Summer, 4th of July, and Fireworks

It’s Fourth of July weekend! Get out the hot dogs, beer, ball games and sunscreen. Not to mention a tripod and cable release or maybe a fancier remote trigger.

For my contribution to the idea of ​​summer photography, I offer, again, as a reprint, a blueprint for shooting fireworks images. The color, shape, location and explosive nature of fireworks change from year to year. Their shooting technique was not. Quick……

Everyone likes to shoot fireworks. It has many connotations–holidays, patriotism, hot dogs, weekends, kids, family. It’s time to relax. It’s time to take some pictures.

OK, make a checklist. Camera. Wide angle zoom. Telephoto zoom. Memory card. The cable release or remote trigger, which depending on the camera system, could be radio, or maybe bluetooth. (Fireworks is not the time to use the interior camera’s trigger mechanism, such as the intervalometer. You want to have complete control over the shutter and when it is off.) Spare camera battery. tripods. A headlamp or flashlight, or even something like a cool little Maha Energy lantern to come in handy when you’re back in the dark. Bring your cell phone so you can monitor exposure times. Black card. (More on that later.)

Something like that kit photo. What else is there to think about? Rain gear, both for the camera and you. You can get fancy rain gear designed for cameras and lenses, or just use a plastic bag and a small pouch. A pair of bungee cords to stash the camera bag in case the wind starts picking up. Water and electric bar. You’ll be out there in a bit. Insect repellant. Comfortable clothes and shoes. The car may be far enough away, and you’ll be walking quite far. Advil. (Advil is always on my equipment list.)

Anything to do beforehand? you bet. Location scouts. Best to know what you’re getting into, where they’re shooting the fireworks from, what the backdrop is like. How big is the screen? How much longer? Most fireworks displays end in half an hour or less, and if you stagger through the crowd looking for a spot and try to set it in the dark, you’ll only start to make decent exposures as they light up the sky. with a crescendo and wish you good night until next year.

That’s right, next year. Most major shoot ’em ups are annual events. Ouch, the pressure!

So scout. Get your place. Get there early. I mean earlier. Like, be the first car in the parking lot. Pack a soft cooler sling bag, put an ice pack inside, and know that inside the bag is your sustenance until maybe late at night. For work like this, my music source and earphones are a must. Maybe a folding chair, and a small waterproof tarp. Think your way into this. What is wrong? It’s a photoshoot, so the answer is, pretty much anything. Try to ensure success by imagining the shot and potential problems executing the shot before you head out the door.

Like, do you need permission to set up your tripod? Did you have to call the city about this adventure? Most likely not, but in this crazy and full world, photographers are often treated simply as recidivists, so it might be worth calling out. And, speaking of tripods, this is an outing for the best tripods you can manage. In my world, that means Gitzo. I use Gitzos’ Systematic style which is heavier for fireworks duties. Have relied on the Gitzo camera platform for over thirty years. Lifetime investment.

Okay, ready and ready. It’s time to frame the shot, which is a bit more complicated than you might think. First, when I shoot fireworks, I always get a frame, plus about 20%. I could always tighten up, but I want to give those fireworks room to heaven to play. Frame too tight, you’ll have streaks of color-tracing coming off the top of your image, creating catchy lines that will grab the attention of your viewer.

So give them some breathing room and decide if the shot is horizontal or vertical. Remember that most fireworks photos, if only explosions in the sky, are, in the end, just an exercise in color, nothing more. Even something as splashy as a pyrotechnic display needs context. So maybe you can frame with objects that are being celebrated, like the Statue of Liberty. Or use a semi-silhouetted crowd as a foreground element. Or boats and bridges across the water, with the water acting as giant, colorful reflector boards.

F/8 is a reasonable starting point. Some photographers I know have a lower aperture scale, up to f/11 or even f/16. Over time, you will find out which setting works for you. (I used to take notes at the end of fireworks work, just to keep myself ready for next year. No need for that anymore, because the metadata tells you what worked and what didn’t.)

Set the shutter to the bulb. This mode keeps the shutter open as long as the release button is pressed. But you didn’t physically press that button did you?! NO! It really does the job for a cable release or remote trigger. These days, most of the unplugging has moved away from the power cord plugging into the camera and activating the shutter. You now have infrared, bluetooth, radio… all kinds of completely wireless solutions. That’s a good tactic. With long exposures, the slightest shake or vibration is the enemy, so you don’t want to physically touch the camera’s shutter button.

