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HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH FIREWORKS PART II

Guest Contributor | Nick Kelsh 

Chic Critique is absolutely thrilled (and giddy!) to have Nick Kelsh on the blog again today with the second part of his photographing fireworks series!  Nick is a nationally known photographer and instructor.  His passion for teaching and helping others, knack for creatively delivering photography tips in easily digestible bites, and inspiring, entertaining style has earned him the following of thousands on his How To Photograph Your Life website, How To Photograph Your Baby Facebook page and popular Basic Photography Course.  Enjoy this two part series and let’s see some of your amazing fireworks shots in the Forum and on Facebook!

 

One of the most popular features I’ve ever written for any of our sites were my tips to how to photograph fireworks. Here’s a link to that blog. The information that’s there is solid and you can proceed with confidence if you follow it. In those instructions you set all of your settings manually. It’s a great way to get comfortable with your camera and it’s a great way to take some wonderful fireworks pictures. Many people have.

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{The Fireworks Function sets the f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO automatically for you. AND It focuses the camera on infinity. On this Samsung camera the settings are F8, three seconds, and ISO 100— almost identical to the recommendations in my previous blog. You can’t go wrong with these settings.}

 

But many of you now own cameras that have a built-in Fireworks Function. You will generally find it in there with some of the other special functions the manufacturers refer to as “Smart”. Some of them are and some of them are just cheesy. But my experience with the fireworks function has been quite impressive.

When you put your camera on the Fireworks Function it sets your f-stop (usually F8), it sets your shutter speed ( somewhere between two and four seconds), and it sets your ISO (usually ISO 100). Those settings are right on the money with what I recommended in my previous blog.

I have two cameras with the Fireworks Function. Both of them recommend F8 and ISO 100 just like I did. One of them sets your camera for a shutter speed of three seconds and one of them sets your camera for a shutter speed of four seconds. I had recommended using a shutter speed of two seconds. Why the discrepancy you might logically ask?

The answer is simple. Everyone is guessing. There’s a whole lot of guesswork going on when you photograph fireworks. The brightness of the fireworks varies over the course of any fireworks display so there’s really no correct shutter speed. If you use two seconds or three seconds or four seconds you are going to be right in the ballpark

The difference between two seconds and four seconds (as my Going Manual students will tell you) is only one F stop. The difference between two seconds and three seconds is one half f-stop. That’s really not much. Close to nothing, by the way, when you’re photographing fireworks. You would hardly be able to tell the difference.

If there are buildings that are lit up or there’s anything else in the photograph with the fireworks that’s important to you you could very well do better by just sticking to setting the camera yourself so you can adjust the exposure for what ever is most important to you.

If you don’t feel like thinking too much you can’t go too far wrong by using the Fireworks Function. The Fireworks Function will do a fine job of exposing for the fireworks themselves. That’s important.

In another regard, the Fireworks Function is superior—at least on some cameras. On some cameras, when you are on the Fireworks Function the camera focuses itself on infinity. In other words, that’s one less thing for you to worry about. When you are shooting manually, like I described in my previous blog, YOU need to focus your camera and that can get a little futsy out there in the dark.

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{You can learn a lot from a dry run with kids and sparklers. Remember, if the kids are close to you you are going to have to manually focus your camera— that means you will not be able to use the Fireworks function. Whatever it takes, though, it’s worth it. It’s entirely possible you will take a picture the night before the big fireworks display that you like better than anything from the display itself.}

 

Whatever you do, I absolutely guarantee that there is a huge benefit to doing a dry run the night before the fireworks display. If you can find a kid to wave some sparklers around for you you will absolutely learn something about your camera and your ability to operate your camera in the dark. It will probably not be all good news. But you can certainly deal with it. Don’t forget, if you use the Fireworks Function the camera will be focusing on infinity – probably – so the kid should be standing quite a distance away to check your focus. If the kid is standing 10 feet away when you’re using the Fireworks Function all the pictures will be out of focus. You would need to switch to manual settings – both exposure and focus – if you want to focus a kid waving sparklers close-up.

If you don’t have a kid and some sparklers handy, you can learn a lot simply by photographing traffic off in the distance (fireworks, after all, are far away). Confirm that your camera is focusing on infinity if you use the Fireworks Function. If not, get as comfortable as you can with the manual focus on your camera and make sure that you know how to operate it in the dark. Notice that I keep mentioning that it’s going to be dark outside. The significance of that cannot be overstated.

Finally, the benefit of using a tripod when photographing fireworks goes for anyone regardless of how they are setting their camera – manually or automatically. Once again, there is simply no substitute for a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod or an adequate way to stabilize your camera for what in the photography world is a very long time – three or four seconds – then sit on the ground, rest your elbows on your knees, and do your best to become a human tripod.

Take a deep breath, exhale, relax your entire body, and when you push the button don’t move anything but your shutter finger. I used to tell people to take a breath, hold it, and THEN push the shutter button, but a Marine shooting instructor overheard me giving those instructions and corrected me. You want to take a breath, exhale, and relax your body. Then push the button. It makes sense.

And remember, with fireworks as with life itself, it’s safety first and photography last.

Screen-Shot-2012-03-22-at-4.23.48-PM Nick Kelsh is a renowned photographer and author of nine books, including the bestselling Naked Babies and Siblings (co-authored with Pulitzer Prizewinning writer, Anna Quindlen) and three how-to books for amateurs, How to Photograph Your Baby, How to Photograph Your Family and How to Photograph Your Life. He illustrated a new edition of Rachel Carson’s classic The Sense of Wonder, and wrote and photographed two gift books: How to be Santa Claus and How to be Dad. He wrote the column Great Shots for Creative Memories’ Lasting Moments magazine. He has appeared twice on Oprah and three times on The Today Show, as well as being featured on many local TV and radio shows and numerous national newspaper and magazines including Time, Life, Newsweek, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Forbes, Fortune and Business Week.

 How to Photograph Your Life |  Blog Facebook Twitter | Nick’s Courses | Shop

 

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HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH FIREWORKS PART I | TEACHING TUESDAY

Guest Contributor | Nick Kelsh 

Chic Critique is absolutely thrilled (and giddy!) to have Nick Kelsh on the blog today!  Nick is a nationally known photographer and instructor.  His passion for teaching and helping others, knack for creatively delivering photography tips in easily digestible bites, and inspiring, entertaining style has earned him the following of thousands on his How To Photograph Your Life website, How To Photograph Your Baby Facebook page and popular Basic Photography Course.  Enjoy this two part series and let’s see some of your amazing fireworks shots in the Forum and on Facebook!

Photographing fireworks is really fun and, if you’ve never done it, enormously satisfying. For many amateurs it falls into the “Wow, I didn’t know I could do that!” category—well, you can. And fireworks pictures are a wonderful exercise in manual photography—manual focus and manual exposure are the only way to go.

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Here’s the idea. Fireworks are actually very bright and they evolve over time—usually a few seconds. So you want your shutter to be open for a relatively long time—probably 2 to 4 seconds. In the world of photography, that’s a long, long time.

Long shutter speeds and bright subject matter add up to a low ISO number. ISO 100 or 200 should work fine. Yes, you’re shooting in the dark, but the fireworks are really bright. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need a high ISO number.

A long shutter speed means if you want to take tack sharp pictures you’re going to need a tripod. If you don’t use a tripod you’re going to get slightly out-of-focus, mushy images that the impressionist painters would have loved, but I can practically guarantee you will like the sharp tripod versions better. If you don’t have a tripod, there are ways to cheat it a little bit, but it’s an uphill battle. I’ll get to that in a minute.

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 {This is the basic idea.  Be ready to experiment.  Practice changing your settings in dim light at home}

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is get your act together before it gets dark. At home, get your camera on manual exposure and manual focus. Get comfortable with adjusting your shutter speed and f-stop. You may need to make some adjustments in the dark so the time spent getting comfortable with the lights on will go a long way. Put your shutter speed on 2 seconds for starters. (2 seconds is not to be confused with one-half second.) Put your f-stop on f11. Organize the contents of your camera bag so you can find everything in the dark.

Also at home, burn into your brain how to focus your camera on infinity. Infinity in photography simply means very far away, and I’m hoping that you are very far away from the fireworks. When you are at the actual fireworks display you could focus on a distant streetlight and that would work fine. F11 should give you enough depth-of-field to cover any focusing glitches. Cinematographers have been known to tape down their lens focusing ring so they don’t accidentally re-focus in the heat of battle. It’s not a bad idea. There are plenty of ways to go stupid when you’re fumbling with a camera in the dark. (Use masking tape—it’s easy to remove.)

Bring a flashlight or some other light source. It’s going to come in handy. An iPhone works perfectly. If you use a flashlight it’s not a bad idea to put a small piece of cloth over it so it’s not too bright and won’t annoy other people watching the fireworks. In other words, you want a small subtle light—just enough to check the settings on your camera. Some masking tape over the flashlight will dim it down a lot.

If you’re confidently shooting raw images, this is a great time to do it. Shooting raw helps cover any exposure errors and the pictures will be much more flexible in your editing program later.

