With the 4th of July just around the corner, I wanted to share a little trick to capturing the displays as they unfold. When looking at images of fireworks, it’s easy to be awed by the results, but it is best to know how one might accomplish such an image. There are a number of ways to acquire the look you may want, some of which is easily done in-camera, and other methods involve stacking and blending of multiple different exposures, combining different launches into a single image. I have enjoyed the process of both, however today we will only take a look at the in-camera method for long exposures, otherwise known as manual exposure.
While one can certainly grab great images using a faster shutter speed, one is left with single launches which can be hit or miss, depending on the timing of your shooting with the launch. With the details of modern displays, this is perfect for capturing the hearts and other shapes that the pyrotechnics produce, however, capturing a wider view that encompasses the surroundings as well as the display will require a longer exposure to pick up the rest of what will comprise your image, eradicating the possibility of gaining that level of detail in a single frame image. Also, even at the beginning of a display, it is rare that a single pyrotechnic is launched, so a faster shutter speed will miss the vast majority of a single display.
This is where manual exposure comes into play. The only equipment necessary outside of the camera and lens themselves is a solid tripod (ideal for any final results regardless of the process) and a black towel. Once you have compositionally set up your tripod and view for the show, set the camera up for the long exposure (time will depend on your tastes and desired results), ideally at least 10 seconds or more, and get ready for the show. Start your exposure during a launch, and maintain the exposure through the first explosion, then immediately cover the lens with the cloth, only removing when another explosion is about to take place. This can certainly be tricky, as you don’t want to bump the camera during the exposure, but thankfully it is generally already pretty dark outside, so fully sealed from light is not absolutely necessary, and only making sure the light from the explosion is not intruding is all you’re really looking for.
This method can take a little dialing in to figure out just how long you want to be manually exposing, but you should begin to have a pretty good idea after the first few images, as the overall conditions and timing will vary from show to show and how many pyrotechnics are being used. The images in this little lesson came from the town of Nederland, CO during the 4th of July display of 2016. With not a huge budget, the displays tended to be smaller and the launches one at a time until the grand finale, but rather than show image after image of single, hit or miss launches, this technique allowed me to combine a number of launches in a single frame, giving a much more dramatic feel to the final results. As mentioned, one can certainly acquire similar results by stacking and blending multiple images, but this method saves you all of that back-end work, especially if you have yet to dive into post processing with any depth, and can all be done in-camera, leaving you with a more “standard/basic” method of post processing. While I’ve only had a 3 total fireworks displays to practice this technique, as you can see, the results are not too shabby coming from a small town display for a “beginner” at the process. I hope you all get a chance to try this technique out this year, and know that you don’t need a fancy camera, just a basic tripod, the black cloth and a camera that you can set for extended exposures! Get out there and have fun!!
EF 17-4.mm f/4L USM
Manfrotto Bogen #3021 tripod (I do love my antiques… )
black pillow case
Images processed with:
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom