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Photographing Small-Scale, Decorative Explosions

… otherwise known as fireworks!

For those of you who saw my link on my Facebook page about photographing fireworks, I had a chance to put the tips into practice myself at Ely’s fireworks display on Saturday, following Guy Fawkes night (sometimes known as Bonfire night in the UK,) on 5th November.

Remembering the tips, I took my tripod, so as to reduce camera shake at longer exposures. I grabbed my ioShutter cable, (which I reviewed recently here,) and camera, along with my original 18-55mm kit lens. I decided to take this lens rather than my trusty 50mm f/1.8 (more about that lens here,) for a few reasons:

  1. I’d be using Bulb mode to take long exposures, so a fast lens wasn’t really needed.
  2. I’d be using a narrow aperture of between f8 to f16 to get a large depth of field, ensuring as much of the scene was in focus as possible.
  3. The 18-55mm focal range gave me options for shooting wide at the bottom end, to include other scene elements for context, or to zoom in to 55mm for detail shots.
However, there was one problem – as I rushed out of the door, I forgot to pick up my iPhone, that I’d left on charge to ensure it would have enough battery for the evening. “No problem,” said my wife, “if we get separated, we’ll meet you at my Nan’s house after the show.”
Unfortunately, staying in contact wasn’t the issue here – I was going to use my iPhone as the remote shutter release, using ioShutter! No iPhone, no remote release.
I set up my tripod on the top of a small hill, so I would be able to shoot over the heads of most of the crowd. One challenge was getting the tripod level on the uneven ground, which took a surprising amount of adjusting – looks like I might be investing in a hotshoe spirit level at some point. Fortunately, there are ways of fixing tilted horizons in post.

After playing around with the settings early on in the display, I settled on f11 as my go-to aperture for the evening and shot anywhere between 1-10 seconds per frame, with the majority around the 5 second mark, moving to 2 seconds for larger, more bright explosions and 8 seconds for smaller, dimmer ones (although anticipating what was coming proved to be about as successful as predicting the stock market,) and generally just mixing it up to see what I would get.

I also remembered that another way to help reduce camera shake was to turn on a function called mirror lockup. In a DSLR like the Canon 550D I have, there is usually a way to move the mirror up separately to taking the shot. Normally this all happens with one push of the shutter release button, but the movement of the mirror can cause the camera to shake. This way, the first press moves the mirror out of the way, the second press activating the shutter release. I learned two things about mirror lockup:

  1. If you have live preview on, (i.e. viewing the scene through the LCD screen on the back of the camera,) mirror lockup doesn’t work. (The same applies to firing the flash, either on or off-camera.)
  2. If you forget to turn mirror lockup off, it might appear that the camera isn’t working, as the shutter button doesn’t appear to take pictures. I thought at first that I’d left bulb mode on, but it still didn’t seem to take pictures on 1/500 second shutter speed because I was only pressing once, which was moving the mirror and not releasing the shutter.

Unfortunately, I only figured these things out the next day. Oh well, you live and learn.

So, learns for next time:

  • Take my iPhone, otherwise there’s no point taking the ioShutter cable.
  • Yes, pressing the shutter button, even while on a tripod, can shake the camera quite a lot.
  • Even though the tips recommend turning of IS (the lens’s anti shake technology,) as that can actually introduce shake, it can help if you are using the normal shutter release button.
  • Don’t use live view, especially if using the mirror lockup function.
  • A hotshoe spirit level might be useful. (It occurred to me that several camera apps have an on-screen spirit level, but, as mentioned earlier, I’d forgotten my bloody iPhone.)
  • Gloves. Pushing a button can get cold in November. (Unless you have some sort of remote release you can trigger in your pocket, like say, oh I don’t know …)
  • Shooting fireworks is fun!

Here’s some of my favourites from the evening – which ones are yours? Feel free to tell me in the comments, or post your own fireworks pics!

  • cheshkat on November 13, 2012

    I have a tiny little remote that I adore. The other way around it is to use the timer setting. That minimises shake a lot.

    • Narshada on November 13, 2012

      Next time I’ll definitely remember my iPhone to use as my remote. Timer is good for portraits & landscapes, but a little hit & miss for fireworks using Bulb mode maybe? Might be worth a try though.

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