Lesson 1 of 9
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Capturing Fireworks: Jessica Cadle

Last summer, I tried to research (aka Google-search) the best ways to photograph fireworks. Most of what I found was the same: use a tripod, a remote shutter release, low ISO, midrange aperture, long shutter speed.  I felt confident that I could manage that, and ventured to a local show armed with my camera, tripod, and family.  Once we got settled into our spot, I realized the problem. I didn’t really want to photograph fireworks; I wanted to photograph my family watching fireworks. All the settings I had researched weren’t going to work for what I actually wanted to capture. A long shutter speed wasn’t going to work if I wanted kids in the frame, and if I wanted a faster shutter speed, the ISO and/or aperture were going to have to change too.  I made some adjustments and got some shots that I liked.  I certainly can’t say that my settings and tips are the best way of going about it, but I’ll share what worked and didn’t work for this adventure.  Hopefully, we can all get even better shots this year!

The Technical Stuff:

Lens:  I used my Canon 24-105mm f/4 and just kept it at 24mm. I had to keep close to my family, and a longer focal length would have been too tight most of the time.  I always try to give myself a little room to crop later.

Exposure Settings: Dialing in settings that would work was challenging. The fireworks were really the only light source, so the light was constantly changing, depending on the type of firework and the stage of each explosion.  I just did a few quick test shots to find a place where I felt like I could keep my SS in a certain range and still get enough light, and not have to be adjusting anything else.  I ended up using ISO 8000, f/4, and then just experimenting with shutter speeds, but most images have a SS between 1/20-1/50...I got a little crazy at the end and lowered the SS even more for a few shots.  Even with that ISO, and opened up as far as my lens could go, many shots were still very dark and hard to distinguish between the silhouettes of people and just the dark background.  I didn’t want to push ISO any farther (and wish I had tried lowering it at some point), so I did have to go lower with my SS than I wanted, but since everyone was sitting pretty still, it worked out a few times.

Succession of shots SOOC taken at SS 1/40 to show the variation of light

Focus: I only used my center focus point because it is the only cross type point that I have.  I attempted to get it as close to the edge of someone’s head as I could in the dark. When a firework provided enough light to see the rim light around them, I would grab my focus using BBF. When using the tripod, I then just shot away until deciding to try a diff

TIP #1: A tripod (or something that can keep the camera steady) is really important.  I took some shots on the tripod and some handheld. The tripod shots are definitely sharper, and it gave me a little more flexibility with my SS since I wasn’t fighting against camera shake as well as moving kids.  The first picture was taken on the tripod, while the second picture was handheld.  This year, I think I’ll pack a book or a binder to set my camera on for the low angle shots 😊 

TIP #2: Get low.  I found the best angle for these shots was to get low and shoot upward.  Unless it was a very bright firework, if shot straight on, my family wasn’t illuminated enough to separate them from the dark background.  This is an SOOC example of a shot I took while my camera was on the tripod. You can kind of see the very top of my son’s head over the tree line, but no rim light was created at that angle, so my boys are completely lost in the image.  This was why I had to ditch the tripod for a bit; I just couldn’t get low enough with it. I was fortunate enough to have space to lay down on the ground to capture the other images of my boys. I tried to use the ground to help steady the camera.  I don’t typically shoot in Live View, but it comes in handy with this awkward angle. You’re in even better shape if you have a screen that flips out or can use Live View through a phone app!  My husband and daughter were sitting on a wagon, and I was able to use my tripod and still shoot from slightly lower than them, so having something to elevate your human subjects would also help.

TIP #3: Overshoot. If you’re using a faster SS to get your family in the shot, each shot will be different even if you take them in succession. The light will be different. The way the firework looks will be different.  You’re going to want to take a lot to make sure you get the good one and some surprising extras! I ended up really liking the first image below when the lights from the firework were dispersed, even though it’s not typically when you’d try to catch the firework.

Tripod: SS 1/40
Tripod: SS 1/30

TIP #4: Shoot early.  As the show goes on, the smoke and haze get worse.  My shots from earlier in the show were much cleaner images.  You can also try to make sure you position yourself so that the smoke is not being blown in your direction to help with this a little.  

Tripod: SS 1/160
Tripod: SS 1/160
Tripod: SS 1/6

Editing:  I didn’t do a whole lot of editing with these images, but each one typically got an auto white balance adjustment, upped exposure or shadows, pulled down blacks, sharpening, noise reduction with the luminance slider, and some got a saturation boost. These are couple of examples of before/after edits.

What I’ll Do Differently Next Time:  

  1.     Bring something to keep my camera steady that is lower to the ground for low shooting.
  2. Use my remote shutter. Once I changed my plans, I didn’t even attempt to use it this time, but I think it could definitely help combat camera shake even more. So hopefully I’ll be able to lower ISO to reduce noise and/or close down aperture a bit to give myself a little more depth of field to help focus.
  3. Shoot with post processing in mind.  I usually like to shoot so that I have as little editing as possible, but I think this is a case where merging a good silhouette with a good firework could make a better overall image.
  4. Get on the other side and try to catch their expressions 😊  

Written by Jessica Cadle