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Photographing Fireworks

Here are some helpful recommendations, things to keep in mind before you venture out to shoot fireworks. Please remember that these are my own opinions. Every shooting situation is different and contains its own set of variables. The key is to relax, don't get too hung up on exact exposures, and shoot like crazy!

You're definitely going to need a tripod. Since your exposures will run anywhere from 2 to 30 seconds, you'll need the tripod for stability and to ensure smooth, sharp photographs of the shell trails and the fireworks bursts. A monopod simply won't cut it.

Cable release
For ease of shooting, you'll also need a cable release so you can sit back, click the shutter, and still enjoy the show. In addition, if your camera doesn't advance the film automatically, you'll also want to use an auto winder or a motor drive.

What lens to use?
The type of lens you select depends on where you are in relation to the fireworks and the effect you wish to achieve. If you're relatively close and what you're looking for are frame-filling photos of the bursts themselves, then a short telephoto in the 100mm to 200mm range will probably work well. If you want overall views of the scene, then a 50mm to 80mm lens should do the job. And if you want to include people silhouetted in the foreground, then you'll want an even wider lens, such as a 24mm to 35mm.

Tip for the terminally stupid . . .
This may sound very basic, but make sure you check your lens. A number of times I've grabbed a lens out of my camera bag while shooting fireworks and discovered I'd left the polarizing filter on it from shooting earlier in the day. I know -- stupid, stupid, stupid! But it happens . . .

Naturally you can shoot fireworks with any type of film -- negative, transparency, even black and white -- but I would recommend color transparency film, and the film I use is Fujichrome 50 or 100. Every photographer has his or her favorite, and this is mine. So use whatever film you're comfortable and familiar with. Some photographers recommend using tungsten film for photographing fireworks, while other photographers use daylight film. The tungstenites say that daylight balanced film gives the fireworks too reddish a cast. The daylighters say they like that. If you have the luxury of two camera bodies, two tripods, why not set them both up and use tungsten film in one, daylight film in the other? Then you be the judge when you see the results!

Film speed
Any speed film ranging from ISO 50 to ISO 200 will work well for you.

Exposure settings
Set your shutter speed to BULB.
Set your f/stop to the following:
ISO 50 film . . . . . f/5.6 or f/8
ISO 64 film . . . . . f/5.6 or f/8
ISO 100 film . . . . . f/8 or f/11
ISO 200 film . . . . . f/16

How long do you hold the shutter open?
This varies, again depending on the effect you want. You may want to capture a single burst or you may wish to capture multiple bursts. Again, since this is an inexact science, don't worry too much about it. To capture a single burst, wait until you hear the sound of the mortar shell being launched. Open your shutter. Wait for the burst to explode. Keep waiting until the burst has completely finished and all the twinkling is done. Then close the shutter. That's it! If you wish to capture several bursts, wait for the sound of the shell being launched, open your shutter, wait for the burst to disappear, then cover your lens (tips on that later) and wait for the sound of the next shell being launched. Uncover your lens, wait until it's over, then cover your lens again. You be the judge of how many bursts you want in one frame. Just remember that you don't want too many -- it starts looking way too busy.

Miscellaneous tips for photographing fireworks

Smoke gets in your eyes . . .
Try to be upwind of the fireworks show. As the show progresses and the smoke builds up, you'll find that it obscures the fireworks. Michael-Leonard Creditor suggests: "Rather than being upwind, I find it's better to be at a right angle to the direction of the wind. This way, smoke will be blown out of the frame most quickly. If you're directly upwind, smoke can still remain behind your colorful subjects."

Landmarks for a sense of perspective
If the area is a scenic one, try to include landmarks to give a sense of place. I.e., if you're photographing fireworks in Long Beach over by the harbor, including the "Queen Mary" in some of your shots will definitely show your viewers where the fireworks show was taking place. You'll also get a sense of perspective by including a landmark, even if it's the silhouette of a person in front of you, a tree, a boat, etc. Photographing fireworks as they're fired out over a lake or a harbor gives you an additional boost to your photography since you can also capture the reflection of the fireworks in the water.

Watch your backgrounds
At twilight, while you're waiting for the fireworks to begin, take a good look at any lights that may be behind the fireworks. Sometimes you won't notice an errant street lamp until you see that enormous glowing white blob in your resulting shots. Then you think, "how could I have missed that?" By scoping out the background first, you may have time to shift your position or switch lenses to avoid having the offending light appearing in each one of your pictures.

Focus on the bursts
Don't rely on setting your lens to infinity to shoot the fireworks. When the first burst goes up, focus on that burst and use that focus throughout.

Shoot verticals and horizontals
So many photographers automatically hold the camera horizontally when they shoot, not remembering that they can hold the camera vertically as well. Don't limit yourself! Take some shots vertically and others horizontally (I'm referring to the camera, but I guess you could lie down or stand up!).

Cover your lens but don't jiggle the camera
If you're photographing multiple bursts, there are numerous ways you can cover your lens between bursts without moving the camera. Some photographers take a black baseball cap to put on the lens, others will bring a piece of non-reflective black velvet or black felt cloth to hang over the lens. Some photographers simply use their hand, while another photographer painted the inside of a round oatmeal carton black and stuck that on the front of the lens (a bit bulky to pack, though).

Miscellaneous tips
Michael-Leonard Creditor recommends "try some pieces of colored cellophane or other type of colored filters to lend even more color to the bursts. And don't forget that great old technique of ZOOOOMING during the exposure for a totally different look to the burst patterns."

Double-expose a full moon into your shots?
You may wish to go out and, using a long lens, take some shots of the moon, reload the film into your camera, and then on the 4th go out and photograph the fireworks, superimposing them next to your moon shots. If you kept accurate notes while shooting the moon, you'll know, frame by frame, where the moon is in each shot as you compose for the fireworks. Or, oh what the heck, just digitally place the moon wherever you wish afterwards!

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