This is important, because at f/8, the shutter will be open for quite some time, meaning anywhere from four to 10-15 seconds. (Remember if you have foreground elements in your image, such as monuments, you will need to make sure that the lit monuments are properly exposed. In many cases, those foreground objects will determine the length of your exposure.)

The variations that may occur in your framing are reasons to bring at least a few lenses with you. As mentioned above, two reasonable zooms, one wide and one telephoto, should do you good.

Measurement? Gosh, how do you measure up to a fast-moving rocket moving across a black sky? The answer is, you don’t, really. It’s a situation to turn off a lot of auto such and such on the camera, and go manual. Also, make sure to turn off the flash. Some cameras will read the darkness in certain modes and activate the puppy. Ever seen the opening of the Olympics, where thousands of people are on point and shoot, and their flashes go off like crazy? Know what they lighting? The shoulders of the person in front of them. Fireworks, unless you try a very different approach, are usually no flash zones.

OK, now set up manually. The fireworks are brighter than you might think, so you don’t have to open your lens very wide, which is a bit counter-intuitive, I know, since it’s dark. But my experience with wide open fireworks is that you wash out the color. They will only register as a white line. Be careful. You can easily overexpose fireworks.

Again, due to the brightness of the fireworks, you can work at a reasonable or even low ISO. Something around 100 or 200 will be fine. The faster your ISO, the shorter your shutter speed, which will prevent you from recording those beautiful light trackers into the sky.

Some shooters time the rocket launch and open the shutter accordingly, leaving it open for, say, 8-10 seconds, then closing it. This ensured that they would record the path of the fireworks into the night sky, and their explosions. This is a good approach. Try.

Others use black cards. A black card is just that, a black card. Nothing mysterious or fancy. This can be a sheet of black cardboard, or foam core board. Or it could be index cards covered in black tape. (Make sure it’s not shiny tape. It might catch bits of light and reflect them back to the lens. Use matte black photographic tape, often called gaffer tape.)

This way, you can keep your shutter open for very long periods of time, and record lots of starbursts. You open the shutter, and shoot one burst, then cover the lens with the card, and wait for the next one. You can experiment with this trick, and it produces very good results by layering multiple fireworks into one image.

(Also, say, you have the Brooklyn Bridge as an architectural element in the foreground, and the correct exposure for that is f/8 at 10 seconds. This limits the shooting range of your fireworks, right? Gotta get the bridge right, so exposure is a deal which is done. However, with a black card, if you are fast enough, you can reveal only the top of the sky, while blocking the lens area that captures the bridge. This is dicey. You have to move the card quickly, hovering around where the bridge ends and the sky begins. If you’re ever making black and white prints in a darkroom, think of this as burning and dodging right in the camera lens. Can’t keep the card static or it’ll create harsh lines of obvious exposure changes. It has to float, rapidly wobbling around the boundary of that sky bridge. If you do this right, you can leave your lens open for several bursts of fireworks, lasting longer than 20-30 seconds, filling the sky with color. But this is an experiment! Support yourself by shooting a few “straight” frames.)

With mirrorless and LCD technology, you can experiment with more confidence than ever before. You have the frame you just shot, right there, ready for you to peruse. But be careful! When you check out your latest masterpiece, they still throw rockets up into the sky, which you missed. Don’t get too involved with the LCD! Keep shooting! (And yes, you can collect trackers of fireworks all night and put them together after the fact. But, do you really want to do that? Go for it, now, with the booms echoing in your ears and the colors streaking across the sky, and the crowds ooohing and awwwing. Finish it, there. You’ve prepared for a field adventure, not one that will be completed in your dungeon after production. Personal opinion.)

Other bits and pieces: Don’t shoot all night at one exposure. (If you’re using a bulb, you definitely won’t.) But it’s an opportunity to bracket in, and shoot as many frames as possible. Also, fire quickly when they start! Firework displays can produce a lot of smoke during a series of explosions, and if you’re hit by a wind pattern blowing the smoke toward your lens, you can think you’re photographing a war zone. So shoot immediately, and quickly.

Have a beautiful and safe 4th of July, everyone! more t…

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