A 7-sec exposure captured a combination of fireworks that never appeared to the human eye

DSLRs: Photographing Fireworks

It’s that time of year again here in the US. The 4th of July promises 2-3 days of fireworks displays in many areas. For photographers, that means lots of opportunities to get shots of fireworks.

Having shot more fireworks than I know what to do with the past few years, I have several tips you may find helpful.

Here’s the short form:

  1. Pick a location upwind and preferably high enough to get a view above the crowd and the trees.
  2. Use Manual or Bulb exposure. Don’t worry much about depth of field. Keep ISO low and shutter speed long. Use primarily Aperture and/or secondarily ISO to brighten or darken the fireworks if they’re getting under or overexposed.
  3. Use a wide angle zoom lens (16-35mm works well if you’re close; 24-70mm if your further away; if you’re really far away, you might need a telephoto lens) on a tripod and a remote to release the shutter.
  4. Setup with a wider angle than you think you need–this will help you catch fireworks that go off in different positions more easily.
  5. Manually focus on infinity unless you’re closer than 2 football fields and using a telephoto lens.
  6. Speed up your shutter a lot for the finale when many fireworks go off at the same time.
  7. Try to let your camera have a short rest between shots when you can–this will help it keep up with writing image files, preventing it from not firing when you least expect it, and help keep it cooler, reducing noise.

Planning Tips:  Location, Location, Location

Find out where and when the fireworks will start. Look at the location on Google Earth. Even better, go to the location and check it out ahead of time. Look for a good vantage point that will give you a view of the fireworks and, preferably, the ground–you may need to get yourself invited to a rooftop party for the best view. 🙂 If you have trees between you and the fireworks, you will be limited to shots of the fireworks above the trees.

Alternatively, look for an interesting foreground subject you can put fireworks behind. Check out this famous photo by Jim Zuckerman of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by fireworks for inspiration.

Additionally, consider smoke when choosing a location. Check the weather forecast for the wind direction and speed. Hopefully there will be a light breeze that will dissipate the smoke. You want to be upwind of the fireworks with the hope that the wind will carry the smoke behind the fireworks and keep your photos clean.

Have an idea of how you’re going to get to your chosen location, how bad traffic will be, and when you will need to get there to ensure a place to setup a tripod. You will need a tripod.

Exposure Settings

Shooting fireworks is similar to shooting lightening except it’s easier because you can predict fireworks better. (See Lesson: 109 Long Exposures and Lightening).

There are two methods I have used with success. I prefer the second one, which is how I shoot lightening, but it requires imagining how much you’ve captured, so you might find the first one easier.

Method One: Manual Shooting Mode

In this method, you choose an aperture, shutter speed, and ISO setting that you think will give you good exposure of the fireworks. You then adjust your shutter speed longer or slower to get what you want and adjust aperture and ISO accordingly.

Most of my single-firework examples (in the gallery above) are ¼ to 1/13 of a second long using this method, but how fast or slow your shutter needs to be is partly dependent on how large the fireworks are in your frame, partly dependent on personal preference, and partly dependent on whether you want to get multiple fireworks in the same shot. Most people shoot fireworks with much longer shutter speeds.

You will likely want shutter speeds of 5-15 seconds or even longer to get multiples, but this is, of course, dependent on how frequently fireworks are being fired.

Note that you will not be able to use your light meter. You can meter while a firework is firing, but the brightness of one firework to another is quite variable and the percentage of the sky that is firework vs dark may make your meter reading deceptive. Also, during the finale, you will need a much shorter shutter speed because many fireworks are going off simultaneously–you may end up with a massive jumble with a very slow shutter.

As far as aperture goes, for fireworks it is more a factor of getting the exposure you want than getting depth of field–you are likely to have all the DOF you need (if you’re shooting wide and not too close). Because fireworks are a lot like light painting, the maximum amount of light you can capture is determined more by how long the firework is glowing, how wide your aperture is open, and how high your ISO is than what you’re shutter speed is. The one thing to be cautious of is if you use a very slow shutter and one firework goes off after another in the exact same spot, not only will they not look so good together in the same frame, but you will probably blow out the highlights where the brightest part of each firework ended up overlapping. This is one of the reasons I prefer using the bulb mode.

ISO can be minimized to reduce noise in most cases, although ISO 800 works for me when shooting single fireworks at shorter shutter speeds. But, bear in mind the longer the shutter speed, the more noise you will have.

Method 2:  Bulb Shooting Mode

Bulb simply allows you to manually open and close the shutter instead of setting the shutter speed ahead of time. Some cameras have an actual “Bulb” shooting mode (“B”) on the shooting mode dial. If yours doesn’t, bulb is probably selected by being in Manual Shooting mode and changing the shutter speed–it’s usually the one after 30 seconds.

