Just two days until we bid farewell to the year that was 2011 and welcome in the Year of Our Lord 2012, most likely with wonderfully excessive displays of pyrotechnomania. And while I don’t recommend strapping Roman candles to your boobs and setting them alight (a la Katy Perry), I do encourage everyone to crank up their cameras for some firework photography. While luck factors a lot in shooting pyrotechnics, there are some techniques to put into play to improve your shots. To help those who may not have a clue how to go about capturing a massive chrysanthemum bloom in the sky or a Catherine wheel in furious spin, here are ten of the best tips I’ve learned.
1. Go full manual
Forget aperture priority or shutter speed priority or full-on auto. If you want to take even decent firework shots, you’ve got to get a camera that lets you adjust your controls (speed, aperture, focus) manually. If you rely on your camera’s on-board metering system, chances are, their readings will be out of whack.
2. Set your shutter speed to B(ulb)
A slow shutter speed is key to capturing a nighttime mid-air explosion in all its glory. It takes time for a pyrotechnic starburst to achieve its maximum diameter, and you’ll want your shutter to be open all that time. With the Bulb setting, you have control over how long your shutter will stay open, long or short. I typically play around from 5 to 10 seconds. Also, you never really know when the next rocket will go off, so keeping your shutter open longer increases your chances of catching a few choice explosions.
3. Set your aperture between f/8 and f/11
The first impulse when taking low light shots is to open your aperture wide. This isn’t the case with fireworks as these things are quite bright, even if the background may be pitch black. Stopping down to f/11 is generally fine, even if you’re shooting with low ISO film. Also, keeping your aperture narrow maximizes your depth of field.
4. Focus to infinity, then pull back ever-so-slightly
Manual focus, remember? Since fireworks are designed to explode at high altitudes (from 200 feet to 1200 feet depending on the size), all you need to do to get good focus is to focus to infinity, then pull back slightly to take advantage of the hyperfocal distance. With your narrow aperture, depth of field will be very wide indeed, keeping your subject in sharp focus.
5. Use a tripod
Since you’re working with very slow shutter speeds, it is imperative that you keep the camera absolutely still. Any vibration in mid-shot and you’ll have a mess of squiggly lines of light instead of the graceful parabolic light trails you want to capture. If you don’t have a tripod, make sure you have something else to keep the camera steady, like a beanbag or tabletop. No handholding, unless you’re the Oblation.
6. Use a cable release
Vibration is the enemy; I cannot stress that enough. If you have a cable release, use it so that you don’t have to touch your camera while you keep the shutter button pressed. Alternatively, you could use your camera’s self timer (though this won’t work on B, so set your speed from 5 to 10 seconds) or remote so you can trip the shutter without shaking the camera.
7. Add a context
While fireworks shots are pretty, they get boring pretty fast if you can’t provide a context to them. That’s where a foreground or a background comes in. Play with silhouettes, of people watching the show in front of you, for instance. Capture the way the fireworks illuminate buildings. If you’re by a lake or any body of water, you can capture reflections there. If you’re doing a photo essay, take photos of the folks on the ground, the spectators, the revelers, the fraidy cats, too.
8. Find a good vantage point
Location is everything. If you’re shooting skyward, make sure you’ve got a clear field of vision, with no trees or electric lines to mar your shot (unless you want ’em there). If you want to include other elements, such as people or environment, make sure you suss out where you should set up your tripod where you can frame everything you want. It also pays to be upwind, because that way the smoke blows away from you, and not between your lens and the pyrotechnics.
9. Use a low ISO
Again, because this is a low light situation, there’s an instant impulse to use the fastest film we have in our fridge. This is a bad move, mainly because grain in our shots will only mess up what we want to show, and fast film means more grain. ISO 100 or even ISO 64 is good for fireworks photography, since the actual subject is very bright.
10. Enjoy the occasion
Take it from me: it doesn’t pay to get a killer shot if it means you neglect your party. This is New Year’s Eve – live a little! Point your camera down and take photos of your family and friends. Turn on your colorsplash flash. Grab a drink, get drunk, take party shots, fall down. Even if you didn’t get your perfect fireworks shot, there’s always next year!