SMARTPHONE TO PHOTOGRAPH FIREWORKS? NOT QUITE. YET.
Want to learn how to photograph fireworks? The easiest way is to just pull out your smartphone and snap away!
All right, enough trolling as a start.
Since you are reading this, I am guessing that you want to go “heavy guns” on fireworks.
Shoot? Too easy. Now to own it like a boss.
WHAT YOU NEED TO PHOTOGRAPH FIREWORKS
Smartphone cameras are pretty good, but technology wise, they are not quite there yet. So if you want nice shots of fireworks, you need to invest in some pretty serious gear. I will recommend the following.
Warning : Dreaded affiliate links below, read my disclosure message if you are feeling adventurous.
- A decent DSLR or mirrorless camera, capable of manual controls.
- Use a sturdy tripod, one with a ball head is recommended. [Selens] offer pretty good ones for about $50 to $100, or go for the good old reliable [Manfrotto].
- A remote trigger to reduce camera shake, does not matter if it is wired or wireless. [Nikon] [Canon] [Sony]
- [Cree flashlights] can come in very handy in dark places.
- [Bubble spirit level], these cheap bubble in liquid thing can save you from unwanted slanted horizons. If not, just use your camera’s virtual horizon.
|💡 No tripod? No problem. As long as you can find something stable to put your camera on, even a rubbish bin will work.|
BEFORE THE SHOOT
Tip 1) Know the time and location
The captain obvious question. When and where will the fireworks go off? Shooting at the wrong time and location is an extremely painful experience that you don’t want.
Tip 2) Know the best places shoot
Do a little bit of research and look at photos of other photographers. That should give you a good idea on where to find vantage spots. It will also be good to know which areas are closed off to the public for traffic control and safety.
Even better if you can go scout the location before hand, and not get lost on the big day itself.
Tip 3) Make use of the rehearsals
If there are rehearsals and previews, take that opportunity to go find a “perfect spot”. Know when the fireworks will go off, and time your shots properly. Increase your chances of catching those pretty explosive blings.
|💡 Do not discount doing homework. Not knowing where to go, not able to find a good spot, not arriving on time? These are terrible mistakes that can be prevented with some simple homework.|
DURING THE SHOOT
Tip 4) Go super early
If you do not want to lose your “perfect spot”, go there early and “reserve” the place with by placing your tripod on it.
Some photographers can camp as early as a few hours before a big show, under the hot sun until the fireworks go off at night.
Tip 5) Bring food, drinks and entertainment
You will be camping at your chosen spot for a few hours. Bring sufficient food, drinks and entertainment. Bring an ice box filled with beer if you must, and bring those power banks. Oh, don’t forget the barbecue pits as well.
Tip 6) Get comfortable
Before you get fried like eggs under a hot sun, you will need some protection against the sun and rain. An umbrella will do the job. A portable chair will be nice too. Bring along some friends as well… just-in-case you need to answer nature’s call, or take turns to go buy some stuff.
|💡 Fireworks are best enjoyed when you are not hungry, thirsty and tired. Just bring along a few “good stuff” that will help your photography.|
FIREWORKS, HOW TO CATCH THEM ALL
Please note : This is how I shoot, it involves taking a “base photo” before the fireworks start, and blending many fireworks photos on top it in Photoshop. If you are a “purist” and hate Photoshop to the core… I will discuss a few “camera only” methods later.
Tip 7) Start early, take more pictures, not less
People usually start taking fireworks only when they pop. But not for me. Before the fireworks start, I will always take some shots during sunset and blue hour.
I stay true to the Singaporean “kiasu” (afraid of losing out) spirit. Even if my fireworks photos fail, I still have some sunset photos.
Tip 8) Fix the frame when it’s still blue
This is the other reason why I start shooting during blue hour – I like cityscape during blue hour instead of night. I love the blue color cast, and it still has a little light to bring out some details in the landscape as well… While night is just a patch of boring black.
This, however, is my own preference and you don’t really have to follow… take the base photo during the night if you want to.
I will guesstimate where the fireworks will pop, and leave sufficient room in the sky. When you are happy with your base photo, set your camera to manual focus, and don’t move it.
Remember that fireworks will be added on top of this base photo, and it is important that the camera stays fixed on the tripod, on that spot. Any slight movement will probably destroy the entire shot. 🙁 Lastly, pray hard that your framing is right where the fireworks pop.
Tip 9) Spam, chimp, re-adjust
Take plenty of shots as the fireworks go off. My usual settings for the fireworks are :
- About f/2.8 to f/5.6. Since I already have a “base shot” during blue hour, I am only interested in getting the fireworks right. No need for small apertures to capture the landscape again.
- Anything between ISO100 to ISO 800. This depends on the shutter speed and the wind… if the fireworks disperse too fast, you will probably need a higher ISO and shutter speed.
