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Photographing a fireworks show may seem like a big challenge, but it doesn't have to be. With the right gear and a few minutes of preparation, you can enjoy a great show for years to come. And on the second viewing, it won’t scare small children or pets (unless you want to make the sound effects yourself).

This lesson covers the traditional way of capturing fireworks that works for both film and digital cameras. Here, we examine the importance of lens selection, camera stability and the proper settings for the camera.

This lesson features the Olympus EVOLT E-330 digital SLR camera. The EVOLT 330 has a built-in fireworks feature in its Scenes Menu that make shooting this subject very simple. Here, we show you how to use this setting, but we also demonstrate methods that allow you to customize your settings to achieve different results.

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

Topics Covered:

  • Finding The Right Shooting Spot
  • The Need For A Good Tripod
  • Cable Release Or Remote Control To Eliminate Camera Shake
  • Using The Right Media Card
  • Setting The EVOLT To The Scene Mode
  • Exposure And Lens Selection
  • White Balance Settings And Color Balance

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


    Finding The Right Shooting Spot

    The first thing to consider, when shooting an event such as a fireworks display, is where you will be in relation to the action. To set their shots apart from the crowd, the seasoned photographer will often search for a spot that provides a unique angle, or has other interesting elements aside from just the bursts of color. For a fireworks event, consider shooting across water and frame the shot so that you get the fireworks reflecting off the water. If there isn't a body of water nearby, try framing the shots with tree limbs, buildings or other interesting elements in the shot.

    For this 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 San Francisco Bay. After mulling about the best spot for 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 were able to get great reflections of the fireworks off the water, as well as to capture some of the San Francisco city lights and the Bay Bridge.


    Figure 1

    One of the secrets to any great photograph is preparation. Though the equipment preparation 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 in order to check out various shooting spots and choose the one that best served our needs. Once we found the spot we liked best, which included the Bay Bridge and the water, we started setting up (figure 1).


    The Need For A Good Tripod

    An invaluable tool for this type of photography is the tripod. In fact, shooting fireworks would not be very successful without one. We chose the new Manfrotto 458B NeoTec tripod (figure 2) with a 322RC grip action head (figure 3) because combined, they gave us the freedom to move and reset the camera very quickly. During the fireworks display, we were able to change lenses quickly and never missed a shot. Since our exposure times were often in excess of one second, we would never have been able to capture a sharp image without the tripod.



    To learn more about setting up the 458B Neotec Tripod, click HERE.

    To learn more about how to use the Pistol Grip Tripod Head, check out these mini lessons:


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

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

    Figure 4

    Cable Release Or Remote Control To Eliminate Camera Shake

    The next important piece of gear we recommend is a cable release. The cable release gives you the ability to shoot without touching the camera, preventing any shake or movement in your shots.

    Also note that if your camera has a remote control unit, you can use it to fire the shutter rather than using a cable release, and you'll get the same movement-free results (figure 5).

    Figure 5


    After we had everything in position, we enjoyed the early evening while waiting for the fireworks to commence. Once they started, we went straight to work.

    In these next figures, you'll see what can happen during a long exposure, even when the camera is on the tripod. In figure 6, do you see the the zig-zag lines of the fireworks? These were created due to the camera movement caused by the manual pressing of the shutter release.

    In figure 7, notice how the trails are much straighter. This is because here we used our remote control to trip the shutter; a perfect illustration of why you need to use a remote control or cable release to attain sharp results.



    Using The Right Media Card

    We chose the 4GB CompactFlash memory card from Lexar to shoot these fireworks. The last thing we wanted was to run out of memory halfway through the fireworks and miss the grand finale. The large size and the speed of this card is a perfect match for this camera. This card allows us to shoot as fast as the camera will process images, and with 4GB, there was no risk of running out of space. We chose to set our resolution to TIFF for the maximum file size and least amount of compression. With the 4GB card and the EVOLT E-330 set to TIFF, you can capture and store approximately 168 shots (figures 8 and 9).

    Another advantage of shooting in a high resolution mode, such as TIFF, is tthat it allows you to crop the image later if you need to without sacrificing significant print resolution. After all, it can be difficult to frame your shot precisely while shooting fireworks.



