July 05, 2009

fireworks, Marin County Fair

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

The Marin County Fair firewords were a real blast this year, as usual.

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

Normally I take advantage of a nice view from the patio at the Civic Center spire, but this year I was spooking around the concession stands when the fireworks started up, so I made my shots from there.

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

The following information in black is from a Wikipedia article on techniques for shooting fireworks -- and it's all probably good advice, but my approach to shooting fireworks is considerably different.   I'm not trying to come across as an expert on the subject, but I'd like to leave you with the impression that there is more than one way to snap a firework display.

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If you own a fancy, expensive SLR camera, chances are you know what you're doing already. But if you don't shoot at night that often, or if you've never photographed fireworks, these tips should offer some guidance.

Use the slow shutter speed. This will ensure you see bright "trails" in your fireworks pictures as the flaming particles spread out and begin to fall toward the ground, burning light into the image.

Get a tripod. Leaving the shutter open means that you'll need to stabilize your camera in order to avoid any motion blur. And taking crisp, long-exposure night shots while trying to hold a heavy SLR steady with your hands is next to impossible. Find a tripod, a monopod or, at the very least, a flat, stable surface to hold your camera perfectly still.

Well, that's right, I DO own a fancy DSLR, but I don't know what all this concern is about holding the camera absolutely still.

My exposures were all over the place, ranging from 1/10th to 1/300th of a second, although all were shot at f-4 with an ISO of 400.   I generally use my camera in "aperture priority" mode, and let the camera determine what shutter speed it thinks it needs.

Hand-held exposures at one-tenth of a second is definitely going to produce some jiggling (even with image stablization), but that jiggling can sometimes add to the excitement.

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Get a shutter release cable. These cables -- flexible and hollow with a spring-loaded plunger inside -- will let you depress the shutter mechanism without having to touch the camera at all, thus reducing any possible blur. (Note that modern DSLRs/SLRs tend to have specialized shutter release cables- the old screw in type doesn't work.)

One of these days I just may buy a cable release because I quite often DO use my camera on a tripod, but another way to reduce camera shake sometimes induced when the mirror snaps up is to use "mirror-lockup" in conjunction with the self-timer.   This allows induced shaking (from your finger and when the mirror snaps up) to quiet down before the shutter opens, but of course this isn't going to work if you are expecting to capture an exact moment.

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Set the ISO to it's lowest setting. This will reduce graininess and noise that can be introduced by higher ISO settings. (See tips below) With film cameras, C-41 print film has much better dynamic range then slide film, so it's more forgiving of over/under exposure.
Dial in a low f/stop. Somewhere between f/8 and f/16 is ideal. (See tips below)

I'd suggest using an ISO of 400, which is two steps above the ISO of 100 which I normally use for outdoor shooting in daylight.   I use my lowest aperture, f-4 on my Canon 70-200 "L".

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Set Focus to infinity. Also, be sure to turn off any auto-focus settings if your camera has them. If possible, focus on the 'hyperfocal' distance- this is the point at which infinity is at the edge of your depth of field, so you get as much as possible of the foreground in focus. You may need to use a calculator or printed tables.

I'm not sure if my lens has an infinity setting or not -- I usually just focus until the subject becomes sharp in the viewfinder.   And for god sakes, I don't think you need to worry much about hyperfocal distance when shooting fireworks -- if you do, you're probably standing way too close to the fireworks and you should be concerned more about your safety and not about front to back sharpness.

Hyperfocal distance is a good thing to learn about, however -- you shouldn't need a calculator or printed tables because usually your lens will have markings indicating hyperfocal distances as they relate to each f-stop.

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Tip: Try photographing multiple bursts in a single image. Leave the shutter open for 30 to 40 seconds at a time to capture multiple explosions. Just be sure to cover the lens between explosions to minimize the amount of ambient that shows up. Cover the lens with your hand, a black t-shirt or anything dark and non-reflective. Don't touch or bump the camera while you're covering it.

Leave that shutter open for 30 to 40 seconds, and you're probably going to overexpose everything.   You've got to remember that fireworks are bright -- each little white spot is almost as bright as the sun, and the smoky air can easily get overexposed.

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Tip: For a different approach, shoot hand-held without a tripod using a much faster shutter speed and a higher ISO. You'll also want to re-adjust your f/stop, otherwise your images will be too dark. You won't get as many light trails from the fireworks, but you'll pick up a higher level of detail in the actual explosion, so your shots will contain a different type of drama.

O.K., finally the author is coming down to my level -- it describes the technique I use.

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Tip: Another approach is using a long exposure time to make some trippy shots of the fireworks, just keep the camera pointed in the right direction while it is taking the photograph.

And that's some more good advice.   If it's trippy -- I'm all for it...

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plug1 said...

i like this post, the way you went back and forth with Wiki. for the most part, i agree with you far more than whomever wrote that for wiki.

i dont mind grain, and i dont mind shakiness when shooting f'works.

interesting about the 'mirror lockup' feature. i had heard of that but have never used it.

we need to go shooting sometime, Don, to share tips and tricks!

AphotoAday said...

HI PLUG1 -- Do you use a tripod? From your style, I'm guessing that a tripod would just slow you down -- as it does me -- I'll do anything to avoid having to use (or carry) mine... If I have to deal with a slow shutter speed there are generally lots of objects to brace myself or the camera on...

Do you have image-stabilization on any of your lenses?   If you have your camera on a tripod for a long exposure the image stablization really needs to be turned off or the I.S. will spring to life with even the slightest movement of the camera or subject and cause a blurry photo...   Took me a while to figure that out...

Marcie said...

Such a fantastic collection of fireworks. You did an amazing job capturing them. Looks like it was a ton of fun!!!

Marvin said...

Now I don't feel quite so bad about neglecting my tripod.

Nice fireworks shots, Don.

Mindy | f-stopMarin said...

Trippy pix. About the instructions, I violated them all with my fireworks shot at FSM. No tripod, high ISO… One of these days, maybe I'll borrow a tripod, but, hey...I hate the thought of another piece of equipment to carry. :)
Are you sure we didn't cross paths at the fair? One of these days, we'll have to bump into one another.

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