Fireworks!

It wouldn’t be the 4th of July without a few common themes: the American flag, BBQ, and of course, fireworks. The BBQ didn’t happen this year, but I sure wasn’t going to miss the fireworks show. Especially now that I have a digital SLR, fireworks is just one of those shots you just have to try for yourself. And even though it’s a little cliche, shooting fireworks is definitely a lot of fun.

Let’s start at the beginning. A few days prior the the holiday, I already started my research. Like any good photography, doing some homework ahead of time will help you immensely on the field. I picked out the location, and made note of when the show was going to start, and the gear and settings I was going to need for my camera. Here’s a brief summary:

  • Location: Central Park located in Santa Clara, CA. It’s close to home, and the crowds shouldn’t be as bad as San Francisco.
  • Time: Show starts at 9:30pm. I figured I better be there around 8:00 to 8:30pm. That should give me enough time to find a good spot, set up my gear and so on.
  • Gear: My D40 dSLR is the bread and butter of the shoot, of course. For focal length, I decided to go with a 24mm lens, 50mm, and 100mm. I could’ve went with my kit lens and saved myself from having to carry additional lenses, but I enjoy using my manual lenses much more. For support, I have my budget $8 tripod. Without any wind, and my camera being very light, the tripod should be acceptable. And I finally got a chance to actually use my remote shutter release. I’ve been buying too many toys without using it. Well, that purchase has now been justified.
  • Settings: Since this is my first time shooting fireworks, I checked online for some tips on how to shoot them. Aperture should be set to f/11 or f/16 for large depth of field. Shutter speed should be set to Bulb for variable shutter speeds that can be adjusted on the fly. The lowest ISO should be used, in my case ISO 200. Although it’s at night, fireworks are actually very bright, so these exposure settings should be sufficient to capture the image correctly. White balance is set to Auto, and I always shoot in RAW, so white balance isn’t a big issue as long as there aren’t any external light sources with weird lighting.

With that, I was all set for the shoot. I arrived around 8:00pm to find a lot more people than I had anticipated. After 10 minutes of trying to find parking. I finally joined the march to the park and followed the crowds. Everybody was hauling their lawn chairs and blankets, while I was hauling my tripod and lenses. After I found a good location, it was time to set up. The first thing I noticed was that my tripod was just too short. Even fully extended with the center column, the height was only up to my neck. I found myself having to squat for the entire time of the shoot. (My days of weight training at the gym are finally paying off) The 3 way adjustments on the head aren’t the easiest to use either, and locking the position required me to really tighten the knobs, otherwise it would slip. I was cursing the damn thing the whole time, and made a mental note to get a real tripod for next time. But you gotta work with what you got, and once locked in position, the crappy tripod was better than nothing.

This was my first time in this park, and I had no idea how close the fireworks display was going to be. Is it going to be far away, so I should use my longer telephoto (100mm)? Or will it be really close so I can use my wide angle (24mm)? I couldn’t answer those questions until the show actually starts, so I’m going to have to work fast here changing lenses if necessary. (A zoom lens like the kit lens would’ve definitely helped here.) The recommended focus was at infinity, which would be pretty easy to do, even on manual lenses. I opted to go with the hyperfocal distances, even though it made focusing a bit harder considering you can barely see the depth-of-field¬† & distance scales on the lens because of the low lighting. Not sure if it would’ve made any differences either way.

Once the show started, the first thing I did was move to a different location. Turns out my good spot had an obstruction that was blocking half the fireworks. I quickly moved to a new spot which had an unobstructed view and set up my tripod there. Now what focal length to use? I started out with the 24mm, but found it actually too wide. I ended up using the 50mm the whole time, which worked the best out of the lenses I had with me. I believe a 35mm would’ve been ideal, but once again, you gotta work with what you got. I also¬† found portait orientation to be much better than landscape. The one thing I was lacking was a foreground, and landscape orientation just didn’t work without one. And lastly, I had to get my timing right with the remote shutter release. What ended up working for me was to open the shutter just before the big explosion, and then leave it open for about a second after the explosion and then close it. After a few tries, it was able to capture the signature light trails pretty consistently.

All this can be pretty overwhelming for a newbie like myself, especially when most of my initial setup had to be changed once the show started. But that’s just the nature of the shoot. I should’ve done a little recon and physically go to the location to check out potential good spots and contingencies. Nevertheless, the shooting was an excellent experience. Even my girlfriend, who is also a beginner dSLR user, had a lot of fun shooting the fireworks using my monopod, and she’s not as uptight as I am with my camera and settings. The most important thing is to have fun, and on this shoot, everyone had a great time. In the end, we all got some very nice pictures to take home.