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Photographing a fireworks show may seem like a real challenge, but it’s really not. With the right gear and a few minutes of preparation, you can enjoy a great show for years to come. On the second viewing, it won’t scare your pets, unless you want to make the sound effects.

This lesson covers, in depth, the traditional way of capturing fireworks that works for film or digital cameras. We examine the importance of lens selection, camera stability and the proper settings for the camera.

We have chosen to feature the Olympus EVOLT E-300 digital SLR in this lesson. The EVOLT has a built-in fireworks feature in its Scenes Menu that make shooting this subject as simple as it can be. We show how to use this setting, but concentrate on the usual methods for shooting that apply for most cameras.

(Click on any image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • Finding the right venue
  • Tripods are a necessity
  • Cable release or remote control for steady shots
  • Choose a good media card
  • Setting the EVOLT to the Scene Mode
  • Setting the manual mode for long exposures
  • Exposure settings
  • Lens selection
  • White balance settings and color balance

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.


    Finding the Right Venue

    The first thing to think about is from where you should shoot. To set your shots apart from the crowd, try and find a venue that looks at the show from a unique angle or has other interest than just the bursts of color. Things to think about are shooting across water, getting the colors to reflect off the water giving you twice the interest, or framing the shots with tree limbs or other items of interest.

    For our lesson, we chose to shoot the 12th annual KFOG KaBoom summer kick off concert and fireworks show. This show took place on the shores of the San Francisco Bay, so keeping in mind a unique view, we chose to set up on Treasure Island in the middle of the bay and look at the show from across the water. From this vantage point, we will get great reflections of the explosions off the water as well as see some of the San Francisco city lights and Bay Bridge in our images.


    Figure 1

    One of the keys to any great photograph is preparation. Though the equipment prep for this lesson is minimal, getting to your spot and setting up early is key. We arrived 2½ hours before the show was set to start, so we could look at several viewing points and choose one that served our needs the best. Once we had found the perfect spot, with the Bay Bridge and the water in our view, we started setting up (figure 1).


    Tripods are a necessity

    An invaluable tool for this lesson is the tripod; in fact, shooting fireworks would not be successful without one. We chose the new Manfrotto 458B NeoTec tripod (figure 2) with a 322RC grip action head (figure 3). This tripod and head combo will give us the freedom to move and reset the camera very quickly as we change the lenses during our shoot and not miss a shot. Since our exposure times will be in excess of one second we could not hope to get a sharp image without the tripod.



    For information about setting up the 458B Neotec Tripod, click HERE.

    For information about Pistol Grip Tripod Heads, try these links:


    To set up the camera on the tripod, we removed the quick release plate from the 322RC2 and attached it to the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera, then locked the quick release plate onto the head (figure 4).

    Click Using a Plate to Mount a Camera to Your Pistol Grip Head for more information.

    Figure 4


    The Olympus 50-200mm zoom and the fixed 150mm lenses each have a tripod-mounting collar included with them. The mounting collar serves two basic purposes. One is to relieve the pressure that the weight of the lens puts on the lens mount of the camera. The second is that, by moving the center of gravity forward, the camera and lens are in a better balanced point. This makes positioning the camera and framing your shots easier.

    To use the tripod collar, simply remove the quick release from the camera and attach it to the collar mount (figure 5). Then install the collar mount with the quick release onto the tripod head (figure 6)

    Note: We recommend that you mount the lens to the tripod first, and then mount the camera to the lens (figures 7 and 8).



    Changing the format of the camera from portrait to landscape with the collar mount is very easy. By loosening the setscrew on the mount collar, you can rotate the lens within the collar (figures 9 and 10).



    Note: We chose this tripod and head combination for its speed and ease of use. Most any tripod and head combo will work for this lesson. The major concern when choosing your tripod and head combo is that it will hold the weight you intend to place on it. Long lenses and telephoto zooms need more support, as they tend to be heavier.


    Changing the lens on the EVOLT

    We have chosen to use two of the several lenses available for the EVOLT for our shoot (figure 11). We used the 14-54mm zoom for a wide shot and the 150mm lens for getting closer shots of the fireworks.

    The following steps show how you can quickly and easily change the lens and keep shooting as the show goes on (figures 12-15).

    Figure 11

    Figure 16

    When the lens is properly installed, the red dot will point up (figure 16).

    To remove and/or change out the lens, follow the next few steps (figures 17 and 18).

    Cable release or remote control for steady shots

    The next important piece of gear we will need is a cable release. This gives us the ability to shoot without touching the camera and creating shake or movement in our shots. If your camera has a remote control unit, you can use it instead and get the same results (figure 19).

    Figure 19


    In the next figures, we show what happens during a long exposure, even when the camera is on the tripod. In figure 20, we see the zig-zag lines created as the camera bounces up and down. The camera movement is caused by pressing of the shutter release.

    In figure 21, we se much straighter trails because we used our remote control to set off the shutter. This illustrates why you need to use the remote or the cable release if sharp shots are your goal.



    Choose a good media card

    We chose the 4GB CompactFlash memory card from Lexar for this lesson. The last thing we want is to run out of memory half way through the shoot and miss the grand finale. The large size and the speed of this card is a perfect match for this lesson. We can shoot as fast as the camera will go and won’t run out of space. We chose to set our resolution to TIFF for the max file size. With the 4GB card, we can store 168 shots while in this mode (figures 22 and 23).

