Was That Thunder That I Just Heard ???

Growing up about three miles from Three Rivers Stadium, I used to ask my Dad “was that thunder that I just heard?” quite often at this time of year. Only a lot of the times the sound I heard wasn’t thunder….  It was fireworks celebrating a Pittsburgh Pirates home run or even better yet, a Pirates win. Well, not too many homers or wins in the last 18 years, but there are still a lot of fireworks launched at the ballpark during the many “Fireworks Nights” that they schedule throughout the season. How else can they expect to sell tickets? There are only so many different Bobble Heads they can give away.

Well, I’m not trying to bash the Pirates or make them sound like a bad team. They are doing just fine without me. I wanted to talk about fireworks. Those flaming, smoking, whistling and booming wads of paper and gunpowder that have been making people oooh and aaah since the 7th century. More importantly, I want to talk about photographing fireworks. This can be a very frustrating subject to try to capture. Through trial and error I came away with a few “keepers” during one of the 4th of July celebrations in Pittsburgh last year.

Here’s a little bit about the gear I used, as well as the in-camera settings for each of the photographs shown below. Click on any image to see it larger.

f/16 8 seconds

My camera was a Nikon D300s although any camera with the ability to manually adjust the shutter speed will do. Having a camera with bulb mode which allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you hold the release is a huge plus. As far as lenses go, your focal length will depend on the distance between you and the fireworks, or whether or not you want to include any of the surroundings in your photos. I used a Sigma 17-70mm zoom lens for all of the shots you see here.

Next you will need a sturdy tripod. Shooting at exposures this long requires the camera to be very still. Mine is just a $60 Sunpak that came with my video camera, but it did the job. A “real” tripod and ball-head are next on my list of desired gear.  Even the slightest vibration can cause a blurry photo. While we’re talking about keeping the camera still, you might also want to consider a remote shutter release. It can be wired or wireless, and it really helps to reduce the slight vibration that results from pressing the shutter button with your finger. I used a Vivitar wireless unit that I got from B&H in New York for under $50. Another item you might want to use is the little viewfinder cover that comes with most DSLR cameras. This helps to block any light from entering the camera through the viewfinder. This is important during long exposures where you don’t have your eye pressed against the viewfinder.  The only other piece of gear that I used was a black baseball cap. More on this in a few moments.

Since I was fairly close to the “launch site” I chose a focal length of 17mm for all of these shots. My ISO was set at 200 to help facilitate the longer shutter speeds that I wanted, and also to help cut down on any noise. As for the aperture,  I shot these between f/16 and f/20 which allowed me to keep the shutter open for a long time. All of the photos were shot in RAW. You could shoot JPEG if you want, but I like the flexibility of converting the RAW files in Lightroom. Another tip is to turn off any in-camera noise reduction if you are shooting in RAW, as it doesn’t have any effect on the RAW image. If you leave NR turned on, you will have to wait to take the next image until the camera finishes applying the noise reduction. This wait will be equal to the length of the previous exposure, and could cause you to miss a few launches.

f/16 8 seconds

When the fireworks started I took a few test shots at a wider aperture and a fast shutter speed just to get my aim locked in on the tripod. Once I was happy with the framing of the shot, I set my aperture to f/16 and the shutter was set to bulb mode. Now I was ready for the next shell to be launched. When I saw the next one launch I opened the shutter by pressing and holding the remote release. The shutter would then stay open until I released the button about 8 seconds later. This created the light trails you see and really helps to soak in all of the colors of the exploding fireworks. Sometimes you will get blown-out whites in the center of the fireworks. This is due to the longer shutter speed combining with the extremely bright explosions. I don’t have a problem with this as it helps to display how bright these things really are.

f/18       37 seconds      using the black ballcap

Ok… so you’re still wondering about that black baseball cap, aren’t you? This is a trick that I learned from a photographer friend of mine. You go ahead and open the shutter in bulb mode when you hear a shell being launched. Once the explosion has occurred and you’ve captured the light trails, instead of closing the shutter you go ahead and place your black ballcap over the lens to keep the night sky from continuing to get brighter. When the next shell launches you simply remove the ballcap from the lens and capture the next explosion. After two or three repetitions, go ahead and close the shutter. You’ve just created a double or triple exposure and filled the image with what looks like multiple fireworks that were all launched at the same time.

f/20 46 seconds with the ballcap

f/16 8 seconds















So there it is… That’s my take on capturing the lights and colors of a fireworks display. I hope this helps you to be able to get some great shots this summer. If you come up with any tips or tricks, please put them in the comments below. I’m always eager to learn new methods to this madness….

Thanks for stopping by, and remember to like my facebook page if you haven’t already.

f/20 51 seconds with the ballcap

One Comment

  1. Sohail Khwaja May 26, 2011 at 10:14 AM #

    Great! now you’ve given away the secret! hahaha j/k. Great piece!

    Two additional things I do are Mirror Up and Timed Exposure. Mirror Up moves locks up the mirror before opening the shutter and releases it after closing the shutter. This further removes chances of vibration. Timed Exposure allows me to press and forget the remote release. The timer takes care of closing the shutter. This, of course, leaves my hands free to drink my favorite beverage without affecting the shot 🙂