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DSLR Cameras

This section is about photographing fireworks with digital SLR cameras (DSLR).

If you have a point-and-shoot camera, go to Point-and-shoot Cameras.

1 - Bring

Bring a tripod, a small flashlight so you can see your camera controls, extra batteries, extra memory cards, and bug spray.

2 - Location

Arrive early to find the best location.

You need a location:

• Where the fireworks will be in front of you, not overhead.

Therefore, the best location may not be on the site of the display.

• With a clear view.

You don't want people's heads in every photograph, nor do you want lights, the moon, branches and wires.

Branches and wires may not be noticeable in your viewfinder if you arrive when it's dark already.

Also, avoid locations where a street light, or other light source, is shining on your camera lens.

The light could create flare.

• Where landmarks can be included in the frame, as well as reflections on water.

• Where you can set up your tripod, and where no one will trip over your tripod's legs.

If needed and possible, spread a blanket to mark the perimeter of your "studio."

• Where you're upwind from the display.

If the smoke is blowing towards you, the fireworks will be obscured.

And, you have less risk of getting ash in your eye.

3 - Frame

You may want to frame the fireworks vertically, as the displays are often more vertical than horizontal.

Be prepared to switch to a horizontal framing for the finale, however.

Practice this when there is some light in the sky.

Remember where landmarks are near the bottom edge of the frame, so the horizon is level.

For example, if the fireworks are being launched from a barge across a river, you want the distant shoreline to be level in your photographs.

4 - Focus

Switch the lens to manual focus.

The switch is on the lens (Canon), or is on the front of the camera, at the bottom, near the lens (Nikon).

Don't confuse the M found on the exposure mode knob on top of your camera—with the M for manual focus on or near the lens.

Focus on the first burst, and verify occasionally during the shoot that the focus is still correct.

You may want to tape the lens so the focus doesn't shift accidentally.

Use gaffer tape, not duct tape.

Avoid focusing the lens at infinity, which is often designated by a figure eight symbol, ∞.

On many zooms, the infinity setting varies depending on the ambient temperature.

The expansion and contraction of the lens as the temperature changes shifts the infinity setting.

5 - Exposure Settings

Green Exposure Mode - No

Don't use the exposure mode icon that's green.

This setting may be a green camera icon, a green box, or the word Auto in green

If you use this setting, the flash will probably popup automatically.

You don't need your popup flash for fireworks photography, unless you want to illuminate people near the camera.

Manual Exposure Mode - Yes

Use the manual exposure mode (M).

Be sure to set your camera to manual exposure mode by using the exposure mode dial on the top of your camera.

Don't use the manual focus switch that's on or near the lens.

Both features use the same abbreviation on your camera, M, so it's easy to confuse them.

If your camera has a single knurled knob, it probably changes the shutter speed.

When you press and hold a nearby button with an aperture icon, the knob changes the lens opening.

On cameras with two knurled knobs, one will change the shutter speed, and the other, the lens opening.

Which Shutter Speed?

The shutter speed will determine the size of the burst.

Longer shutter speeds will record longer radiating trails of the fireworks bursts.

Experiment with shutter speeds between two and about eight seconds.

Remember, these full-second shutter speeds are designated by a quote mark.

For example, 2 is one-half of a second, while 2" is eight seconds.

Which Lens Opening?

The lens opening determines the color intensity of the fireworks.

As the lens opening gets smaller, the color of the burst gets darker.

At each of the above shutter speeds, try lens openings between f/8 and f/16, at ISO 100.

Remember, a smaller lens opening has a larger number.

If the lens opening is at f/8, for example, and you want to change it to a smaller, one, the number will be larger, such as f/9.5.

Experiment

Relax, and experiment for a few minutes, at the beginning of the display.

You'll quickly determine the proper exposure setting.

Start with an exposure of 8 seconds at f/8, at ISO 100.

Exposure Troubleshooting

Again, the size of the burst is determined by the shutter speed.

If the bursts are too small . . . . . . use longer a shutter speed.

And, the color intensity is determined by the lens opening.

If the trails of the bursts are colorless . . . . . . use a smaller lens opening.

Automatic Bracketing

You can also use automatic bracketing if your camera has this feature.

Many cameras allow you take three or five photographs at different exposure settings.

You can specify the amount of the difference for each exposure, such one-half of a stop (.5) and one stop (1.0).

6 - Evaluating Exposure Settings

Crude Method

The image  on your LCD screen can be used for crudely judging exposures.

Better Method

Your LCD screen may highlight overexposed areas with blinking expanses of white or another color.

This is a more accurate way to evaluate your exposure settings.

If there are many overexposed areas, reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor.

Use:

• A faster shutter speed (such as 1.5" to 1")

Or:

• A smaller lens opening (such as shifting from f/8 to f/9.5).

Best Method

You can also use the histogram for evaluating your exposure.

If there's a vertical line ling the right edge of the histogram, the photograph is overexposure.

Reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor as described above.

7 - Other Camera Settings

Raw & JPEG

Many cameras can save photographs as both raw and JPEG files.

The advantage of raw files is being able to process them yourself.

You can make adjustment to the exposure and white balance, as well as other settings.

JPEG files are raw files that have been processed by the camera.

They're convenient.

Saving in both file formats may slow down your camera, however.

ISO

Use a low ISO.

By using a low ISO, there'll be less noise.

Color Saturation

You may be able to change the color saturation from Normal to Vivid, or to a similarly named setting.

8 - Noise Reduction

The sensor heats up during long exposures.

The sensor records some of this heat as if it was photons, creating what's called dark noise or dark current noise.

Go to Noise Reduction.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction Feature

Some cameras have a noise reduction function for long shutter speeds:

1) You press the shutter release, and an exposure is made.

2) The camera then makes a second exposure automatically.

The sensor turns on, but the shutter doesn't open.

This second exposure is a photograph of the dark noise created by the heat of the sensor.

3) The camera subtracts the dark noise measured by the second exposure, from the first exposure.

What if:

• Your camera doesn't have the above feature?

• The wait for your camera to make the second exposure is onerous?

Long Exposure Noise Reduction

With Photoshop Elements

You can use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements to reduce the dark noise.

At the shoot, make a black frame at the end of the fireworks display.

Make an exposure with the lens cap on, at the shutter speed that you were using.

If you used several shutter speeds, make black frames for each one.

Later, using Photoshop or Photoshop Elements:

1) Open one of your fireworks photographs.

2) Open the black frame photograph that was made at the same shutter speed of your fireworks photograph.

Go to File > File Info to see the shutter speeds of the photographs.

4) Move the black frame photograph to the palette bin of the fireworks photograph.

A) Select the layer (highlighted in blue) in the palette bin that you want to move.

B) Click the Automatically Tile Windows icon in the upper-right corner of the screen, or go to Window > Images > Tile.

C) Click on the layer in the palette bin, hold down the mouse button, press Shift, and drag the layer onto the large image of the destination photograph (not the thumbnail in the palette bin).

Who do you press Shift?

Pressing Shift while dragging keeps the two photographs in registration.

The above description is the third method in this tutorial: Move a Layer.

5) Change the blending mode of the black frame layer to Difference.

9 - Tripping the Shutter

Listen for the sound of a shell or shells going up, and press the shutter release just before they burst.

With a little practice, you can become proficient.

To prevent camera shake from pressing the shutter release, use a remote release.

If you don't have one, press the shutter release very gently.

10 - Try Very Long Exposures

Many of the best fireworks photographs are made by using very long shutter speeds, while covering the lens between bursts.

30 Seconds

1) You can set your shutter speed up to 30 seconds (30").

2) Trip the shutter when you hear a shell going up.

3) After the shell bursts, cover the lens with an opaque black cloth.

A cloth is less likely to disturb the camera than a piece of black cardboard.

4) Uncover the lens when you hear another shell going off.

Repeat until the shutter closes.

Bulb Shutter Speed

If your camera has the bulb shutter speed, you can use even longer shutter speeds.

Set the exposure mode dial to manual (M).

Turn the knob that controls shutter speed towards the longer shutter speeds.

If your camera has the bulb shutter speed, you'll see bulb after the longest shutter speed, which is usually 30 seconds (30").

With the bulb shutter speed, the shutter stays open as long as you hold the shutter release down.

Do use a remote shutter release, however, to avoid disturbing the camera.

With most remote shutter releases, press once to open the shutter, and press again to close it.

Cover the lens with a cloth, as described above.

11 - Just Before the Finale

Check:

• How many exposure you have left on your memory card.

• Battery power.

You don't want to have to change the memory card or batteries during the finale.

12 - Practice

Practice before the event if you've never used:

• Your camera in the dark.

• Manual exposure mode.

• Histograms.

You probably don't have fireworks with which to practice.

As a substitute, have someone swing around a flashlight or a sparkler.

13 - Safety

If you're legally using your own fireworks, follow the advice at the websites below.

American Pyrotechnics Association Safety Information

Consume Products Safety Commission Fireworks Safety

National Council on Fireworks Safety

14 - Printing

If your photographs are printed by a lab, their printers may overexpose photographs with expanses of dark areas.

If this occurs, most labs will reprint the photographs at no additional charge.

15 - More

Digital Camera How-To: Shooting Fireworks

Fireworks Photography

Fireworks Photography Tips

How to Get Great Fireworks Photos Peter K. Burian

Photographing Fireworks with a Digital Camera

Shooting Fireworks: Capture The Spectacle

Shooting Fireworks (Indoors) Frank Van Riper