    Another advantage of shooting in the high resolution TIFF setting is the ability to crop the image in post production. It can be difficult to frame closely in on your shot while shooting fireworks. The high res mode allows you to crop after the shoot while still holding definition.



    Setting the EVOLT into the Scene Mode

    For this lesson, we chose to use the new Olympus EVOLT E-300 Digital SLR. Olympus has included in their scenes menu a fireworks setting that takes the guesswork out of this type of shoot. In this mode, you will get great results in an average range helping you enjoy the show without having to pay attention to the camera.

    The drawback is that you have very little freedom to get creative with the shoot, because the settings place the shutter speed at about 4 seconds and the aperture at f/11.

    To set the EVOLT into the fireworks mode, set the mode dial to the Scene setting. Then with the up and down buttons on the camera back, find the fireworks setting and you're ready to shoot (figure 24).


    Figure 24


    In figures 25 and 26, we show you the results using the scene/fireworks setting on the Evolt, and they look great. With the camera programmed to this setting, you will get consistent results letting the camera do the thinking for you.



    Setting the Manual Mode for long exposures

    The traditional method for shooting fireworks is to expose with the shutter open for a duration determined by the photographer. The duration is often timed by simply counting off the seconds. Using this method allows you more control over the look of the shots you make. Longer exposure times result in long trails and shorter exposures result in short trails from the the fireworks burst.

    This shutter setting on the camera was commonly called the bulb setting. In past days, photographers needed to manually hold the shutter open to ensure exposure during the flash of the flash bulb. The "bulb" setting came to be the standard for manually timing the duration of exposure.

    Today, we use the camera's manual exposure mode to set the aperture and to use the BULB setting. The following shows how to properly set your camera for extended exposures.


    Figure 27

    The manual exposure settings on the EVOLT give you more creative control during your shoot by allowing you to make the shutter speed and aperture settings of your choice.

    To do this, simply set the mode dial on the top, right of the camera to the M (manual) setting (figure 27).


    With the camera set to the manual mode and secured to the tripod with the release and/or the remote, we are ready to set our exposures.

    Depending on the effects, your exposure times can range from 2 to 30 seconds. The following chart shows the basic rules of thumb for your aperture setting based on the ISO speed you choose (figure 28).


    Figure 28


    There are two ways to control your exposure times in the manual exposure setting. The first is to set your camera to the actual setting you wish to shoot. This will give you more exact exposures but requires more attention to the camera during the shoot.

    The second method is to set the camera to the BULB setting, if your camera has one. This setting keeps the shutter open while you have the button engaged, then closes the lens when you release the button. This will give less accurate exposures as you have to count out the seconds while the shutter is open.



    Our preferred method is the BULB setting as it gives us more creative freedom and lets us enjoy the show and pay less attention to constantly resetting the shutter speeds on the camera (figures 29 and 30).



    When you’re shooting the entire scene while using a wider lens, getting the interesting parts of the venue as well as the explosions, your apertures should be set to the higher end as your exposures will be longer. When you’re focusing in on just the bursts while using longer lenses, the exposure times will be at the shorter end of the range so your aperture settings should fall in the lower end of the range.

    The following shots are using the 14-54mm zoom lens set at about 20mm. Figure 32 shows the effects of longer shutter speed and smaller aperture, 13 seconds @ f/16 (figure 31). We see sharper longer trails and more of the ambient light of the city and the bridge showing up in the shot. The drawback is that tend to loose detail in the highlights as the exposure builds. In figure 34, we set the effects of opening up the aperture and shorting the exposure times, about 3 seconds @ f/8 (figure 33). The trails are shorter and the ambient light levels are much less, so we see less detail of the venue and the color saturation of the burst looks better.



    The next set of images show the effects with a longer lens. We changed to the fixed 150mm lens and focused in on just the bursts.

    In figure 36, we see the effects of a long shutter speed and a wide aperture, 13 seconds @ f/16 (figure 35). We have long trails and an interesting look but, again we start to loose color saturation as the exposure builds. In figure 38, we see the effects of a shorter shutter speed and smaller aperture, about 3 seconds @ f/8 (figure 37). We get shorter, sharp trails with more vivid color.



    White balance settings and color balance

    The last subject we will cover is color balance; this is where digital shines over film. By adjusting the white balance setting on the digital camera, you can manipulate the outcome of your results.

    Traditionally, daylight balanced film was used to shoot fireworks with very good results. The drawback to this is that daylight films are designed for short exposures, so many photographers opted to use both daylight films and tungsten balanced films. However, doing this required using two cameras.

    With digital, you can change the white balance setting as you shoot and get the best of both worlds. The following shots show the subtle differences in these settings and give you one more creative tool to use in your fireworks shoots.


    In the following four images (figures 40-43), our setting was for indoors or 3000 degrees Kelvin (figure 39). You can see how this setting tends to cast the colors toward the “warm” side, oranges and reds.

    Figure 39

    In the next four images (figures 45-48), our setting was for outdoors or 5300 degrees Kelvin (figure 44). You can see how the colors of the bursts tend towards the “cool” side, greens and blues.

    Figure 44


    Now that the mystery of shooting fireworks is no more, you have the information and the tools to have fun and save those 4th of July shows forever.


    Equipment Used:
    You can click on the blue links below for more info.

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