Points in Focus Photography

Painting with Fireworks

The fourth of July, Independence day in the USA. The one time per year I get to photograph serious firework displays with out having to travel out of my way or fight crowds. The only disadvantage, there’s never a foreground to speak up, which makes the images a lot less interesting.

However, it does have it’s advantages in a more abstract sense. With out foregrounds to worry about I can concentrate on composing abstract firework streaks.

Fireworks (photoillistration)
Fireworks – Show Camera – Photoillistration

As always preparation is key, and I have my camera’s setup and on their tripods long before the show even starts. My exposure is dialed in (manual mode), the lenses are focused to infinity and the AF/MF switches are set to manual, film speed is set, new CF cards are loaded and formatted, cable releases attached, etc.. Further I have a good idea of where I may want to place my camera or cameras before it gets completely dark. I tend to shoot two cameras, a Show camera and my primary camera. My show camera shoots continuously though the show, providing an overview of everything that happened. My primary camera, has me at the helm trying to intelligently compose images, or at least try not to make mess of things.

Independence Day Fireworks
Fireworks – Show Camera

Determining your exposure

If you have a foreground in your shot you’ll want to meter than and adjust your exposure to get that to expose properly. You want to try to have your shutter open for 4 to 8 seconds. You aperture can generally be anyway where from f/8 to f/16 at ISO 100, so there is leeway to get the foreground just right.

If you don’t have a foreground, 4-8s f/8 ISO 100 is a good place to start and adjust from there. If it’s dark the shutter can be kept open much longer getting multiple bursts.

Independence Day Fireworks
Blowing Palms – Fireworks – Show Camera – Photoillistration

Choosing the Right Lens

Anybody who tells you that there’s a right, wrong or ideal focal length for photographing fireworks, likely doesn’t know what they’re talking about. The focal length necessary is entirely dependent on the composition and distance from the show. Consider this, if you were at the launch site (or as near as they’d let you be) you’d need a considerably wider lens to get the whole burst in the frame than if you were a mile away. In my case, these images were shot from almost a mile away from the launch site and I was working in the 50-100mm range.

Independence Day Fireworks
Finally – Primary Camera

What I Learned this Year

Every year is a little different. Last year, I shot this same display from same location with a similar two camera setup. My show camera last year had a 28mm lens on it and was way to wide resulting in huge crops to get anything useful. Because of that I kept very few images from the show camera, and much more from my primary camera. This year, my show camera had a 50mm lens on it (80mm equivalent FoV) and was aimed better–I actually made it a point to aim and compose the first frame instead of just going wide and pointing the camera in the right direction. The results were that I found I was much happier with the shots from the show camera, in many cases even over those from my main camera.

Because I’m playing catch up, and not shooting this as a journalist, I’m also not aiming to get my bursts in camera and have no problem with composing them in post processing. As such I aimed this year to get clear shots of single or small groups of bursts knowing full well I was going to patch them together in Photoshop after the fact. The 4s exposure on the show cam turned out to work well for this too, with most frames having 1 or 2 bursts in them. Even on my primary camera I was trying to get a few good shots in each burst.

My show camera shot just over 200 frames, at 4s a piece, that means the show lasted approximately 13 minutes. In the same time I shot approximately half of that on my primary camera.

This year was a bit more successful than last year, and last year was a bit more successful than the previous, so I am making some progress. Fireworks are one subject that’s challenging for me as I don’t have many occasions to practice on and refine my technique, seeing as I only really get one show a year to shoot. Hopefully next year will be a bit better.


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