- Shutter speed is anywhere between 0.2 sec to 2 sec. Depending on the type of fireworks and wind again.
|💡 Do remember to chimp on your shots in between to confirm the settings, or if the fireworks are nicely in the frame. Adjust your settings on the fly if you must.|
Tip 10) Catch the right moment
A small tip is to be quick on the first couple of shots, or smoke will ruin the rest of the show. Another thing to note, is to shoot the fireworks as they go off, and not to wait until they “sag”, or get carried away by the winds.
Tip 11) What to do when the fireworks are out of frame?
Don’t panic, and decide for yourself quickly if you can afford to “miss out” those fireworks in the final stack, or your composition needs to be changed.
If you decide that you can live with a little fireworks being clipped out of frame, just continue shooting and ignore.
If you decide to recompose, just do so quickly and continue with the fireworks. Do stay after the show has ended, and wait for the smoke to clear sufficiently. Take another “base photo” to replace the earlier one.
Tip 12) Cooking the base photo in Photoshop
The final stage, start by editing the base photo in Photoshop.
Nothing too fanciful, just your usual “camera RAW stuff” at this stage – adjust the exposure, color balance and removing dust spots.
Sorry guys, since everyone is going to have different photos and settings, I cannot give a “one size fits all” camera raw adjustment setting. But a general rule that I always follow – keep the skies slightly darker. That has always made the blended fireworks look nicer.
Tip 13) Stacking magic in Photoshop
Base photo done. Now to add the fireworks on top of it, and this is what we call “stacking”. Simply select a few of the nicer looking fireworks.
- Open up the fireworks photo.
- Select, copy-and-paste the firework into the base photo as a new layer.
- Set the blend mode of the fireworks to “screen”.
If you want, you can add a small curve adjustment to correct the contrast of the fireworks layer. (Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Curves)
Well done. That should get you an award winning fireworks photo.
FOR THE PURIST
Tip 14) Shoot in bulb mode
There is an easy way to shoot with bulb mode, but requires a bit of guessing with the exposure settings.
- Set to bulb mode, set your ISO and aperture.
- Sit the camera on the tripod, and frame your composition.
- I don’t fully agree with manual focus. It seems that in the video, auto-focus could have worked on the Eiffel tower… so why not? You already know that fireworks are going to pop behind anyway.
- Trial-and-error how much time you need for a proper exposure, adjust settings on the fly.
- Use the raw photo straight out of camera.
As easy as it may seem, there is a critical flaw with this method. The longer you expose the photo, the messier it becomes with fireworks and smoke. So remember to time your exposures accordingly.
Tip 15) Black card stacking
This method is practically the same as above, but with the use a black card to control the exposure.
- Set your camera on very long exposure. I.E. bulb mode.
- As the fireworks go off, put a black card in front of the lens, and jam that shutter open.
- Lift that black card whenever you see a nice explosion for about 1 second.
- Cover the lens again as the fireworks disperse.
- Repeat the lifting and covering action.
That’s it for this long long guide, hope that it serves you well. Now for a little bit of homeland promotion.
SINGAPORE NDP FIREWORKS 2016
I shall leave this small section of information here for those who are planning to visit Singapore for some fireworks action. In particular, we have some very grand display of fireworks during 9 Aug. That is our National Day AKA independence day.
Note : I will update this section annually as information is being released.
NDP-1) Where will NDP be held?
The NDP this year will be held back at the National Stadium.
NDP-2) What to expect of the NDP?
From the Straits Times, the NDP of SG51 will feature indoor fireworks… which is out-of-question for unlucky guys like me who don’t have the tickets. But from the SEA games 2015, we can expect some action on the Tanjong Rhu side, or Nicholl Highway side. I have also seen some guys catch nice fireworks directly outside the National Stadium.
There will be no parachuting nor F-16 flying pass. Because of the new Stadium dome, it is way too dangerous… and you probably get to see nothing of the fighter jets while inside the stadium.
NDP-3) Where to shoot fireworks for NDP this year?
These are the locations that I have tried (or know from friends) :
- Beside Republic Ave (10 mins walk from Nicholl Highway MRT)
- Tanjong Rhu (10 mins walk from Stadium MRT)
- At the stadium itself (You will need a very wide angle lens)
- Golden Mile Complex / Golden Mile Tower (Very small window opening, plus security won’t like it)
- HDB flats at Beach Road Garden (10 mins walk from Lavendar MRT)
NDP-4) What time is the fireworks going to pop?
These are not confirmed timings, but at about 8.15pm to 8.20pm. Fireworks begin after the state flag shows up on the stadium dome, and after the National anthem. There will be 2 rounds of fireworks, do not miss the later half.
NDP-5) What else to note
Camp super early at your chosen vantage spot, like 4pm during the actual NDP. But you can relax a little during the rehearsals, crazy crowding situations only happen on the preview and actual day itself.
If you are taking public transport and shoot near (or at) the stadium, pack up fast and leave when the fireworks end… or you will understand what “packed like human sardines” mean.