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How I Shoot Fireworks

March 17, 2013

I wanted to share my settings for some of my fireworks shots in the event you find yourself at Disneyland for their fireworks show or if you get the desire to shoot another fireworks show. Here’s a shot I took last year in Hong Kong.

Screen Shot 2013-03-17 at 7.20.10 PM

My setup for this shot; ISO 100, Shutter Priority at 8 seconds seconds, focal length 70mm. I used a Canon 5D MIII, 24-70 f2.8L, SLIK carbon tripod on a Really Right Stuff ball head.

When I got to the rooftop of my hotel, I unpacked my camera, set up the tripod and let my camera and lens defog as it was July and it was rather humid. No worries, I got there before sunset so had a few beers, some snacks, and took in the sunset with my friend Jeremy who had his camera and GoPro camera. I had my 70-200 f2.8 L II in my bag in the event the 24-70 didn’t have enough reach but the 24-70 was fine so the 70-200 stayed in the bag.

After finding a vantage point that would provide what I thought was an interesting foreground elements and depth, I realized I left my remote trigger in my hotel room. I had a minor panic attack but remembered a past conversation I had with my friend and fellow dragon boat paddler Tommy about shooting fireworks without them. Tommy is a full time professional photographer and has been instrumental in my development as a photographer. Ironically, both of our dragon boat teams were in Hong Kong at the same time competing at world championships and he was simultaneously setting up a few blocks away for the same fireworks extravaganza. I remember him saying that because the shutter is open for so long when taking fireworks shots that gently pushing down the shutter won’t cause the photo to blur. I decided I’d try the shoot without the remote.

I use back button focus (focus button is separate button from the shutter button) so I focused about a 1/3rd of the way into the frame, let go of the focus button and didn’t have to worry about focus. As long as I didn’t move the tripod, the pictures would remain in focus (well, at least focused on the place where I established focus). If you don’t use back button focus, you can focus on whatever your subject in and switch the lens to manual focus.

From there, it was just a matter of trying to time the bursts correctly. The firework show was about 20-30 minutes long and the fireworks were dense. There were fireworks coming from everywhere – building tops and boats in the harbor. It was an amazing and lengthy show that provided ample opportunity to shoot. Because the show was so long the smoke began to build obscuring some of the fireworks in the latter part of the show. I did a bit of work in post mostly adding clarity and masking away some of the smoke.

Here’s a shot that I took at the Disneyland Fireworks show.

Screen Shot 2013-03-17 at 7.18.37 PM

I took this shot before my Hong Kong trip.

Here’s my setup and gear for this shot: ISO 100, Bulb Mode, focal length 18mm. I used my Canon 7D, EF-S 10-22, Joby Gorillapod SLR-Zoom tripod on a Joby ball head wrapped around the rail in front of the Walt and Mickey statue. I also had a cheap wired remote.

For this photo, I used manual focus simply lining up the notch on the focus ring with infinity. I remember reading something online about how the lining up the focus ring notch with the infinity sign isn’t always true infinity focus but couldn’t remember the details as I began to gloss over when reading the article. I wanted to keep it simple so I just decided to line up the notch with the infinity sign on the lens. I set the aperture for f20. With the remote and the camera in bulb mode I simply pressed the remote button which opened the shutter and held it down until I thought I captured a decent burst. This photo was at 14 seconds.

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