Richard Kempton's
Firework Photography Guide

The Basics

Quick aside: This guide is mainly aimed at users of 35mm SLR film cameras, or mid-range digital users. I make no apologies for not aiming at a lower basic level. However, most of the guide should be of general help to all photographers. I also have no experience with lower level cameras - so couldn't give any useful advice anyway!

What You Need: Equipment

The simplest list I would recommend is:

I regard each of these items as absolute essentials. Do not leave home without them!

Camera

Taking firework photos is about as unautomated photography as you can get today. You do not use the camera's meter, or autofocus. You don't need fancy shooting modes. About the only automatic feature I appreciate is auto-rewind.

As you will be taking photos by hand, it is essential that your camera has manual control. Shutter speeds are usually listed as fractions of a second. For fireworks, we are interested in shutter speeds from about 2 seconds to 16 seconds.

Ideally, you will have a Bulb shutter speed, where the camera keeps the shutter open as long as your finger is on the button. If you don't have this, no need to give up. You can get reasonable results with fixed shutter speeds as long as you can go to about 4 seconds. However, you cannot react to the changing display, and you will suffer more dud shots.

The other essential element in the camera is reliability. Firework photography is rapid-fire work - often taking a frame every 10 seconds for minutes at a time. And once the display has started, you cannot ask them to go again just because you had a problem. Its a one-try deal. So a reliable camera, that you can literally operate in the dark, is essential.

My main camera for all my 35mm work is a Canon EOS 50E. Older, but in my opinion, totally reliable. The only failures it has had are from weather problems: cold batteries, and getting soaked in horizontal driving rain. I also use an EOS RT - see my discussion on Advanced Equipment for details of why I find this camera useful.

 

Camera Film / Digital Chips

The film / digital debate has raged hotly for the last 5 years, and the pros & cons of each format are covered in the next chapter. Suffice to say, I use both.

First I should say something on film speeds, usually represented by an ISO number. Although shot at night, fireworks are very bright. Brighter in fact than daylight. So although you may be thinking "no light, use a high speed", its actually "very bright, so use a slow speed".

Personally, I use ISO100 for film and digital. I like ISO100, partially because I am experienced with it, but all of my rules of thumb work best at ISO100. e.g. fireworks: 8sec @ f8; buildings: 8sec @ f8; fire: 1/8th @ f8; etc.

Digital

The bottom line on digital chips is simple: have enough capacity on the one card to shoot the whole display in one go. This is one of its biggest advantages over film - you need not mess about every 36 frames loading a new film.

Second tip: have a second chip available, in case the first has a problem or you use all its memory up.

I calculate a display as about 1 photo every 12 seconds, or 5 frames per minute. Sometimes quicker, sometimes slower. Its a good average for me. So for a 10 minute display, about 50 photos is the capacity I need.

On what settings to use: if your camera can do RAW, use it. You can then make colour corrections at your leisure later. If not, set it at your highest JPEG setting.

For ISO speed, always set it to the slowest you can. On many of today's cameras, that is ISO200. I use ISO100.

35mm film

Firstly, if you are going to use film, most people would choose a print film. This adds quite a complication in the processing: printing your pictures.

Although photolabs are much better these days, firework prints are often "corrected" by the photolab computer, and the dark sky becomes a muddy brown colour. If you know your lab well, warn them that the photos have fireworks in them, and they should be able to switch off this computer correction for your prints. Most labs offer a "money back if you're not happy" guarantee. If all your fireworks have muddy skies, and you can see chunky grain - then ask them to manually reprint one. If it comes out OK, get the lot reprinted. If not, then you may have over-exposed. If you use this guide though, most of your prints should be pretty close to correct - dark skies, bright colourful fireworks.

To avoid all this mess, I use slide film. It makes life so much easier, as you don't have to worry (too much) about how the lab processes the pictures. However, if the lab mounts them for you, again warn them that there are fireworks on the films. Most labs use automated machines to mount slides, and sometimes they mistake your black image for the black separator in the emulsion... and SNIP. Your photo cut in two... and the next... etc. Trust me. I've had this happen, where a film went out of synch in the last 10 frames... snip, snip, snip. Great pictures cut in two.

On quantity: You can never have too much film available... well OK you can, but I always tend to have about 3-4 films more than I really need. Again, same formula as before: 5 frames/min.

On brand: hmm.... your pick is your pick. Personally I have tried quite a number of films for fireworks, and these are my conclusions.

Fuji Velvia 50: very high resolution, slower than my preferred ISO100, rich greens, rich reds, weaker yellows, weak blues.
Fuji Velvia 100: high res, good greens, good reds, yellow/gold OK, weak blues.
Kodak ExtraColor EBX100: don't confuse with ExtraColor100, weak greens, super reds, rich yellows, good blues, excellent gold/silver, good all round film - my standard film of choice.
Fuji Sensia 100: OK greens, weaker reds, weaker yellows, OK blues, good gold.

 

Camera Lenses

For any SLR user, having interchangeable lenses is really useful. But which lenses are needed for fireworks.? Not to be too awkward... but any of them... within reason.

There is a difference between 35mm film users, and the lenses needed by SLR digital users. 35mm lenses use the lens lengths as stated on the lens. A digital SLR usually multiplies this by a scaling factor - usually 1.6x on mid-range SLRs, to 1.3x and 1:1 on top end. So a digital user needs a lens 1.6x less focal length to see the same as the 35mm lens. i.e.. to get a 28mm-like view, a digital user will need 28/1.6 = 17mm.

