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Thursday, July 1, 2010

More on Photographing Fireworks

In the last posting I talked about photographing fireworks using a tripod, remote release and time exposures. Oh, bother. Who (besides me) wants to go through all of that nonsense when what you really want is to just go have some fun at the local fireworks and maybe come home with a few nice snapshots. Last year I went to three fireworks shows and I think I was the only photographer there with a tripod (and I kept hoping no one would trip over a tripod leg in the dark). OK, I admit it, taking a tripod to the 4th of July fireworks is a bit of a pain.

But fear not, there is a simpler way to get good fireworks shots and it has worked so well for me that, believe it or not, unless there is a really important foreground that I want to include (see yesterday's photo) I just leave the tripod in the car and shoot hand held. I still feel insecure and unprepared without a tripod (as I would in almost any situation--especially at night), but I'm sure with time (and therapy perhaps), I'll get over it.

The method for photographing fireworks using a hand-held camera is simple: just raise the ISO speed to around ISO 800 and put the camera in the automatic or programmed exposure mode and shoot. Piece of cake. Even at that fast speed, however, you may find yourself shooting at slower shutter speeds than you feel comfortable with. There's an old rule for deciding what is a safe hand-held shutter speed and that is to invert the focal length of the lens and use that fraction as the lowest shutter speed you can safely shoot without a tripod. If you're using a 100mm lens, for example, try not to shoot at a speed slower than 1/125 of a second (the closest speed to 1/100 on most cameras).

Of course, with image-stabilization technology you can probably sneak by using a shutter speed even two or maybe three stops slower than that. So, again, if you were shooting with a 100mm lens, you could probably (probably) shoot safely with a shutter speed of 1/30 or even 1/15 second. (The traditional sequence of shutter speeds in that range is: 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, etc., but many digital cameras have additional in-between speeds, as well.) I was not using image stabilization for the shot above, but managed to get a pretty sharp picture at 1/8 second because I was resting the camera on the open window frame of my car.

The wider the lens you use the better your odds are at not chopping part of the bursts off and also at capturing large bursts. I shot this photo with an 85mm lens (127mm equivalent in 35mm, roughly) which is kind of long, but I was shooting from the roof of a parking garage that was a bit far from the actual event. Still, it took me a few wasted shots to figure out just the right zoom setting to fill the fame without a lot of black space.

In terms of exposure, I've had pretty good luck using the auto-exposure modes. My D70s and D90 bodies amaze me at being so accurate in such tough situations. But if the fireworks seem to be getting over-exposed, reduce your exposure either by using exposure compensation or by switching to the shutter-priority mode and reducing the shutter speed. I try to keep the lens at about f/5.6 or f/8 and only adjust the shutter speed.

Experiment. The beauty of photographing fireworks (and almost any night subject) with a digital camera is that you can check your compositions on the LCD immediately and make the necessary adjustments in both exposure and framing.

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