Coming Soon to an America Near You

By , June 10, 2014 10:43 pm
Adans watch fireworks from the banks of Wintersmith Lake.

Adans watch fireworks from the banks of Wintersmith Lake.

I’ve been shooting various Independence Day celebrations for my entire career. Our community, Ada, Oklahoma, has a big day-long party in Wintersmith Park. It starts at 7 am with the Fireball Classic 5k/10k run, and ends 14 hours later with a fireworks display over the lake in the park. Many Adans set up tents and make a day out of it.

One slightly vexing problem for a lot of would-be photographers is the formula for photographing fireworks. Complicating matters is that many of today’s cameras have a not-very-effective “fireworks” mode on the exposure mode dial.

Three floral shells burst in the sky above Ada's Wintersmith Park.

Three floral shells burst in the sky above Ada’s Wintersmith Park.

But I’m here to make it easy. You need…

A lens that focuses "beyond infinity" sounds theatrical and impossible, but some are actually made this way because of differential expansion of some of the specialized glass elements inside.

A lens that focuses “beyond infinity” sounds theatrical and impossible, but some are actually made this way because of differential expansion of some of the specialized glass elements inside.

  • A rock-solid tripod
  • A digital SLR or other camera with the ability to make manual exposures for up to 30-seconds.
  • A lens, probably a zoom, that can be focused manually and has either a focus distance scale or a hard stop at the infinity setting (some lenses focus beyond infinity, which is a place for another, more philosophical discussion.)
  • A spot about as close as you can get to the source of the fireworks.
Independence Day is more than just the fireworks show at the end of the day; have fun making pictures of the Americana.

Independence Day is more than just the fireworks show at the end of the day; have fun making pictures of the Americana.

Find your spot early enough that you don’t have people sit or stand in front of you. On top of a wall or at the edge of water might work. With the camera on the tripod, focus to infinity. Make your shutter speed “B” or “Bulb,” which allows the shutter to stay open as long as you hold the shutter release down. Make your ISO about 200, and your aperture somewhere around f/11.

Be ready to tweak these settings if they don’t give you what you want.

As the fireworks show starts, watch the floral shells lift into the air. Anticipate when they will burst, and try to open the shutter just before they do. Hold the shutter open as more shells burst. The longer you hold the shutter open, the more bursts will accumulate on the image. I find that two or three is enough, but your taste may vary.

Be aware that longer shutter speeds also accumulate more smoke and haze that is illuminated by the fireworks themselves.

There are other tricks of the trade. Some shooters will bring a black card (or a black hat or other black object), open the shutter, then move the card out of the way during the period of the motion of the fireworks that he wants to capture, then covering the lens again and waiting for the next chance to add to the image.

The true essence of photographing fireworks is to let your creative self have fun, both in the process and at the destination.

Fireworks are extremely satisfying to photograph because there is no "correct" image, and they have the potential to dazzle the eye.

Fireworks are extremely satisfying to photograph because there is no “correct” image, and they have the potential to dazzle the eye.

4 Responses to “Coming Soon to an America Near You”

  1. Dan Marsh says:

    My Tamron 18-200 has the infinity stop. I’m guessing you’d recommend shooting RAW? I’ve not used BULB before — to do so, I manually hold the shutter release down, is that right?

  2. Wil C. Fry says:

    Dan, your camera might be different than mine (Canon 60D)… But on mine, yes, I have to hold the shutter down on a bulb exposure. However, using a wireless remote (which I do for all long exposures), it’s one click to open the shutter and one more click to close it.

  3. Robert says:

    This night Wintersmith park image is timeless.

    http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/51.112.6

  4. Dan Marsh says:

    Wil, thanks.

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