Last night, I covered Red Lion’s Fourth of July fireworks show for today’s front page. I’ve shot fireworks before, but it had been a while… as you can tell.
Here, I’ll explain how (not) to shoot fireworks photos. Note that all these photos are SOOC — straight out of camera — so they aren’t cropped, toned, sharpened, anything. The only thing I’ve done to these files is resize them for this blog.
I guess the above photo isn’t too bad — the exposure was okay enough for the fireworks themselves, and the timing was fine. But it wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was a fireworks photo with a human element. After all, I’m not just shooting fireworks; I’m a journalist who needed a front-page photo. And front-page photos without a human presence are very rare things.
All that said, in terms of the actual fireworks, this is an okay photo. Just okay. Not crappy, but not really usable either.
Bad. Very bad. Very, very bad. There are a few things wrong here, but most of them are the result of a way-too-long shutter speed. Most fireworks photos should be taken over the course of 3-6 seconds. That’s enough time for you to get the fireworks’ trails plus a few complete bursts. If you leave the shutter open longer than that, you’ll get a lot more fireworks in the frame — which means they’ll overlap each other and get way blown out. Which is what happened here. That fiery fury consists of at least four fireworks that exploded too closely together to work for this frame’s duration of exposure.
Also related to the long shutter speed: Camera shake. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll use a remote trigger so you can take pictures without physically touching your camera. I’m not as much a perfectionist as I perhaps ought to be, so I was setting my camera manually, letting it run for however many seconds I set and keeping my other hand on the base of the tripod to make sure it didn’t tip over from my camera’s weight. Obviously I didn’t do too good a job in the above photo.
The timing is what’s wrong with this picture. See how the orange-gold and red sparks have no origin point? It just looks sloppy — and it’s all because I hit the shutter button too late. That’s why timing is so key with fireworks photos. That origin point makes the fireworks’ scattered sparks cohesive and beautiful. Without the origin point, the sparks look like a mess and the picture looks silly.
When a friend and I shot a fireworks show over Eagle Nest Lake in New Mexico, we were able to see the pyrotechnics applying the flames to the fuses across the lake. So, we knew to press our shutter buttons when we saw the faint glow of fire on that dock. You’re likely not going to see the pyrotechnics at work at whatever show you shoot, but still keep an eye on the general area from which the techs are shooting. As soon as you see the beginnings of a trail or hear a fuse, press that shutter button.
Finally, here’s a shot that I desperately wish had worked out last night:
Here’s what happened:
I spotted these three young people sitting on their car roof well before the show. I knew it’d be a great picture, so I approached them, introduced myself and asked to get their names before the show started. They were friendly and complied.
After I finally got a frame I liked from the top of the hill adjacent to Horn Field, I ran down to these young people, whose car was parked along Horace Mann (the street that runs between Horn Field and the high school, whose building is visible in this picture). Unfortunately, the finale had already begun and I knew I was running out of time. As soon as I reached the car, I set my tripod down and took a single shot — and the show was over.
This was the shot. And it’s pretty lousy. I wish I’d had time to frame it better, the exposure is way off and there’s camera shake.
All this means is, next time I’m shooting a fireworks show and I see people sitting on top of their cars, that’ll be the first set of pictures I’m going to make.
So, I hope you’ve learned a few things from looking at a few of my SOOC frames…
Oh, and have fun. ‘Cause everyone else is.
(If you’re interested to see what photos did run, check ’em out here.)