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Tip: Nailing your Fireworks Photos

Well can you believe that 2010 is half over already.  As we head into the July 4th holiday weekend I thought I would rewrite a post I originally did last year on some tips for getting some great fireworks photos.  Basic tips, advanced tips, photo and non-photo related I will try to get all that I can think of down here.  If you have any that I might have missed or not thought of, please leave them as a comment so that we may all help in creating great photos that celebrate our independence.

First some general tips, and keep in mind that while I am writing these around my experiences in Boston they can be applied to virtually any scenario.  You may may not live in a city or on the water, but when it comes to a holiday weekend we all can experience the similarities.

1. Location, Location, Location.

I can not stress enough the importance of finding a good location.  Not only one that is going to give you the best vantage point but one that is going to provide you with ample space in crowds of people.  If you have the ability to do so, do a little recon on some places you might like to set up.  Don’t just recon during the day either.  Fireworks shows are at night.  It is important to see what your environment’s ambient conditions are.  Annoying things like street lights are not on during the day, so while it might seem like a great place to set up with the perfect view, what happens when you get there and there is a bunch of ambient light spilling into your lens and screwing up your exposure.

Have a back up location, or better yet several backup locations, this is a lead in to my next tip.

2. Get there early

I can not speak for you or where you live, but in Boston, I rank the 4th of July show as the tops in the US.  Not only do we have the fireworks but we have the Boston Pops live from the Hatch Shell.  It’s nationally televised event and it draws a crowd in the millions to the banks of the Charles River.  There are typically five or six of us that hang out watch the fireworks and take photos, and our arrival time depends on the location we have chosen for the year.  My recon usually starts the month before for a new spot with the previous year as a back up plan.  For this years location we plan on starting our arrival at noon, yes you read that right noon.  That’s ten and a half hours of sitting around!  Last years location required of an arrival time of about 6pm.  I could see this years position from it and it was already packed.  If you think noon is early, people that are going to the Hatch Shell for the Pops concert which starts at 10pm will start arriving at 6am to get the best spot for not only the concert but viewing the fireworks.

If you are going with a group of people send someone to each location that you have scouted out.  That way if another group of people got the drop on you and got to your primary location before you could get there, you aren’t spending loads of time getting the whole group to location B, which by the time you get there may also already have people in it.  Also even if there aren’t people there, what happens if on the day of the 4th they put  up a t.v. viewing stand, speaker tower, or broadcast camera position.  You will already have someone at your backup spot who can start to unpack spread out and wait for the rest of you to get there.

3. Be prepared for the long haul

As I already mentioned, this year the plan for my group as of now is to start arriving around noon to secure the spot.  Once you get there, set your tripods up right away, leave a couple of feet in between them so you have room to adjust things.  It may seem selfish to others, but you are there for a reason, and you know what you got there before them so if they are lippy with you because you took “their” spot, tough luck you got to the location first!  It may sound a bit grade school, finders keeps type stuff, but sometimes that is all that people understand.

Bring a collapsible chair, a popular one is one of those fabric ones that can fold up into a bag and can be slung over your shoulder.  You can pick them up virtually anywhere, I have seen them in Bed, Bath and Beyond, CVS, Rite Aid, even grocery stores.  They are like $15-$20 and worth every penny.  Set them up in a semi circle behind your tripods, not only does this increase your real estate for the day, but think of it like being around a campfire.  Except instead of a fire you now have a place to put all your gear where everyone can keep an eye on it.  Nothing could be worse than being the person on the end of your group, you turn around to talk the person next to you, the next thing you know someone has walked off with your gear bag cause you weren’t paying attention.  Again people may look at you in disgust because of the amount of room you have taken up, but you are the people with potentially multiple thousands of dollars of camera equipment with you.  I know everyone reading this has been smart enough to insure their stuff right!! But you really don’t want to have to file a claim.

Think of spending the day together like a barbecue, everyone brings something.  A cooler with ice, water and soda, snacks sandwiches.  If the spot you are going to allows grilling, bring a small propane grill, hot dogs and hamburgers.  If they don’t pick up some subs.  Don’t forget the napkins!

