Shooting Fireworks

In this Here's How, we'll talk about how to capture a fireworks show, whether it's taking place in your home town or you're trying to capture a bit of New Years celebration.

Start With the Right Equipment

It doesn't take much to get some pretty amazing fireworks photos. Most digital cameras will do the job--as long as they allow you to adjust the exposure. Sorry, all-automatic cameras won't give very good results. And you're going to need to use a tripod: Any fireworks photo will require an exposure of 1 second or more, and you can't hold the camera steady for that long.

One other goodie will help: a wireless remote for your camera. This is far from essential, but if your camera came with one, you should use it. But if you don't have one, don't sweat it. The goal is to avoid touching the camera when the exposure starts, so you don't jiggle it and blur the photo. But as long as you're gentle and don't continue to touch or lean on the camera after the exposure starts, you'll probably be just fine. I love those little infrared remotes though for totally touch-free operation. Olympus, in particular, tends to include them with their digital cameras.

Set the Focus

Usually, you don't worry much about the focus when you take pictures, since your camera auto-focuses at the moment of exposure. Shooting fireworks is different, though, because you're working in almost total darkness. Because it's so dark, your camera can waste time trying to find the right focus at the moment that you take the picture. If you've ever tried taking a picture in the dark, and heard the lens straining to find the right focus to your subject, you know what I'm talking about.

The solution? If your camera has a manual focus mode, switch to that, and manually focus at infinity. If there isn't a manual focus, your camera probably has a landscape mode (symbolized by a small mountain range). Switch your camera to landscape, and it'll automatically focus at infinity for you. Infinity, incidentally, will always be the right focusing distance when shooting fireworks--unless you're dangerously close to the detonating fireworks, that is, in which case focusing your camera should not be your top priority!

Zooming In on the Action

So, were almost ready. You've got your camera mounted on a tripod; its focus is set to infinity; and you're waiting for the fireworks to start.

While you might be tempted to zoom way in to get close-ups of the action, I recommend that you zoom out a bit. If you keep the camera set at the wide angle end of your zoom range, you'll be able capture more fireworks in a given frame. Of course, you can experiment and change your zoom range throughout the evening, but start zoomed out far enough that when you begin the exposure, you can catch the fireworks rising up into the air and then exploding, all in the same frame. This way, you're guaranteed to get better pictures right from the start. If you zoom in more tightly, it can be difficult to know exactly when and where the fireworks are going to do their thing, and you'll end up missing the action.

Finding the Right Exposure

All that's left is selecting the correct exposure. Because you're photographing small moving lights against a pitch black background, we obviously want to use a timed exposure--something longer than the typical 1/60 second your camera usually uses. You'll probably get your best results when you use an exposure time of between 1 and 4 seconds. If you can control your aperture setting, try starting at f/8. After you take your first couple of pictures, review them on your camera and check to see if you're getting realistic color. If the bright blue, orange, and red fireworks all look kind of white, you should use the same exposure time, but close the aperture a bit and try again. That means changing your f/8 setting to f/11 or perhaps f/16. If you don't have any control over the camera's aperture setting , then you'll have to shorten the exposure time instead.

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Dave Johnson

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