Adapting to Climate Change, or How to Photograph Fireworks

What would adapting to climate change be like? A picture is worth a thousand words:

adapting to climate change

But a second picture is worth a few thousand more!

running from climate change

I saw the kids protecting their families from the rising tide at the beach and thought it was an amusing analogy. The running-away photo was just an unforeseen bonus!

I, and the throngs of others, were at that overcrowded beach to see some fireworks. Well actually to take pictures of the fireworks. After four evenings of this, all part of Vancouver's "Celebration of Light" fireworks competition, I think I have learned the basics of photographing them. There are many interesting challenges.

Have a look at a couple of my favorite shots:

fireworks

fireworks

So firstly, the basics:

  • get a good spot where people's heads will not be in your way and where you will not have to stay too low so as not to annoy others.
  • set the camera on the tripod and choose your focal length range and angles well before it all begins
  • put the aperture at F9 to F11
  • use the bulb setting for shutter speed and have a remote shutter release
  • use manual focus and use the first few shots for carefully focusing

Exposures are good from as little as 1 second to as many as 5-8, it really depends on how much is going on and also on how much the smoke is hanging in the air. If there is not sufficient wind to clear it away, the smoke from previous explosions catches a lot of light and will quickly overexpose your image. If there is too much, it will make it impossible to get much at all. The bulb setting is much better than timed exposures because you can extend or shorten it depending on how many explosions etc. there are, fireworks are just too unpredictable to rely on a pre-determined shutter speed.

Now here's a really good trick: bring a matt black card or thick cloth with you and use it to cover and uncover the camera's lens at will while leaving the shutter open for even longer. This way you can use irregularily timed intervals and a variety of exposures to compile a multiple exposure image with more variety and improved spatial distribution of explosions in your image. ie. open it up to get some low-level action and cover before it is overexposed, then uncover the camera again a few secondes later when the lights are higher in the sky, maybe you can grab some stuff on the right, cover and wait for stuff on the left. This is really a trial and error exercise but it gets you the best variety of colours and shapes in one shot. I wouldn't recommend it on your one and only event, but after four of them I was very ready to start experimenting.

I believe this one was taken that way (but it is hard to remember!):

fireworks

I also got a bt frustrated at one point with getting the field of vision right, the last show was extreme in going from the action being too small at the bottom of the image to too high and wide, overflowing and cut off in an unaesthetic way.

So, being a believer in making lemonade out of lemons I decided not to fight it and instead zoomed right in at 200mm, first taking some close-ups of the barge launching the rockets while the show focused on low level action.

fireworks

Then later I started taking my chances pointing where I thought action would be. I highly recommend a tripod with a ball head (one knob to adjust in any direction) for that. You have to move and lock up fast! Here are a couple of examples of what I got that way:

fireworks

fireworks

fireworks

All in all a very fun and intense shooting experience, I look forward to next year's competition.

There are some more samples here.

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Great fireworks photos. I really like your idea of creating a multi-exposure shot by covering/uncovering the lense.

By Bob North (not verified) on 07 Aug 2008 #permalink

Thanks, Bob!

While I had thought of using the multiple exposure feature on my D200 on my own, I have to credit a more experienced photographer friend with the covering/uncovering the lens method. It just frees you to reveal the camera as few or as many times as you want, the other way you have to pick the number of exposures ahead of time, various possible work-arounds notwithstanding.