I prefer this method. The advantage is that it allows you to control the shutter speed based on how bright particular fireworks are, how many have gone off, etc. Instead of guessing ahead of time what’s going to be fired, you can imagine how much light has reached your sensor and how many individual fireworks have been included in the shot.

Use your eyes and brain to “measure” the amount of light that has been produced by the total number of fireworks that have gone off since you opened your shutter. Mentally picture the combination of fireworks that have gone off in the image. This takes getting a feel for when to close the shutter, but isn’t that hard to do because each firework fades rather than continually adding light, meaning there’s a lot of leeway from an exposure perspective as long as ambient light from sources other than the fireworks is minimal.

To maximize the length of time you can leave your shutter open, you can set your ISO to 100 and stop down to f/22. However, you may find the fireworks look at bit dim. Each firework only emits light for so long, so you want enough light to reach your sensor to record each one brightly. For these examples, I used ISO 100 and f/16.

If you have a remote for your camera, this is a good time to use it. Pressing the shutter button can introduce vibration into your shot, which may cause some blur. In fact, it’s preferable to use a remote even if you’re not in Bulb mode. But it’s doubly important when using bulb mode.

Focus

The short answer is manually focus your lens at infinity (there should be a mark on your lens that is an infinity symbol with a line showing you where to turn the focus ring to). This will yield sharp fireworks the vast majority of the time.

If this makes you nervous, you can refer to Lesson 106: Focusing in the Dark. Or, you can point your camera at a bright object that is about the distance you expect the fireworks to be, if your lens has a distance meter you can look at the distance meter to see how far away that is and if your lens is focused at infinity. If you are shooting wide, you may be surprised to discover how close a subject can be and still result in focusing at infinity.

If there is nothing bright enough to focus automatically on, you can focus on infinity and check to make sure the first image you take is sharp.

If you are very close to the fireworks and using a lens that is longer (where infinity focus is much further away) you can autofocus on the first firework itself.

Realistically, you are likely to have so much DOF that accurate focusing is less important. I cannot say I’ve ever had a problem with focus, but then, I typically shoot wide. Focusing at infinity at 16mm, for example, with my full-frame camera at f/16 everything will stay in focus from less than 2 feet away to infinity. I have no desire to be that close to fireworks!

By comparison, if everything were the same except my focal length, at 100mm, I would need to be at least 70 feet from the fireworks. We are not usually that close either, so focusing at infinity will usually work. But, if you’re using a 300mm lens, you’d need to be over 600 feet away for infinity focus to work well. This is still pretty darn close for fireworks, but just keep in mind that if you’re using a 300mm lens and are less than 2 football fields away from the fireworks, that might be a time to worry about this–you might also want to keep a fire extinguisher handy.

Focal Length and Framing

Fireworks are a good time to have a zoom lens on your camera in my opinion. Especially if you are in close proximity. The first time I shot fireworks, I put my 100mm prime lens on my camera and was surprised when the fireworks didn’t fit in my frame–they were much larger than I expected shooting from about a quarter mile away. I ended up scrambling to change lenses.

Using a zoom gives you room to adjust for such misjudgments since you can’t tell how big the fireworks will be until they start going off.

If you like to include the landscape in the shot, you will definitely want to shoot wider. The other thing to be aware of is that you are setting up on a tripod and you will not have a lot of time to adjust between shots. In fact, my preference is to shoot wide enough that I never change the camera position once the show starts. I prefer not to miss shots by fussing with the tripod.

I do miss shots when the fireworks suddenly get fired in a different direction or the wind blows them out of the frame. But, this happens infrequently when I’m shooting wide.

Cautions

If you are firing off a series of long exposures one after another, there are a couple of things to be cautious about. First, you can fill your memory buffer in your camera. This is a little hard to predict when you are doing long exposures. For example, my camera can shoot 6 frames per second but if I fire 18 shots in 3 seconds, the memory buffer will fill and I will have to wait for the camera to catch up writing the images to the memory card. Theoretically, one would think if you are firing off a long exposure followed by another the camera would be able to write the first image while exposing the second and keep up. However, I have run my camera out of memory right before the finale and missed the entire finale while it was catching up. I was not happy.

Just pause every once in a while to see how long it takes for the busy light to go off–if it’s a really long time, you might want to space your shots a bit more.

The other thing to be aware of is that long exposures produce a lot of heat in your camera. This is why long exposures tend to be noisier than short exposures. Giving your camera a little time between shots may also help keep it cooler, keeping noise to a minimum.

Post Processing

Smoke is quite detrimental. You can use curves and levels in Aperture or Lightroom to darken the smoke and make it less obvious to the eye. However, you also loose some of the light in the fireworks in the process and can substantially change the texture of the light trails.

Here’s an example of before and after:

I like the way the fireworks look better in the before image, but the smoke is distracting and lowers the contrast.

