Today’s guest post is from Ben Hendel (you can follow Ben on Twitter and Flickr). Capturing the entire fireworks show in one shot is an incredibly difficult shot so we’ve broken up the post into two parts
Fireworks. The final frontier.
Maybe? I dunno, I never watched Star Trek. Fireworks can be a difficult enough thing to shoot before you look at someone else’s shot and say to yourself, “you know, I wanna take a shot like that!” The job is especially difficult when the shot in question captures all of Wishes in a single frame like this one here by Brett Kiger of Brett Kiger Photography.
Sadly for you, photography isn’t like Olympic gymnastics or snowboarding, either. You don’t get bonus points attempting a particularly difficult shot. You just get a more difficult shot and a higher chance of botching it. You get one chance per show to get it right and if you aren’t a local this might be the only chance you get to take the image on your trip. Unlike normal fireworks photography, where you’re taking 25 to 30 frames per show, you can’t peek at the screen and adjust your settings if you’ve gotten something wrong. No pressure right?
You open that shutter, and try to enjoy the next 12 minutes. Because you need all the distraction you can right then. Even though you’ve spend 30 minutes setting up, and framing, and making sure your settings are just right, none of that matters when you lock the shutter open. You worry about it all. You’ll worry about it all even after you read this handy article, telling you all the various ways I managed to screw things up so you don’t have to! Why? Because we are photographers, and worrying is what we do best. That and take photos. We’re pretty decent at that, too.
Single shot fireworks is the Gordon Ramsay’s Beef Wellington of the photography world (Chef, I am still so sorry for shamefully ruining a perfectly good cut of beef. I promise! Just don’t scream at me again!). This isn’t for beginners. You’ll need some specialized, and sometimes expensive, extra equipment. You’ll need to be comfortable setting your camera to full manual mode. You’ll need to understand already how to take fireworks shots. But just like tackling a difficult recipe, when you do it and do it right, there’s nothing in the world that tastes better than the taste of sweet, sweet success.
First off, what sort of extra weight do you need to throw into your bag? First off, you’ll need a camera that can be set to bulb mode, and for which you can manually set the ISO; sorry iPadographers, iPhoneographers, and the like. Next, you’ll need a tripod. You may have the steadiest hands on the planet, but unless you’re dead or one of those awesome monks from China, holding a camera perfectly still for 12 minutes isn’t in the cards. Bolt that sucker to a tripod. Once you’re on the tripod, you don’t want to push the shutter release, especially on bulb mode. You’d have to push it down for 12 minutes straight, and again, your arms will hurt. Plus, pushing the button introduces vibration to the camera, and in the words of Dr. Grant Seeker (get it? He’s seeking grants. Because he’s a scientist. He needs money to research dinosaurs!), “that’s not good.” This is where a remote shutter release comes in handy. They come in all forms now: wired, wireless of all varieties (IR, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth), and in all complexities. I use a very simple one, the Nikon MC-DC2. It has a shutter button, and a slide-lock, which I love when I use bulb mode. Finally, you’ll need a neutral density, sometimes called an ND, filter. [Editor’s note, if you are a Canon shooter like me, I use the Canon RS60-E3, I assume that there are similar remotes for the Micro 4/3rd cameras.]
What is an ND filter? There’s a lot of very complicated math that goes into it, but basically it is a filter that doesn’t affect the hues of light coming into the camera (hence the term neutral) while reducing the amount of light that makes it to the sensor. They come in all sorts of varieties of darknesses, but I tend to err toward the less-expensive side of the scale and purchase a variable ND filter. This uses two polarized filters, one static and one that rotates, to dial in the level of darkness you need. Plus, it’s only one filter in my bag, rather than a set of three to five. That’s the upside. The downside is that you’re now shooting through not one extra piece of glass, but two. More glass means more of a chance to lose sharpness in your shot. However, that is a trade off I’m willing to make. My biggest tip about ND filters is to buy one that fits your biggest lens (unless that lens is the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 or similar, something that requires it’s own bespoke ND and costs $500), and use step-down rings to fit the ND to smaller-threaded lenses. If your biggest lens requires a 77mm filter, but you also have a lens that need a 52mm filter, you know that the 77mm filter will have enough coverage for 52mm filter lens. A step-down rings will make the 77mm filter thread properly onto the smaller fitting lens. Just because they make a ring to fit a 52mm filter on your bigger lens doesn’t mean it is a good idea.
Now that we’ve got all our kit, I’ll take a bit to talk about the theories that make this particular shot work. Properly exposing a picture is all about controlling light. Too much light and you’ve blown the shot. Similarly, not enough light and your shot will be underexposed, and dark. It comes as no surprise that we have to set our cameras up in a specific manner in order to pull off a roughly twelve minute (678 seconds, in one of my pictures) exposure. An easy way to let less light into a camera, we know, is to use a small aperture. While it’s quite tempting to spin our thumb-wheels the f/22, there are some things to consider beforehand. Most lenses aren’t at their sharpest when shooting at either extreme of their aperture spectrum. And even at such an extreme aperture, we would still need to use an ND filter to properly expose. We don’t want to double our chances of a soft shot, with both a filter and a high aperture value, so that’s out. Additionally, f/22 is going to put everything in focus, and depending on how you frame your shot, that may not be what you are trying to achieve. I recommend setting up where your lens is sharpest, generally in the f/5.6 to f/8 range. I’m a huge fan of f/5.6, but your mileage may vary.
This is what the image at the top of the post looked like straight out of the camera.
Planning out your shot is also important. I may love to take night photos, and sometimes even fireworks photos, with my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ultra-wide angle lens. But that only accepts drop-in ND filters, and the kit is well north of $500. That means it’s not the best choice for attempting a single-shot of fireworks. In my bag, my next widest lens is a venerable old Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 lens, which is what I used in EPCOT for IllumiNations. Even though 28mm is relatively wide, as far as fireworks shows go, IllumiNations is more of a vertical show than a horizontal one. Shooting in most spots around World Showcase Lagoon with a 28mm lens in landscape orientation won’t get you the height, but also the foreground, you want in your frame. For my shot, I decided that a portrait orientation would give me an interesting human element at the front of my frame as well as enough height to not chop up any of the higher bursts in IllumiNations.
We are going to finish this up with part 2 on Friday. Let us know what you think in the comments below (hit read more to see the form for posting a comment).
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