Lenses always have an angle of view, inversely related to the focal length of the lens. A 28mm lens has a wider angle of view than a 200mm lens. So what angle of view do you need for fireworks?

Its all down to trigonometry. If you are 300ft from the point of launch, and the top of the firework goes up 400ft, to get in the top of the firework and the launch point requires an angle of view of 53 degrees. So what you need here is a lens that gives you at least a 53 degree angle of view.

That's the theory. In practice, for most displays where I am about 500-600ft from the launch site, I will use a 28-200mm zoom. At 28mm I can get it all but the biggest bursts, and during the quiet parts of the display, I zoom in to about 130mm to fill the frame with the roman candles. The extra zoom range just gives a bit more comfort zone.

My widest lens is a 19-35mm lens, that I can use if I am closer than normal to the launch site, or if I know they will use very big shells (a 300mm shell, for example, will go up about 1200ft, and burst about 600ft across).

 

Cable Release

When using Bulb shutter speed, you are manually holding the shutter open. If your finger is on the camera's button, this will create camera shake. Even on a tripod.

The solution is a cable release. Almost all cameras that have a Bulb shutter speed, will also have a socket or screw thread for a cable release. They usually cost about 20-35.

Some manufacturers have really complicated cable releases, with built in timers, etc. Avoid these - its dark, and you want a simple on/off switch, not a blinking computer! For the same reason - don't get an Infrared release. Usually they assume that the photographer wants to use it for self-portraits, and so the detector is on the front of the camera. So to use it in the dark, you are going to have to contort yourself from behind the camera to point it at the front, and hold the pose for the length of the shot.

Get a proper cable release, ... and relax.

The cable releases I use all have the feature to lock the shutter open by sliding the button forward once you have pressed it. This is fine, and is a natural motion. It also saves on finger-ache from holding a button down. Anyone who has seen me "live" will have seen me release the lock with a flourish, usually in time to the music - it just helps me keep rhythm.

 

Tripod

A tripod is essential to keep your picture steady for the length of your exposure - which could be up to 15 seconds or so. The slightest vibration will appear in the picture as a firework with a wiggly trail - when you know it was smooth when you saw it. Sometimes (rarely) it is a nice effect, but its far better to get a solid tripod and get it all smooth from the beginning. Even on my solid setup, I have had high winds (30mph+) cause havoc with my pictures.

The salesman will say... "you want a super lightweight carbon fibre tripod, with sprongly bits, doofers, and widgets galore". Rubbish - for fireworks, KISS - Keep It Simple and Solid. Mass is a good thing. You will probably drive to the event, so weight is not a problem. Weight is your friend. The lower the centre of gravity, the better.

Height is really important. For maximum comfort, you should not have to bend over at all to see through your viewfinder - in either vertical or horizontal camera positions. (On my setup, horizontal is about 2" higher than vertical.) On a long display, you will quickly regret buying a short set of legs. If your tripod is lightweight and tall, that is asking for vibrations.

On tripod heads, absolutely 110% forget ball heads. Remember the no.1 thing. Its dark - it doesn't matter how many spirit levels it has - you can't see them, and you can't wait the 5 minutes it takes to check the levels with a torch.

Again - KISS. Simple. Go for a tripod head that is simple. I prefer a head that I can lock off the directions of motion. I really only want 1 motion: from 90deg vert to horizontal - and nothing in between. Most heads go to 20 degrees below the horizontal, and this is frankly a pain. But I am yet to find a "perfect" head - the best I know is on a set of tripod legs that are not really tough enough.

One thing to definitely have on your tripod are quick release plates. Have one on each camera. If the camera dies, switch it out of the tripod, and put the backup camera in. I sometimes use this technique to change film by changing cameras. It means I am up and shooting within 10 seconds of taking the camera off.

My tripod has SLIK700DX legs - good sturdy legs, right height, tubular aluminium, OK weight - with a 500DX head. Its a simple head, and isn't as fiddly to operate in the dark as the 700DX head. It also has quick release plates. Unfortunately, it flips to 20 degrees below horizontal, but at least the vertical is vertical.

 

Torch

The common theme here... its dark out there. Take a torch - a penlight torch is fine - I keep one permanently in my camera bag.

There is nothing more annoying than losing a lens cap, a cable release, a film canister, etc. just because it is dark. Check your location before you leave.

However, having said that, I have to admit having to ask a venue's staff to search my camera location when I failed to notice the battery compartment lid had come off my digital camera. Without it, it would have been almost unsaleable. I didn't check my location before I left - it cost me an extra 6 in petrol and much embarrassment.

 

Other Equipment

Obviously, a camera bag to hold all your stuff. Also handy is lens cleaners - I like the new Nikon lens pens - tissues, some pen and paper.

Another useful item is a permanent marker. When a film is finished, write some identifying details on the film canister - e.g. fireworks1, fireworks2, etc. This way you know which films to warn your film processors to handle carefully.

Weather is always a problem. If it rains, it is really useful to cover your camera quickly on the tripod. For this, little beats a small plastic shower cap. Just pull it over your camera, and it should stay nice and dry.

I do not recommend having a piece of black card, or other "cover the lens" contraption. Principally because if you go to a good display, you will not need one. Or at least, so infrequently that it isn't worth cluttering up a hand with. And if you put it down during the display to do a 2 handed adjustment (e.g. tripod to vertical, change camera settings, etc.), you then are hunting for a piece of black card in the dark. Bottom line - don't bother. There are better ways.