    Setting The EVOLT To The Scene Mode

    With the EVOLT E-330, Olympus has included into their Scenes menu a Fireworks setting that takes a lot of the guesswork out of this type of shoot. In this mode, you can get surprisingly good results quickly and easily, allowing you to enjoy the show without having to spend a lot of time working the camera.

    The drawback here is that you have very little freedom to get creative with your shots because the Fireworks setting automatically fixes the shutter speed to 4 seconds and the aperture to f/11.

    To set the EVOLT E-330 into the Fireworks mode, first turn the Mode dial to the Scene setting. Then with the Up/Down arrow buttons on the back of the camera, find the Fireworks setting and press OK. You're now ready to shoot (figure 10).


    Figure 10


    In figures 11 and 12, you can see the very good results we got using the Scene/Fireworks setting on the EVOLT E-330. With the camera programmed to this setting and a sturdy tripod, you will get consistent results and not have to worry about your camera settings.



    Exposures And Lens Selection

    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, as your timing will be more precise. As you might expect, longer exposure times result in longer trails and shorter exposures result in shorter trails.

    This particular shutter setting on a camera that has manual features is called the "Bulb" setting. It used to be that 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.

    Although the "Bulb" setting is not used as commonly now as it once was, there are situations like these when it is actually the best option. The following steps show how to properly set your camera for custom extended exposures.


    Figure 13

    The Manual exposure settings on the EVOLT E-330 give you more creative control during your shoot by allowing you to select 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 13).


    With the camera set to the Manual Mode, secured to the tripod and using the cable release or remote, you are now ready to set your exposures.

    There are two ways to control your exposure times in the Manual exposure setting. The first is to set your shutter speed to a specific duration (2 seconds, 4 seconds, etc.). This will ensure a more precise exposure, but the timing of the exposure may not sync precisely with the timing of the fireworks streaks.

    The alternative is to set the shutter speed to the BULB setting if your camera is equipped with one. Here, the shutter will stay open as long you have the button engaged, and will shut when you release the button. Your exposures may fluctuate depending on your shutter timing, but in this mode you can better sync your timing of the camera with the timing of the fireworks. We recommend getting into the habit of counting when shooting in the BULB mode.

    To set the E-330 to BULB, first press the INFO button to activate the Shutter Speed setting. Then spin the Jog dial to the BULB setting. To adjust the aperture setting, simply press down the +/- button next to the shutter button and spin the Jog dial.



    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 14-45mm zoom lens set at about 20mm. Figure 17 shows the effects of longer shutter speed and smaller aperture, 13 seconds @ f/16 (figure 16). 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 lose detail in the highlights as the exposure builds.



    In figure 19, we set the effects of opening up the aperture and shorting the exposure times, about 3 seconds @ f/8 (figure 18). 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 21, we see the effects of a long shutter speed and a small aperture, 13 seconds @ f/16 (figure 20). We have long trails and an interesting look but, again we start to lose color saturation as the exposure bulids. In figure 23, we see the effects of a faster shutter speed and wider aperture, about 3 seconds @ f/8 (figure 22). Notice how 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 a 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 25-28), our setting was for Tungsten, or 3000 degrees Kelvin (figure 24). Since the color temperature of fireworks is closer to Tungsten (3000K) than daylight (5300K), you can see how the Tungsten setting captures the colors more or less accurately.

    Figure 24

    However, if we set the White Balance to Daylight (figure 29), you'll find that the overall color shift moves towards the “warm” side (figures 30-33). Remember that with the White Balance set to Daylight, the camera is ready to capture a "cooler", or higher color temperature and render it without a color shift. So a warmer color temperature light source (3000K) captured at a higher color temperature White Balance setting (5300K) will be rendered even warmer than if it was captured at its color-balanced White Balance setting (3000K).

    To learn more about color temperature and White Balance settings, check out the Using Digital White Balance Outdoors lesson, posted in the Free section of www.webphotoschool.com

    Figure 29


    Now that we've demystified that process of shooting fireworks, you have all the information and tools you need to have fun and save those 4th of July shows for years to come!


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

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