Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to Photograph Fireworks

Obtaining colorful and exciting photographs of firework displays is not difficult, but it does require an ability to work a camera in manual mode with a remote release. Digital cameras have made photographing fireworks much easier and fun to do.  Here is how it is done.

You will need a steady tripod for your camera, a remote release to hold the shutter open, and a lens that will enable you to fill the frame with the fireworks display.   A zoom lens is best because you can modify the cropping as you go by zooming in or out.

Fill the frame with the bursts for the most dramatic effect.  On a dark night you can even leave the camera shutter open to capture several bursts in the same exposure.
 The first thing you need to do is determine where to aim the camera.   Fireworks displays usually go off from a fixed location and cover a limited area of the sky.  You should be able to see the individual fireworks trail as it shoots up from the launch area.  Fix you camera so that it covers the area of the sky where the  full burst occurs.  It is usually best to fill the frame with the burst.  Including too much of the dark sky is dull and uninteresting. 
Set your camera to manual exposure mode.  You will need to also set the shutter speed to B, or Bulb, which will keep the shutter open as long as you are holding in the button on the remote release.  Choose a low ISO setting -- preferably the base ISO of your camera.  This will usually be ISO 100 or 200.  Set your camera menu to turn off the noise reduction for long exposures. This will only slow your camera down and is unnecessary where the dark areas are pure black. 

Your lens should also be set to manual mode.  The auto-focus mode may have to hunt for a focus point that will result in many out of focus images.  Note that on most modern auto-focus lenses the actual infinity setting of the lens is often not at the very end of the focus ring range.  You will need to set the infinity symbol on your lens by eye.  Set it for the very center of the symbol.  The focus ring can easily be bumped off of its setting so it is wise to tape the ring securely in place while shooting.

Over-exposing the photo will result in a colorless image, like the one on the right.  Close the aperture down another f/stop or two until you can see some color on your camera display.
The proper selection of lens aperture is a bit of a variable.  Fireworks differ from one another in terms of brightness.  So you will need to do some on the spot testing to determine the best f/stop to use.  The range is usually between f/8 and f/16, but can go as low as f/22.  With an ISO of 100, I would recommend starting with f/8 (f/11 for ISO 200).  Overexposing the fireworks results in washed out bursts lacking in color.  So it is best to keep the exposure toward the darker end and bracket by at least one full f/stop, or even more.  For instance, you could begin with f/8, then try f/11 and f/16.  Check your camera display to see if the color is in the burst. 

To avoid your fireworks photos looking like the bad example above you need to keep your shutter open long enough for the bursts to record in the frame.  When the exposure is too short, the burst does not have enough time to "paint" itself in your picture.  That is why the burst streaks in this photo are so short.  There is also far too much dull, black sky in the photo.  This photo needed to be cropped tighter.

Here the crop was tighter and the shutter was open long enough to capture several bursts of fireworks that allowed them to create long, bright streaks that completely fill the frame.
Timing is very important.  You want to keep the shutter open long enough during the burst so that it "paints" itself on the camera sensor.  This will give you the fullest color. Too short a shutter speed will only record a small part of the burst.  You want to record as much of the burst as you can without over-exposing the photo.  The length of exposure depends upon the brightness of the burst and the sky.  If you have set your camera up properly, you can release the shutter as soon as you see the firework begin its upward motion.  Keep the shutter open during the full burst.  This is usually between three and eight seconds, but could be longer if the sky is really dark.

