Monday, June 23, 2008

Photographing Fireworks

   The photograph that started it all for our business, Janoski Studio Pittsburgh Photographs, was a fireworks photo. Taken on a whim, my husband shot fireworks blazing against a night time cityscape sky illuminated by Pittsburgh office buildings, bringing the two together to tell a story brimming with local appeal. At our first art show, the picture proved to be a spectacular winner over everyday nature scenes.There is drama and pizazz in fireworks that cannot be denied.
    In those days of film cameras, the process produced distinct splashes of color as each burst took its time to burn on the film before the next blast overtook it. They were splendid photos. But along came the modern age where computers took control of fireworks launches, shooting off bursts in quick succession, at times even set to music. Boom, boom! A razzle-dazzle overpowering effect for the audience, but a nightmare for photographers. The bursts now come so quickly, there isn't time to isolate one or two beautiful clusters for a well-defined photo. Now the photographer is bombarded with blast after blast filling the photo frame, accumulated smoke hovering in the air, and overexposure imminent from the light of multiple clusters going off in quick succession. With an illuminated background, it becomes a juggling act to balance exposure of both the fireworks and background. What a mess.
    But you shouldn't give up. I keep trying. Now and then I tame the monster and get a good shot. So let's begin. Here are some steps to follow.
    Location. Location. Location. I remember during those days of our cityscape fireworks shoots, location was a nightmare. Fireworks are popular events, with crowds of not only adults, but children, children who kick tripods, children whose parents won't appreciate if you shove them out of your way. A good point. Choose a spot that has a good view, but be polite. It is a good idea, since tripods with legs spread take up room, to ask nearby patrons first if you may set up...unless you get there first. Then you have "squatter's rights," so to speak. All the same, no matter how early you arrive, you'll find the crowds pushing in on your turf. Be patient with them. Fireworks are for fun. Don't spoil it for anyone.
    Equipment. Of course, you need your camera set at ISO 100 for good clean pictures that blow up well, and extra film or an extra memory card, whichever applies. But also use a tripod and a cable release. A level is not a bad idea to be certain your camera is properly positioned for a level horizon.
    The Fine Points. I recommend a normal or wide-angle lens to allow a wider plane to catch the bursts. A telephoto is too confining. Determine ahead of time the area of the sky where the fireworks will happen and position your camera. Focus on infinity. No auto focus or exposure here. Set your camera on "bulb" and f/11 or f/16 and insert the cable release You now have your camera in a fixed position, ready to open the lens and close it at will. Fireworks require a timed exposure, meaning a prolonged exposure, which you will perform  by hand with the cable release.
    An exact exposure time in general terms is impossible to predict due to the variability of fireworks and surrounding scenery, etc., but my rule of thumb is to release the shutter when a burst starts and keep the lens open for several bursts. If the bursts are not in quick succession, then cover the lens with the palm of your hand or a black piece of paper between bursts. I would try three bursts. If you have a digital camera, check to see how you are doing between shots and make adjustments as needed. If the bursts are washed out, put fewer per picture. If the opposite is true, do more. Your f-stop also provides another way to control exposure. Open up or close down as needed.   
   Once the bursts start, this is an intense photo shoot. You can't go back and try again, and there's no time to think. So plan ahead. If you're using film, use a 36-exposure roll so you don't have to change rolls, or with digital use a memory card with plenty of room. Be ready when the fireworks start, having your camera on bulb, your cable release inserted, camera on the tripod, level, focused and aimed. It's crazy, but remember, fireworks are for fun. With a calm hand and a little luck, you'll get a beautiful shot to enlarge and hang in your home.

 Copyright 2007 JO Janoski


  1. Hi Jo,

    Wow! What a wonderful photograph of Pittsburgh, and your site is gorgeous. Love it! I'll be back to gander again! Photos are stunning, very nice work here! Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. Okay, the other other Jo here (who knew it was such a common name, laughing).......that photo is amazing, really fantastic. And interesting post too.

  3. not jo--but loved the photo.

  4. So many Jo's, so little time. Thank you, all, including Scot, who only can wish he were a Jo.

  5. Even with all of your guidance, I would never be able to capture the images that you capture. Your photos are only matched by the beauty of your poetry. a fan

  6. A truly fantastic shot, regardless of the equipment used.

  7. Harry, Thank you. You're so kind.

    Dan, Thanks to you, too.

    How did all these non-Jo's get in here?

  8. Shirley8:01 PM

    Another non-Jo popping in to say...beautiful! You're a very talented couple.