots.
There are a number of such viewfinders available, from very expensive to the cheapest ones. I would generally suggest that go for cheap ones like those used with the rangefinder cameras of yesteryears. These old one includes zoom viewfinders ( Acall, Alpex, Sun, Tewe etc.)  or turret viewfinders (Braun, KMZ, Optimus, Zeiss etc. ) or variable frame viewfinders (Leica, Sandmar etc.) which you possibly get from ebay for less than 50 USD. Even cheaper ones are the two frame (typically 35mm/70mm) tele-wide finders. The focal length of the zoomable finders can be matched to that of your lens  in the 35-105mm range for most of these viewers.

For extremely wide angle lenses you can get cheap handmade viewfinders like a 14mm or use a cheap LOMO type fisheye finder which is sold for around 10 USD by many ebay sellers.

In part 2 of this series I'll talk about the compositions. Meanwhile here's a nice site on different types of fireworks.