Photographing 4th of July Fireworks

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Once a year, Americans are allowed to celebrate a holiday in a manner befitting the importance of the day. Of course, I am referring to the 4th of July and celebrating with out-sized fireworks shows!

"Celebration of Light 2004" captured by Ray Lee. (Click image to see more from Ray Lee.)

“Celebration of Light 2004″ captured by Ray Lee. (Click image to see more from Ray Lee.)

To an enviable degree, today’s point-and-shoot cameras, and even some cell phones, can capture the “bombs bursting in air.” However, the limitations of point-and-shoots and phones force the users to rely on a great deal of luck and may catch only a part of the shell’s arc to eruption. If you are a serious ‘tog and want to capture most–if not all–of the shell’s trajectory, the crowning explosion, and the glowing detritus drifting to earth, you should use a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR).

Even with a good DSLR, you need to get the settings correct to capture images that will make your friends say, “Oooooh! Ahhhh!” And, you need a little extra equipment. We’ll discuss the equipment first and the settings later.

Equipment

You’ll need your camera, of course; and, don’t forget to bring a spare battery. You’ll need a remote release (or the camera’s self timer feature) and a tripod. Do yourself a favor and find some way to ensure your remote is not hanging directly from the connection pins; use gaffer’s tape or wire or something to relieve the downward pressure. Also, put two to three winds of reflective tape around the legs of your tripod, this helps keep it from wandering off in the dark.

Get a headlamp with a red light. If you can’t find one, wrap red cellophane around a white light to help protect your night vision and to keep from pissing-off that big guy sitting in front of you! In a similar vein, if you insist on using your point-and-shoot or phone camera, be sure and disable the flash. Nothing is more annoying than some yo-yo’s flash going-off in your eyes or, worse, right in your lens while the shutter is open! (Don’t you just hate those people who try taking flash photos of the action down on the pitch while seated in the top deck of the stadium?)

Your choice of lens may be a last minute decision; it depends entirely on how close you’ll be to the fireworks. I always use a telephoto lens, because I sit on the other side of the bay from where the fireworks are launched and try to capture their reflections in the water. Of course if you pop for the orchestra seats and are so close the detritus actually drops on you, use a wide angle lens. I’ve seen images taken with a fisheye lens from right under the fireworks. I was not impressed, but who knows?

"Fireworks over Zürich" captured by Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr.

“Fireworks over Zürich” captured by Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr.

Composition

While on the topic, let’s discuss spiffing-up your fireworks images. If you’re near water, try catching the actual explosions and the reflections in the calm water. It’s always an eye pleaser to have buildings in the foreground or background to add depth and dimension to your shots. Another interesting touch is to have a few peoples’ silhouettes in the foreground.

Settings

  1. First, ensure the image stabilization/vibration reduction function is disabled when your camera is on the tripod. Some lenses will try to compensate for vibration when there isn’t any and ruin your shots.
  2. Ensure you are shooting in RAW and set your white balance to automatic. If you have time, try switching your white balance to see if the results appeal to you. Be sure to keep good notes while testing so you’ll know what to do next year.
  3. Next, set your ISO to 100 or lower.
  4. Set your shutter speed to six seconds. Some folks like to use ‘bulb’, but I think it’s too much work, and you will sacrifice consistency. Check your first few shots and adjust the speed to suit your personal preference.
  5. Set your aperture to f/11. This is subject to change depending, again, on your preference. But six seconds at f/11 is a tried and true formula to get you started.

If you’re in the States, these suggestions will get you through the upcoming Independence Day. If you’re in the UK, you’ll be ready for the royal birth or HRH’s next birthday bash!

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