November 2008

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Evening, low light and fireworks.

Although a strong emphasis will be placed on fireworks, many of the ideas here can be transferred on to low light work. 


Let’s prep!



Camera – with night time mode, shutter priority or manual mode.

Zoom lens.  28 – 200 is a good lens to get everything from a wide angle “scene” shot to the more detailed abstracts.

Tripod or bean bag. To secure the camera and keep it steady while your camera operates in a slower shutter speed to allow the time needed for light to accumulate in the exposure.

Remote Shutter Release or shutter release cable.  Allows for fingers not to touch the camera and create an initial movement or camera shake thus blurring the image.

Flashlight. You will be working in the dark. So to find things, look at the ground if you need to move the tripod, or adjust parts of the camera a small flashlight is essential.

Warm Dress. It’s night. Everything moves slower in the evening or dark. Exposures take longer to set up, there will be waiting time. Being warm will keep you focused and enjoying the process. Being cold really can change your mood and make you cut corners and thus miss opportunities.

iPod. If the area is secure and one does not have to be street aware for security purposes having a bit of music playing while taking your photographs can make you feel like you are creating your own video and add to the experience and keep the creative juice fresh.

A second pair of eyes. Security is paramount in evening photography. So is health and safety. Its dark. People don’t see things like tripod legs or a camera bag’s strap. Or they do and the see opportunity when you are not looking. Be aware of these things in the night. Also with the recent developments with the Terrorism Act 2000 Section 44 (don’t get me started) if you can approach an officer BEFORE you set up to shoot you may have better luck.

OK now we are ready to set off and shoot. Right? Well almost. Let’s do some planning first.

1. Weather. Clear skies. Cloud. Low cloud. Rain. Temperature. All will have an affect on the images. Lights will look different due to the atmosphere. If its cloudy out the sky will fill with smoke and clear, crisp shots may not be as possible as the smoke builds into the clouds or if the breeze is bowing the smoke in front of the fireworks.

2. Perspective.  Thinking through the look of the shot/s will have you already in planning mode. In fireworks you need to think of the show. Anticipation of other photographers jockeying for prime locations should be anticipated. Also just because you have set up a tripod does not mean that others will respect that. If its really crowded people WILL stray in front of your view. If you are shooting up into the sky this will not be a problem, but if you are looking to get architecture mixed in with the shots then unless you want people in the shot this will be a problem. Look around for things that will add value to your shots. Lakes, rivers, water bodies in general will reflect the works and the lights therefore adding a nice forground to the work. Architectural elements and details may work as well but anticpate the light being different in the evening and throwing your idea out the window. Be prepared with a Plan B. Choose an area with an open space and an unhindered view of where the fireworks will be exploding. Be on the lookout for trees or lamp posts or buildings that might get in your way. A silhouetted tree or even a person can sometimes look great in conjunction with fireworks. Arrive early since you may need to do some research about the best places to set up to get a great view of the display.

3. Camera kit set up.  The tools have already been suggested. Know where everything is and work with a light, minimal kit so you can easily pack and set up during a performance.


Let’s shoot!


The one thing that all low light/ evening and firework photography share is that it’s about the shutter.  This translates into it being about time. The longer the shutter is opened the more light builds up and drags across the recording material. Longer shutters leave long, arching light trails. To balance the long shutter speed and still get good exposures you will need to work with the ISO and aperture if in Manual mode. If you are in Shutter priority just changing the length of the shutter speed should have an effect. 

Since the shutter is open we want to have the motion blur but keep the static objects sharp. This is why a TRIPOD is essential. It minimises photographer movement. Subject movement against a sharp background makes the image interesting.


Use a long exposure

For SLR camera users, set your camera to Shutter Priority and select a shutter speed of 1-4 seconds. BRACKET by using different shutter speeds as you shoot to see which looks the best for your fireworks display. By setting the camera to Shutter Priority, the camera will choose the best f/stop for your selected shutter speed.

For point and shoot users, some cameras have a fireworks setting. But if your camera doesn’t have this feature, try setting your camera to “Night Portrait.” This is usually an icon of a person’s face with a star next to it. Explore your camera’s menus, buttons and knobs to see what you’ve got. Do not use “Night Action” setting because that will select a fast shutter in conjunction with a bright flash.

A SLOW to MEDIUM ISO.  Choose a film speed of 50 to 400 ISO. Faster speed settings can cause your shots to be grainy. Your camera’s main menu has this setting and you’re able to control this function.

Use FINE IMAGE QUALITY. Choose your highest/ best image quality.  A higher resolution image, will result in fewer images but if you ever want to go and print them afterwards you will have a print size resolution. It’s best to download your image card before you set off to shoot so you don’t run out of memory before the big finale.

SAY NO TO FLASH. Let the natural light create the scene. Leave the camera on AWB (auto white balance.

Finally ….

SHOOT. SHOOT. SHOOT. and then SHOOT!   Play. Bracket. Zoom in and out. Try zooming in and out while the firework is exploding. Work that shutter speed. Remember that if you are in Manual Mode set the aperture at f8 or lower.

A TIP. Arrive early. Be ready for the warning/ test fireworks. You can take a test exposure then.

A FINAL TIP. Don’t forget to catch a shot of the people in the crowd looking up into the sky and being lit by the fireworks. You can get some lovely portraits of people this way. Or look behind you!

Enjoy your evening!

Lake Geneva