Wednesday, June 30, 2010

DC Fireworks Photography and Tips


Happy Birthday America!

Flickr 4 Year Anniversary

I've had the upcoming fireworks on the brain. I've been thinking about how last year went, what I might try this year, and what I should do to make the most of it.

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When last year was approaching I was kicking myself because all my decent DC fireworks shots (very few or none) were posted and used already. So I knew I'd probably take tons in 2009 and have at least one to use that was fresh and different to lead in to this year's 4th of July Celebration in the Nation's Capital.

Planning for the 4th of July and Fireworks Photography in Washington D.C.

Flickr Description:

Last year (above) was the first year I took the 4th fireworks in DC seriously and set out on a mission to photograph the event.

I went super early and made an entire day of it. This year I want to do something similar but better and different. I liked the view from the VA side of the river, but a review of images from a minute ago and nothing is tight enough, way too much empty space and everything had to be cropped.

What worked was the monuments - to set the location and day in to context.

This year I'm trying to come up with a new plan. I might go over to the DC side, but I don't want to be so close that I can't get at least one monument. I am also thinking about going up towards the Iwo Jima Memorial.

Are folks as psyched as me for the 4th and taking photos?

There are lots of guides and tips out there - briefly: use a tripod, mirror delay, cable release, 2 or 3 second shutter speed, take photos continuously (it ends very quickly), manual focus, ~f/8 for some DoF and if you're in the DC area you probably should get to the spot at least a few hours early, probably more.

Any one have a good spot to recommend? Maybe something high up like a rooftop or somewhere else unique? (if it is a secret, email me)

Here are a few more detailed tips in case you're in need of a little help. It took me a couple of tries to get the right approach and get the shots I got last year.

Fireworks Photography Tips
  • #1 Find the right spot - The spot you shoot from is key and fundamental to all the rest. In DC getting one or more landmarks is a must. The fireworks are launched from the east side of the reflecting pool, and that area is off limits. I walked around there last year during the day, and late in the afternoon they lock down the fireworks area and neighboring land. A spot that is not too close is good so you can get a good complete shot. However I've also seen some shots from between the Washington Monument and the Capital and they were night, tight, and well done too. Rooftops are a nice shooting location too, I've not done it, but I've seen some nice results.
  • #2 Use a Tripod - Exposure times should be something like 1 to 2 or 3 seconds so you cannot try to handhold the camera. The tripod should be solid, and if you have a backpack with stuff in it, hang it off the hook in between the legs for extra weight and stability.
  • #3 Timer, Mirror delay, Cable Release - All of these things will help minimize camera shake and blur. In 2009 I used all 3 things and they helped but also took up considerable precious time. The fireworks take forever to get started, but once they do, it seems like it last a few minutes and is over. Use a 2 or 3 second timer, mirror delay if you have it, and shoot as close to continuously as you can. In 2009 I ONLY took around 150 shots and wished I had gotten more.
  • #4 Turn OFF in Camera Noise Reduction - Leaving it on will double the time the camera spends on EACH photo, effectively cutting the number of long exposures you can capture in half. So turn off IN-CAMERA-NOISE-REDUCTION! If you only plan to shoot a few shots, keep it on, but see tip #3 if you want to get lots of shots - keep it off.
  • #5 Get to the spot early - One of my first years trying to shoot the fireworks I made my final approach around 2 hours before dark and I was late, entire areas were full and unavailable to even attempt to park at or shoot from. Use Metro is possible.
  • #6 Exposure Plan - You need a plan for how you are going to get the right exposure. I didn't my first time and tried to "freeze the action!" Yeah, that doesn't work. What makes the fireworks so cool is a long exposure where the light streaks and blurs and makes huge patterns. So that means you need a longer exposure than you might plan for if you didn't have a plan. A 2 second exposure at ISO 400 and f/5.6 is a very long time if you have anything that's even remotely bright (like fireworks). I'd say with those settings you'd get an over-exposed frame. I shoot in manual mode. This helps to produce consistent results. But it still take some experimenting to find the right values. This shot from last year was adjusted from the RAW but here's the exif Planning for the 4th of July and Fireworks Photography in Washington D.C.
    Exposure 1.6 seconds
    Aperture f/7.1
    Focal Length 48 mm
    ISO Speed 100

  • #7 Shoot in RAW - I used to shoot in JPG, or JPG+RAW and mostly used the JPGs. That was a couple years ago. Now I shoot only RAW. The main thing that changed was I discovered Photoshop Lightroom. Lightroom makes working with RAW files so much easier. And by that I mean easier to get better results than decently exposured JPG in camera. For night photography and fireworks photography RAW probably makes even more of a difference. Getting a couple stops of exposure to adjust in the RAW file lets you shoot and make little mistakes and overcome them. I don't go out planning to shoot mistakes. Fireworks happen so fast, go off some times one at a time, 2 or 3 or 4 at a time and there's just no time to meter for a 3 second exposure that isn't visible before you start exposing the sensor/film. If you aren't the type to work with RAW now, than do yourself a favor and shoot both at the same time, and use what you're comfortable with now, but give yourself options later when you get better at editing the camera's files.
  • #8 Use a black card to block the lens - One trick to get crazy shots of fireworks is to take multiple sets of launched fireworks and combine them in to one exposure. This can be done a few ways, but the old-school way, ie from film days, is to keep the camera's shutter open for an extended period of time and only let the light in when the fireworks are exploding. To do this block the lens during the in between time with a black card or something that won't let any light in.
  • #9 Check the Histogram - The histogram can be pretty helpful with fireworks. I'd recommend shooting RAW and trying to get just a touch of the histogram up on the right side, ie clipping just a little. Most of the pixels though should be dark and recorded in middle or left side of the histogram... Note some camera display histograms that are really one color, not full RGB histograms, or maybe they're an average. So be a little careful making all the exposure calculations based on the histogram. Chimp the images too. One more note or word of caution on that - since by now it is dark out and your eyes have adjusted, the camera screen will seem really bright, and I've mistakenly underexposed in situations like this. One more way to get the right in field exposure would be to use the highlight warning feature available on many cameras where the blownout highlights blink bright white on the back of the camera...
  • #10 Fill the Frame - Far away firework are just that, far away. Shoot with a telephoto lens if you have one and zoom in on the action. Usually you can't get close to the fireworks, so I think this is a valid tip. If you are close, be careful and shoot with a wider angle...
  • #11 Mode other than Manual - Since not everyone shoots in manual mode, here's another way to try setting up the camera. Pick Aperture mode, select f/8, ISO 200, and -1.0 EV (exposure compensation). Shutter speeds will vary and the -1EV will compensate for the night time vs. bright fireworks. You don't want the camera to turn the night scene in to a day time looking exposure. -1 may be ok, try it and adjust from there.
  • #12 Shoot from a hill or get a front row spot - Once the action starts you don't want someone walking in front of you so get a front row spot, or shoot from a hill, not necessarily the top but along the hill.
  • #13 Plan for the Wind! - Wind is a very good thing to have on a night with fireworks. It will help to clear the smoke from the sky. However one way this can backfire is if you are down wind from the fireworks, the smoke will be streaming right towards you and block your view. There's not a lot to do once this happens, it is kind of a bust in my opinion. A related tip is don't shoot from too far away - atmospheric things can get in your way like haze or heat. Perfect conditions would be late afternoon showers and cold air in the evening.

    That's it for this year and planning - unless I think of a new one before it is too late. Good luck and don't forget the tripod or the camera/lens mounting plate! / Jon