Sometimes, a puff of smoke in the wrong place ruins an image no matter what you do in post-processing (well, what I do in post-processing; Photoshop gurus may be able to deal with this). And sometimes the smoke is positioned so that you can still enjoy the image (even if you’d like it better without the smoke):

Conclusion

Do not stress about shooting fireworks. It’s not hard and you’ll get a better view of the fireworks if you plan ahead a little bit whether your images turn out or not. Just don’t forget you’re having fun!

And this is one of many shots of Osprey in flight that I did the crawl through poison ivy for

Recovering “Erased” Photos

Hopefully, you are all well-organized and have never gotten confused about which images on your memory card have been saved to your computer and which haven’t. In my case, I recently had a brain malfunction known as “brain flatulence” causing me to reformat a memory card containing about 1000 images I hadn’t uploaded yet.

It happened in a moment of distraction. I was checking to see how much space was left on the memory card in my camera in preparation for a shoot just to see if I needed to swap out the card before I started. I knew I hadn’t uploaded the images yet. I made several mistakes:

  1. I went to the format card menu to see how full the card is because it’s easier for me to see the big bar graph displayed on my LCD than the counter that tells you how many images you have room for. Putting on my reading glasses and looking at the counter would have been safer.
  2. I was sitting in my car waiting to meet someone with traffic zooming by and other distractions. In the moment when I should have selected “cancel,” a loud vehicle grabbed my attention.
  3. I use the format card menu every time I want to erase images. My muscle memory is to select “format card,” not to select “cancel”–I have to pay close attention when in the format card menu.

In the moment the loud vehicle captured my mind, my muscle memory took over and gone were all my images! Mind you, I had bushwacked through thick undergrowth, dragged myself through poison ivy, and braved the aerial version of a mine field walking under a heron rookery to get some of the images on that card. I was not a happy camper.

But, here’s the good news! When you delete images or format your card, no data is actually lost. Rather, the existing data is marked as eligible for being overwritten. This means that as long as you set that card aside and don’t write any photos on top of your “deleted” data, your images can easily be recovered with the right software.

The software I chose first was Lexar’s Image Recovery 4. My main reason for choosing this software was because it is a) available for a mac (and windows), and b) free because I own several Lexar memory cards. This software claims to work on all memory cards, but it was a Lexar card I used it with.

Unfortunately, Lexar does not have the best ordering process. You can download the trial version of the software for free, but you can only get a key by contacting support. Alternatively, you can pay $40 for their newest version, IR 5.

I recommend NOT scanning your memory card with the trial version–you can only restore one image. After I had successfully scanned my card and restored one image, I was stuck waiting for a license key. Support told me it could take up to 48 hours to get it. When I finally got the license key and rescanned the card, the software couldn’t find any images. Yes, I freaked.

Fortunately, support provided me with a key for IR5 because I had recently bought one of my Lexar cards. Once I had IR5, I had no trouble restoring all of the images. The interface is intuitive and although running the scan on a full 32GB card and restoring the images does take a significant amount of time to run, all I had to do was click a couple of buttons.

So, if you own a recent Lexar card, download the IR5 version and send support a request for a free license key (you will probably need to tell them what card you have that entitles you to the software). Wait to run the software until you receive the key and then you should have no problems.

If you don’t own a Lexar card, there are other software options out there. I was unable to find a reliable source I’m familiar with for reviews of these software options, so I went with Lexar. My logic was that they have a major stake in making sure I recover my photos successfully and they are a company I’ve already trusted with my images for many years. While they have logistics issues with giving out licenses, they were helpful and supportive, the software worked, and it didn’t cost me anything but time.

By the way, for iPhoneographers, I stumbled across software that is supposed to recover deleted data on the iPhone, including photos. I cannot vouch for the product, but here is a review on CNET: http://download.cnet.com/Data-Recovery-for-iPhone/3000-2242_4-75856767.html

Same grass, same lens with the same dirt, but shot at f/5.6 and 65mm and with a different angle to the sun.  I did not remove any flare spots in post processing--there was only one and it disappeared when I converted to B&W

Lesson 110 (DSLRs): How Clean Does Your Lens Need to Be?

For those of you who don’t have time to read a long post, here’s a summary so you can decide what’s relevant to you:

  1. Don’t clean your lens unless you’re actually seeing spots, areas of low contrast or fuzziness in your images.  The first part of this post provides an example and links to other examples on what it looks like when stuff on your lens shows up in your images.
  2. If you do clean your lens, be gentle to avoid doing more harm than good.  Take the time to go to the second part of this post and read the referenced article before you start cleaning.
  3. Before you have your sensor cleaned, make sure your problem really is dirt on your sensor.  The last part of this post provides a tip and a link to step-by-step instructions on testing whether your sensor is dirty.

