July 4 used to be a public holiday in the Philippines. I don’t know if it is still tagged as Filipino-American Friendship Day but I do know that for the past several years, it has been a regular working day and school day. So I don’t think much about it. Unlike when I was a student when it meant a legitimate reason not to go to school.
Then, a reader of my food blog sent an e-mail asking me for potluck suggestions. It seems that among some Filipinos in the U.S., it has become quite a tradition to get together on Independence Day weekend with a potluck picnic while enjoying the fireworks display. I’m planning on posting an entry in my food blog with a list of suggested potluck dishes but, before that, because “fireworks” was mentioned in the e-mail, and because I was reminded of my 2007 Pyro Olympics experience and the side stories that went with it, I have this sudden urge to write about how to photograph fireworks.
First of all, you don’t really need a SLR or a dSLR to take good fireworks photos. Some point-and-shoot cams have a “Fireworks” setting so you don’t have to agonize too much. Otherwise, set your camera to “Landscape” mode. Fireworks photography is, after all, an application of night-time landscape photography.
You can also use a video cam. I remember back in 1996 when Enchanted Kingdom was newly opened. The first time we went, we went in full gear — SLRs, video cam, the works. My brother was “assigned” to take a video of the fireworks, he started to, then gaped, then subconsciously decided he wanted to see the fireworks with his naked eyes rather that through the eye piece of the video cam, put down the cam and watched the rest of the show.
When we got home, we plugged the video cam into the TV, and half of the fireworks display showed nothing but my brother’s shoes. Well, he put his hand down, didn’t he, the one holding the video cam, while he enjoyed the fireworks display not realizing he forgot to turn it off. So, if you plan to capture a fireworks display with a video cam, remember my brother so you’ll know what to avoid. Well, unless you want to immortalize the occasion with extensive footage of your shoes.
1. Unless your hands are super steady, what you really need is a tripod.
2. Once the fireworks display begins, start shooting. The best shots are those of the first few bursts of fireworks when the skies aren’t covered in smoke yet.
3. If you’re using a dSLR, attach a wide-angle lens to capture as much of the scenery as possible.
I use the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Ultra Wide Angle Zoom Lens for landscape photography these days (Sam has the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro Aspherical Large Aperture Standard Zoom Lens). This was a recent acquisition but if I had it back in 2007 when we went to the Pyro Olympics, it would have been ideal.
What’s a wide-angle lens? There’s a technical definition but it’s not like even I can understand half of the jargon. So, let’s just say that where a zoom lens focuses on a small area to isolate an object, a wide-angle lens is meant to achieve the opposite — to capture more inside the frame. Normally, the lower the number that comes before the “mm”, the shorter the focal length and the more you can cram inside the frame.
Some examples. The subdivision clubhouse was the most convenient subject.
Above, photo taken with the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Ultra Wide Angle Zoom Lens. Short end (at 17mm), no zooming in.
Next, photo taken with Sam’s Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro Aspherical Large Aperture Standard Zoom Lens (borrow lang, anak). Short end (meaning at 24mm), no zooming in.
Above, photo taken with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens (if it’s not too sharp, it’s because of camera shake — it was starting to rain and I was in a hurry), a very inexpensive lens (plastic housing but great glass) that I’ve been using for years for food photography. Great for portraits but not so good for landscapes because the lens doesn’t capture nearer objects. A 50mm lens — see how much is left out compared to the two previous photos?
Now, if you’re taking photos of fireworks with a dSLR, would you use a 50mm lens, a lens with a higher number before the “mm”, or would you choose one with the lowest number before the “mm”?
Last — photo taken with my gem of a point-and-shoot cam, the Canon G10. A point-and-shoot won’t capture colors like a dSLR with a good lens can but in terms of what you can include in the frame, it does the job pretty well.
If you want a more in-depth discussion of fireworks photography, check out How to Photograph Fireworks and Shooting Fireworks with a Digital Point-and-Shoot Camera at the New York Institute of Photography website.