The Fourth of July is this Saturday, so I want to provide a few tips on shooting fireworks displays. These tips are mainly for photographers who have a film or digital SLR camera with manual controls, but if you only have a point-and-shoot digital camera take it and experiment. Some of these tips can still apply to the simplest of cameras.
Take a tripod, a flashlight, an 8- by 10-inch piece of black foam coreboard and possibly a camera flash.
I first look for a location that will allow me to include the fireworks at their zenith as well as include landmarks or people below. I get the best results shooting vertically using a lens in the 28-50 mm range. If you use telephoto lenses, you’ll have to guess where the fireworks will explode, and you won’t be able include foreground subject matter.
I set my camera as follows:
• ISO at 100 or at the lowest setting you have available.
• Aperture of f8 or f11 to start.
The shutter speed — the length of your exposure — will be the factor that will make the biggest difference in the look of your shots. I use the “bulb” mode. This is a mode that allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter. A remote shutter release is great, but you don’t need one if you’re on a steady tripod.
When the fireworks begin, I press down on the shutter release in “B” mode, exposing for the first fireworks. Keeping my finger pressed on the shutter-release button I next cover the lens with the foam core board at the conclusion of a firework burst. This keeps extraneous light from reaching the film or CCD. At the next burst, I again remove the board from the lens and capture the second burst on the same frame. I can continue in this manner, literally painting a selection of fireworks onto one frame.
The best result comes if the bursts happen in different areas of the sky. Fireworks are so bright that long exposures with bursts in the same area of the image will completely wash out. Try to gauge bursts in the sky in relation to each other and pick an assortment of low, middle and high bursts to “paint” your image. Exposures done with this technique can be anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute or more.
To add lighting and detail to a foreground area, I sometimes use a flash. When you press the shutter the first time in the “B” mode the flash mounted on your camera will fire and illuminate the foreground subject. You can then continue adding firework bursts as described above. The great thing about digital cameras is that you’re always able to see what you have captured and make adjustments as needed.
This year’s display will be along the Kansas River, and I will be looking for a scene where I can incorporate the river, people in the foreground and fireworks above. I may be able to use the river to catch a reflection of the fireworks, a photographer’s visual device I wrote about here in an earlier column. Good luck and maybe I’ll see you there. Bring bug spray, too.