Recognizing When You Need to Clean the Lens

It always amazes me how much debate there can be over seemingly simple topics in photography.  However, most experienced photographers tend to agree on this one:  your lens doesn’t usually need to be all that clean.

I confess, I hate to clean a lens.  I don’t do it unless I really have to.  When it comes to my lenses, when I first started getting “serious” about photography, one of my mentors warned me that cleaning a lens too vigorously could damage the coatings on the lens and cause more problems than the dirt.

This made me so paranoid that I was afraid to clean my lenses.  What I discovered was that the crud on my lens didn’t show up in my images, so I was convinced it really wasn’t worth risking damaging the lens to clean it.

Then, a few years ago, I found myself shooting outdoors in the middle of the day a lot more frequently than I would prefer.  When this led to experimenting with more shots that include a lot of bright sunlight, I suddenly started getting images with blurry flare spots all over the place.  Advised that I had a dirty sensor, I took my camera in and had the sensor cleaned.  But that didn’t solve the problem.  My problem was the dust on my lens.

Since then, I’ve learned a few things about troubleshooting spots in your images.  First, there’s lens flare, which can occur regardless of how clean your equipment is.  But, when you have dust on your lens, if light strikes the front lens at the wrong angle, the dust can also contribute to seeing lots of flare spots in your image.

In the following example, some of the flare is not attributable to dust, but the large number of large, bright blurry spots indicate there was dust on my lens and the sun was hitting them just right:

AU0A7331

One of the challenges of this problem is that it may occur quite infrequently.  This was shot at 28mm and f/20–both the wide angle and the stopped down aperture make it more likely that flare will turn up in the image.  The inclusion of the sun in the image also meant my lens hood wasn’t going to block direct light from hitting the front lens element, which is the root of flare problems.  However, in this case, I wanted lens flare to show in the image.  I wasn’t, however, bargaining for an entire sky full of blurry bright spots!

Since cleaning the lens, the problem has been reduced to “normal” lens flare.

But the caution I received so many years ago remains true–over cleaning your lens is more damaging than under cleaning–you really only need to clean the lens if your images are affected.

Here is an amazing article that shows just how little stuff on your lens may show up in your images–it’s definitely worth the read:  Dirty Lens Article.

In spite of what the Dirty Lens Article demonstrates, this is not a justification for abusing your lens.

First, just like the dust on my lens did not show in my images the vast majority of the time, damage to the lens will also show up under different circumstances.  Note that Munger’s examples with named aperture settings were all at f/5.6.  As mentioned earlier, flares are more likely to show up when you’re stopped down.

Second, even if you don’t care if your lens is in pristine condition, should you ever want to sell your lens, your buyer probably will.

How to Clean the Lens

When you do clean your lens, remember that less is more.  You don’t want to rub at the lens like you’re cleaning a window.  Instead, try starting with a fun little toy called a blower.  I particularly like the Giottos Rocket Air Blaster.  It doubles as a fascinating conversation piece should you decide to keep it on display in your living room.

By using a blower, you can shoot dry air (unlike when you blow with your mouth) across the lens to blow away any loose dust on the lens.  Dry air does a better job lifting away dust than moist air.  Plus, do you really want to know how much spit you spray when you blow on something?

Some people like to use a very soft brush after the blower to brush away more stubborn dust.  The idea is to remove anything that might be abrasive gently so that it doesn’t scratch the lens or the coatings on the lens.  When you start rubbing at the lens with a cloth, you can effectively turn dust particles into sand paper, abrading those special coating that do things like reduce flare.

I skip the brush step and do the next step very, very gently.

When I first attempted lens cleaning, I bought fancy lens cleaning fluid and cleaning papers.  I put a few drops of cleaning fluid on the paper and gently wiped the lens.  Later, I adopted Ken Rockwell’s approach of breathing on the lens to fog it up instead of using cleaning fluid.  (That article is still available and includes additional tips for using methyl alcohol to clean stubborn spots:  How to Clean Lenses, Monitors, Filters and CCDs.)  I also switched from using cleaning papers to microfiber chamois clothes–the main problem with the paper for me was gently getting rid of streaks without having my fingers slip off the paper and create new fingerprints.  But then, I have below-average coordination.

If you are going to go to the trouble of cleaning your lens, clean the back element as well as the front (at the end that attaches to the camera).  According to Nasim Mansurov, rear element dust shows up as dark specks in the out-of-focus portions of the image. He shows an example in this article.

Dust on the Rear Element vs Dust on the Sensor

Since dust on the sensor also shows up as dark spots on images, it’s probably worth cleaning the rear element before having your sensor cleaned (or cleaning it yourself).  If you want to be positive whether it’s the lens or the sensor, take test shots using two different lenses based on the instructions in this article from Jeff Guyer, Got Sensor Dust?  Check.  See if the spots show in the same places even when you switch lenses.  This will guarantee there’s no confusion between lens dust and sensor dust.