Be aware of the bathroom situation.  If you are out on location in an area like a city, it’s most likely going to be porta potties!  A bit more rural?  You may have to find a spot in the woods so bring some T.P.!  Don’t all go at once either, a couple of you will need to stay behind and man base camp, some one has to watch the gear.

Don’t forget the small stuff.  Watch the weather.  Whats the temperature going to be, the high and the low.  Are you gonna be inland or on the water where there is an ocean breeze?  Pack a jacket, some long pants or a sweat shirt.  I have hiking pants that have zip off legs, which are perfect, the lower legs can be folded up and put into the cargo pockets, it also means you don’t have to pack pants.  Got your sunscreen?  Bug spray? Sunglasses?  Book to read?  ipod?  You get the idea.  At the end of this wicked long post I will include a general pack list.  Lastly have fun with your friends, the top of a flat cooler can make for a good place to play poker, setup a chess board, play dominos, point is have fun with the day, relax and forget about work and life.

Showtime!  If you are still with me, now its time for those all important tips on getting the shot.

1. Stabilize that bad boy

Unless you want to shoot at ISO 6400 a tripod or some other means of stabilization is a must.  Another cool option is a magic arm, some super clamps work great too.  You could use a Gorilla Pod as an inexpensive option, although the top of the line Gorilla Pod that will support a big DSLR is just as much money as a cheap tripod.

Now that you have your camera on your tripod, another must have is a cable release, these can range from $30-40 into the hundreds.  If you don’t have one, you could set the self timer on the camera, what ever you do you don’t want any camera shake.  Remember if you set your self timer you have to wait for the shutter to fire you might miss something.  Most DSLR cameras that I know of have a 2 second and a 10 second setting.  At a minimum make sure you use the 2 second timer.

An added level of stabilization is to use the mirror lock feature.  When turning this on, you will hit the button on your cable release, the mirror will go up, then you have to press the cable release a second time and the shutter will open to take the picture.  This reduces internal shake as the mirror moving is enough to shake the sensor.

2. The basics

Camera, check.  Charged batteries check.  Camera on tripod with shutter release and mirror lock up triple check!  Time to zero out your camera.  Make sure you have your ISO set to its native setting.  That would be ISO 100 on a Canon, and ISO 200 on a Nikon.  Make sure your camera is NOT set to P for “professional” and set it to manual, I know scary right we are going to shoot on manual!  There are probably dozens of setting combinations that you could use, but fireworks shows are only about 30 minutes long, not that long for experimenting or you are going to miss shots.

You have your ISO set to 100 (or 200), its time to set your shutter speed and aperture.  I have found that a shutter speed of 4 seconds and an f stop of either f/11 or f/14 work best.  Turn on your auto focus on for the first burst and as soon as your camera locks focus, turn auto focus off that way your camera isn’t stuck searching for focus.  Using these setting should all but guarantee you will get some killer photos.

3. Get creative

Now that you have your camera set, have a few shots under your belt that you love and are feeling comfortable mix it up a bit.  If you are shooting wide angle, switch it up and try some telephoto, or slap on that fisheye lens and go REALLY wide.

You could also put an ND filter on your lens for really long exposure work and try to capture lots of fireworks in the air.  This however is a delicate balancing act.  Too long of an exposure and you are going to have a lot of blown out highlights.

Got multiple cameras?  Put a wide angle on one of them and a telephoto on the other so you don’t have to waste time changing lenses.  Cool, but I hear you, how do I support both, I don’t have two tripods.  Remember about 15 chapters ago when I mentioned magic arms, super clamps and Gorilla Pods?  Put the other camera on one of those.  I shoot with two cameras, I have usually put my 24-70 on one and I put my fisheye on the other.  That way I can be shooting ultra wide all night, and experiment with my other camera with zooming and ND filters. The camera with my 24-70 goes on my tripod and my camera with the fisheye goes on the magic arm.  The magic arm for those who don’t know is an awesome accessory, it is a multi jointed arm that can articulate in any direction and be locked into place.  I usually super clamp it to a tripod leg, doing this lets me hang my camera over a railing so that I don’t get it in the shot when the fisheye is on.

Hope this helps and look at that I kept it under 2000 words!!!  I will put together the essential equipment checklist in a separate post.

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