If your camera can double expose, you might want to experiment with capturing more than one burst in the same photo.  Alternatively, you can capture a number of bursts and combine them later into one frame during post-processing.
 As the display goes on, the sky begins to fill with smoke.  This smoke reflects the light from the fireworks and can affect the exposure.  You may need to darken your exposure by stopping down your lens aperture by another stop or more. 
These rules should give you a good starting point.  Experiment by varying the lens aperture and the time the shutter is open.  Above all, be aware of where in the frame your bursts are recording and tighten up the crop if there is too much black area from the night sky.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Composition: Making clouds work for you

Every year over 3 million people visit the Statue of Liberty in New York.  It is a safe bet that all of them have a camera and take one or more photos.  That means that over 3 million images of the Statue of Liberty are taken annually.  With odds like these you may wonder if it is still possible to obtain a unique photograph of the famous statue of the lady in the harbor.  
The photo on the left is what anyone can achieve -- and millions do -- on a nice, cloudless day.  The photo on the right was taken from a scenic boat tour at sunset.  The uniqueness of the clouds and careful timing to include the sun just peeking out from behind the statue make this shot a one-of-a-kind composition.

You will need to shift your main focus from the static subject of your scene and concentrate instead on the changing landscape around the subject if you hope to create a composition that is uniquely your own.  Keep in mind that while the subject is fixed in space two things are not: you and your position relative to the subject, and the weather.  Taking advantage of these changing elements will result in an image you can call your own.  One thing is certain: the weather as reflected in the cloud formations over your subject is constantly changing and will never be exactly the same twice.  Make a compositional design relationship between the weather and the subject and you will have something you can call uniquely your own. 
This photo is of a statue at the Gettysburg Battle Field monument.  Careful placement of the clouds create a swirling effect that emphasizes the running motion of the soldier. 
First you must train yourself to look beyond the subject to the surrounding area.  Too often photographers "see" only the main subject they are photographing and ignore the subject's environment. 

These samples show the difference that a cloud formation can make to a photo when it is incorporated into the overall composition.  In the left photo the castle is centered in the frame without much relationship to its background.  In order to incorporate a large cumulus cloud formation into the right image, it was necessary to place the castle down towards the very bottom of the frame.  Inclusion of the cloud formation dictated compositional placement and lens focal length, both of which make for a much more interesting shot.
Working with clouds can often make a bad day look good.

I arrived at Stonehenge on an overcast winter day at mid-day.  This is usually the worst time to photograph a travel scene.  There was just enough blue sky peeking through the clouds to provide some color.  I decided to create a shot that would illustrate how the monument would look in relationship to its bleak landscape. A 28mm wide angle lens allowed me to include the upper limit of the sky.  This is important because the sky is a deeper blue higher up.  The actual subject takes up very little space in the frame.  Nonetheless, it stands out dramatically against the sky and surrounding plains, and further emphasizes the important relationship Stonehenge had to the environment.  About 80% of this photo is taken up by a rather humdrum sky.  Relating it to the main subject gives it a new meaning and makes this shot unique.
Sometimes you luck out with an unusual cloud formation.  Here the clouds form a halo effect above the church cross on the Island of Mykonos.  All I had to do was change my position to align the clouds with the cross.

Two completely different cloud themes of western scenes: On the left a small, single cloud suggests a dry, remote desert area.  In the example on the right a huge cumulus cloud formation over the Grand Tetons in Wyoming emphasizes the grandeur of the mountains and the landscape.

The weather does not have to be sunny to provide an opportunity for dramatic cloud compositions.

The church was placed over the bright area of the stormy sky to help define its silhouetted shape.
I found this storm cloud formation while driving though the South Dakota plains.  Pulling off the road at the next exit, I was able to grab a shot of the immense storm over the landscape.  The plains themselves take up a very tiny area at the bottom of the frame, and further emphasizes the relationship of the landscape to the sky.
These oil tankers were anchored off the shore while I was sailing in the Aegean Sea just before dawn.  A typical shot of this scene would be to make a horizontal composition by coming in tight on the ships with a telephoto lens.  To make the photo more unique I included the tops of clouds over the scene and changed the composition to a vertical.
Forming your composition by incorporating cloud formations in relationship to your main subject is a great way to give your photos a special look, and one that is impossible to duplicate ever again.  The photo becomes a reflection of your personal experience with a scene at a particular time and place.  Isn't that what good photography is all about?