Using a tripod in the dark is not without its problems. People have a tendency to trip over the tripod legs in the dark. So keeping the tripod very low is a good idea—the footprint of the tripod is significantly smaller. If you can, having the camera about 3 feet off the ground so that you can operate it while sitting on the ground seems to work best. Every situation is different, but if you get to the site a bit early you should be able to get yourself situated properly. (You won’t regret bringing a blanket to sit on.)

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{Special thanks to Sharon Jankowski Karlinski for her slightly blurred, but still gorgeous photo.  Don’t let not having a tripod stop you.}

There are two broad categories of fireworks photos. First, there’s the explosions in the sky. And then, there’s explosions in the sky with something else in the picture. American flags, buildings, reflections in water, silhouettes of people, etc., can all add something to fireworks photos, but they require planning—planning for these photographs is everything. If you have a specific picture in mind, you just may need to get their extra, extra early.

If you do decide to shoot some type of overall scene, you may have an opportunity to use the light of exploding fireworks to compose your picture. It can actually get fairly bright on the ground when fireworks are going off and you can take advantage of that.

Experimentation is important at the beginning of the fireworks show and you are likely going to have to make some adjustments— it’s why you brought the flashlight. Let’s say your pictures are too bright. Close the f-stop down. If you’re at F8 go to F11 and so on. Make your adjustments with the f-stop first. Don’t change your shutter speed. 2 to 4 seconds should do everything you want to do.

When you are using shutter speeds that long it’s possible to have annoying camera motion show up in your pictures even if you’re using a tripod. It’s from you pushing the button. Some people recommend using the self-timer built into the camera as a method for releasing the shutter without having to touch the camera. In other words, if you push the shutter button, the shutter is released seconds later. My self-timer has two settings— 10 seconds and 2 seconds. 10 seconds is way too long. It’s too hard to predict what’s going to be happening in the sky 10 seconds from now. 2 seconds is almost ideal, however. When you hear the explosion on the ground of the fireworks being launched pushing the button then may result in perfect timing. Experiment, experiment, experiment.

And for those of you who want to get a bit fancy here’s a technique that works really well. Get a piece of black cardboard or black cloth. Put your shutter on 30 seconds. With the shutter open keep the black cardboard in front of the lens. Then, when there’s something in the sky you like move the cardboard away from the lens and expose the sky for one second. Then, with the shutter still open, but the cardboard back in front of the lens until something else happens. You can actually obtain 4 one second exposures in the span of 30 seconds and gives some great effects. A tripod is absolutely mandatory for this technique. This is also a great way to avoid bumping the camera when you open the shutter.

Don’t forget that at every fireworks display in the world they save the best for last. It’s almost as if everything you photograph up to that point is rehearsal for the big finale. Remember that. The 30 second/black cardboard technique is perfect for the big finale.

And if you don’t have a tripod, use a one-second exposure and hold the camera is still as you possibly can. Sit on the ground and make a tripod out of your arms by resting your elbows on your knees and bracing the camera against your head. This technique is less than perfect— okay, far from perfect— but you will get some pictures that will be fun to look at, for sure. If you have a lawn chair, you can often sit on the ground and rest your camera on the arm of a chair and hold it remarkably still. Remarkably still, yes, but less-than-perfect. There is no competing with a tripod at a fireworks display.

Many cameras have a special setting called “fireworks”. It automatically uses what it thinks is the best shutter speed and f-stop combination. If you are going to use it, check your manual to see how to set it. This may, in fact, be all some of you need.

I can guarantee, however, that the most serious fireworks photographers out there are doing this all manually. Maybe that’s why they call it Independence Day. Perhaps this is the year you will finally be free of the shackles and tyranny of auto-exposure, free to live the photographic life that is the birthright of all men and women.

Let freedom ring in your photos this year.

Have a great holiday, my fellow Americans. I’m still proud to be one.

Screen-Shot-2012-03-22-at-4.23.48-PM Nick Kelsh is a renowned photographer and author of nine books, including the bestselling Naked Babies and Siblings (co-authored with Pulitzer Prizewinning writer, Anna Quindlen) and three how-to books for amateurs, How to Photograph Your Baby, How to Photograph Your Family and How to Photograph Your Life. He illustrated a new edition of Rachel Carson’s classic The Sense of Wonder, and wrote and photographed two gift books: How to be Santa Claus and How to be Dad. He wrote the column Great Shots for Creative Memories’ Lasting Moments magazine. He has appeared twice on Oprah and three times on The Today Show, as well as being featured on many local TV and radio shows and numerous national newspaper and magazines including Time, Life, Newsweek, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Forbes, Fortune and Business Week.

 How to Photograph Your Life |  Blog Facebook | Twitter | Nick’s Courses | Shop

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