With the always awesome “Brisbane RiverFire” event coming up this weekend as part of the annual Riverfestival circus, I thought it might be fitting to throw down a few hints and tips for capturing those perfect “fire in the sky” shots. So here goes:
1. Select a great location
Selecting the best vantage point for your shots is always going to be a bit of a gamble. The best way to find out that “special” location to set up in is, of course, by word of mouth. However, I have found “Flickr” to be a pretty good source of inspiration of late. Pick your event, view the great photos that others have shot from the event and try and work out where they set up to capture their “rocket-goes-boom” moments.
The photo at the top of this post which I took during Riverfire a good few years ago during my first ever attempt at photographing fireworks. Sure, it’s a little overexposed, more on that in a minute, but I think it’s a good example of being in a great spot for a potentially great photo.
I can’t remember the name of the park I set up in upon advice from a co-worker at the time, but I can show you on a map (see right). It’s on Moray Street just off Bowen Terrace – that much I can tell you. You certainly don’t get to see all the fireworks on the Southbank branch of the river, but you certainly have the best vantage point in the city for the Story Bridge and the explosions that are let off from the tops of the CBD buildings.
Regardless how you choose to find your inspiration, I always keep a couple of rules in mind. Number one, if you can’t get into the PRIME location that you are after, then aim for somewhere really different – somewhere you’ve never seen photos taken from before. And secondly, wherever you choose to plant your tripod, ALWAYS ARRIVE EARLY. If you’ve got a hot tip of a great spot to set up in, chances are there will be about 4-5 other photographers who have received the same tip jostling for the same spot.
2. Take the right equipment with you
Selection of lenses is completely dependent on how far you are away from the fireworks themselves and therefore is not something I can provide guidance on in this instance. What I can say is that you will want to be using a lens that will provide you with a focal length that will enable you to capture explosions at all heights. Additionally, if the source of the fireworks is on water, it’s a good idea to allow for an amount of water in the bottom of your frame as it usually provides colourful reflections that always add to any good photo.
The two most important pieces of equipment I would suggest would be in your “must-have” basket for photographing fireworks effectively are a tripod and a cable release or remote shutter control. Together these two essential pieces of equipment are going to set you back around $200+ bones, but the fact that combined they will allow you to not even touch your camera once during the fireworks performance (an essential factor when dealing with long exposure photography) means they will be worth every cent in the long run.
3. Be flexible with your settings
You can argue either way in regards to automatic or manual focusing. With manual, so long as you get the focusing right from the get-go and nothing happens that would potentially bump your camera out of place or mess with your focusing ring then you’re all good. If you just leave it to your cameras expert devices when it comes to focusing, however, I find it does a pretty good job as it always tends to focus on the brightest part of the frame which, what do you know, is generally the subject of your photo anyway.
The only way to capture those great bursts of colour with long trails of sparkling goodness is by allowing your shutter to remain open for longer than the human hand can hold a camera still for, hence the reason for the tripod and cable release or remote. Zero contact with the camera body while taking photos equals zero vibrations and therefore sharp long-exposed shots. When I say long-exposed, however, I’m talking somewhere between 1″ and 3″. It all really depends on the given light in the atmosphere when the fireworks are going off. If there’s still sunset colour in the sky then you’ll obviously want to go for something more around the 1″ range. Any more than that and your photos will potentially over-expose and at the very least you will lose colour depth.
On the flip side, if it’s already pitch black then you can by all means look at 3″ exposures and if you do it right, anything up to 6″. In order to do this without your pictures blowing out due to the intense light given off by initial explosions, you will need to toggle your exposure compensation settings as well.
By dialing in a negative exposure setting (eg. -1.0ev) into your camera before taking your shots, you can effectively tell your camera to let in a little less light than it wants to given the shutter speed setting you have selected and the corresponding aperture setting your camera chooses to use. This has the effect of reducing the intensity of flashes of light given off when the fireworks shells explode initially. This, in turn, gives you a better chance of obtaining deeper, richer colours from the resultant firework.
It all sounds a tad complicated at first, but you need only experiment for the first two minutes or so of the display and you will find a setting that works for you.
4. Cheese, olives and wine
Last, but certainly not least, ensure that you have a ready supply of soft cheeses, plump, ripe olives and a damn good bottle of plonk to get you through the event. I’ve NEVER diverted from this strategy and it seems to work a charm for me, and indeed those who I have photographed with before (right Jenny)?
If you’d like to view a few samples of my fireworks shots from the last couple of years (shot in Vancouver), then click on the links below.
- Festival of Light 2006 – Part I
- Festival of Light 2006 – Part II
- And the Winner is Mexico
- Summer Has Arrived – Celebration of Light 2007
- Team China Were Smokin’
- 2008 Canada Day Fireworks