4th of July Fireworks, Lake Waramaug

4th of July Fireworks, Lake Waramaug

My first shot of last night’s 4th of July fireworks on our lake.

First, let me say that this was my first experience shooting fireworks with a DSLR and that I had no particular expectations of getting anything good because I’d shot all previous fireworks on automatic with various Canon pro-sumer cameras (and got some good shots, by the way).

I read up the best I could on how to handle things although much of the stuff posted on the web is about film (still useful) and the digital stuff is so diverse in opinion that it’s hard to generalize.

It’s important to find a position that allows you to see the action (duh), not get smoked out (upwind if possible), and avoid people walking in front of your camera or tripping over your tripod. I knew where to go for this and so did a lot of other people but we got there early enough so that I staked out a great place.

Beaches in Connecticut. Scratch that. Everyplace in Connecticut has mosquitos this time of year. Warren, Connecticut, where we live, has more mosquitos than any other place south of Alaska. Cover up, bring repellent, think ahead. If you’re swatting, you’re not shooting or thinking about much except swatting and leaving.

Anne and I brought two of our nice beach chairs but I never sat in mine until the end when we were done and waiting for the line of cars to clear so we could get out. Still, I could have set my tripod up lower so as to sit in the chair, sip a Pimm’s, and shoot away. Next year, bring Pimm’s and… forget camera.

Usually when one goes to an event like this it’s the end of a long, hot day and the idea of bringing a sweatshirt or jacket seems insane. However, even in the heat of summer the temperature drops at night and when you’re standing or sitting around motionless taking pictures, you can chill down. Shivering does not make for steady pictures. Shivering and swatting mosquitos, bad news.

Most DSLRs (like my 20D) have a backlight on the top LCD panel that can be turned on and off or left on for a long time without killing the battery. However, that does not illuminate buttons and other camera controls you may want to play with. A small LED light will do the trick, here’s the one I used. Mine has a lanyard so you can wear it around your neck which is great. But, if you have a metal one like mine, be careful where it swings. I might just order a plastic one so it can’t bump into the camera. I’d say this one might be a better choice as it’s plastic and maybe sheds more light.

A tripod is Important for two reasons: slow exposures don’t work handheld and if the show you’re watching is of any length, holding the camera up for that long will be tiring. This way you can set everything up and just worry about exposure, mosquitos, and shivering. Also, you’ll have both hands free to pour the Pimm’s.

I got my tripod set up with camera at eye height and on its side in portrait mode. The Actratech head made camera flip and fine adjustments a breeze. If the action is vertical portrait mode is the way to go, even if it makes it harder to see the LCD screen to make adjustments. Make sure your tripod/head setup makes it easy to get the camera set up in this mode, not all do.

Cable or electronic shutter release
I don’t have one of these and I’m told that the one that goes with my camera is pricey. I’m not sure how much camera shake I got but between the wind and the variance of direction of the arcs of the rockets I had to move my camera in slight amounts and shoot quickly so leaving the entire rig rock solid stationary and using a cable wasn’t really possible this year. Maybe next year. The idea, of course, is to lessen camera vibration during long exposures. Think of it, sitting in your director’s chair, sipping a gin and tonic and pressing a button each time a nice explosion happens. This is not a bad setup and worth accumulating gin and electronics to make happen.

Which lens to use on a DSLR with interchangeable lenses is an interesting question and there are good rationales for a range of focal lengths. Of course, what you have on hand is the bottom line rationale. Unless you’re being paid to document a fireworks display by a local paper there is little need to buy a special lens for this kind of shoot.

The most important issue is how much of the scene you want to capture: just the burst or the trail from the ground or the entire setting.

I used my 50mm f1.4, not for its speed but because at the moment it’s my widest lens and I wasn’t sure what the scope of the event was. Next time I might try a 100mm as I cropped all the pictures having captured more information than I needed. However, I knew I wanted to capture the lake’s reflection and not just the burst on at least some of my pictures. I’m also sure that the vantage point I used this year (and past years) will be my vantage point as long as the fireworks are setup from where they were: its our town beach and it just happens to be one of the best vantage points on the lake.

Bottom line, a zoom like the 24-70 would have been perfect for this. However, if I were only interested in the explosion patterns my 200mm would have been great as well.

What’s interesting about setting film/sensor speed is that it’s hard to test settings before the action begins because the night sky is, well, dark, and fireworks are incredibly bright so you have to think fireworks and not night sky when setting up.

I set ISO to 100 (my camera’s lowest finest grain setting) because I knew there would be plenty of light (eventually) and I wanted good color and fine grain. But, this made shooting things other than fireworks while waiting for the fireworks difficult without changing ISO. Luckily on the 20D you can change ISO easily on the fly, at night, almost without looking.

How to setup the camera’s exposure settings for fireworks (or anything else) is the biggest variable and the one that gets the biggest range of opinions.

I particularly liked Sam Javanrouh’s pictures on Canada Day shot near Toronto so knew that I wanted some of my shots to cover more than just the aerial explosion pattern.

Most web articles about fireworks suggest using shutter preferred mode so one can focus on time rather than aperture and this makes sense; there’s plenty of light but when you start recording it and how long you record it is the key.

Last night on our lake there was a problem with this (or so I think) in that there was some wind which meant that the rocket trail drifted somewhat in the course of the timed exposure. I could not see this as I was taking the pictures but saw it when I got home. I’m not sure what I’d have done to compensate for it except shortening the time I had the shutter opened.

I ended up turning my camera’s mode dial to Tv (shutter preferred or “time value”) and shooting from between 1/2 second to 2 seconds which is pretty much what the online sources recommend.

I shot about 100 pictures last night most of which were over exposed and/or blurry from over exposure or wind or both.

I’m happy with a few of them and I’ll add them to this post.

Knowing what I do now about wind and over exposure I’d shorten the time and use a 100mm or a zoom lens. 100mm would still allow the lake reflection and launch point as well as the rocket trail and explosion.

It was a fun evening and my wife and I would not have gone except I wanted to get some photo experience. If I remember to read this post next year maybe I’ll get some better shots, or, bring the Pimm’s and care less.

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