Funky Fireworks: Explosive Joy for Everyone

Posted on January 13, 2009

Quick Quiz: What can cause people young and old, rich and poor, to stare up into the night sky, mouths open in awe, smiling and clapping for sheer joy?

If you answered “alien invasion” or “nuclear detonation”, you’re only half correct. The almost primal joy a fireworks display can bring is quite fascinating; it’s as if Disney, knowing our innate need to feel part of something greater than ourselves, has mastered the power of taking us back to the time when we sat on our father’s shoulders, looking heavenwards and realizing that God is somewhere out there.

But I digress. Today’s piece is about recording these displays in a way which reminds you of how spectacular they were.

Epcot IllumiNations Fireworks

I like this image. Nothing too spectacular going on technically (1/500 sec shutter at f/11, using my “nifty fifty” lens), but like most good photography, it was all a matter of decent timing – the flare of the torch, the brilliant descent of spent fireworks, and the smoke dissipating in the wind. It fills my head with grandiose notions – the Olympics, the gift of Prometheus, reading an Ayn Rand book

The only problem is that, for the most part, it’s a static image. The real beauty of a fireworks display lies in the motion of light, as the brilliant rockets ascend, break apart, explode, and fall into the lake. You might think this would be impossible to capture in still photography, but you might be surprised what happens if we get a little creative.

Magic Kingdom - Wishes Spectacular

Those of the Pastafarian creed might recognize their lord and savior! The key to conveying motion in still photography is your shutter speed. Most of the time, we only care about making sure it’s high enough (1/60 sec- 1/250 or more, depending on your lens) to freeze the action and avoid camera shake, but what happens if we deliberately choose a slower speed (1/30 or longer)? The dynamic subject leaves trails in the exposure that give the eye a sense of its motion.

Of course, keeping the shutter open longer means that you will have to decrease your aperture (often to f/8, f/11, or f/16) to avoid overexposing the photograph. Or you can use your camera’s “Shutter Priority” mode (often marked with an “S” on the command dial) to have this automatically handled for you. The next time you’re at a fireworks show, try this on your point-and-shoot or SLR camera:

  1. Zoom out as far as you can (point-and-shoot), or use a wide-angle lens. (on your SLR)
  2. If you’re using an SLR, manually focus to infinity (it’s clearly marked on your lens).
  3. Switch to shutter priority mode, and choose a slow shutter speed, like 1 second.
  4. When the fireworks are launched, trigger the shutter just before the explosion. Keep shooting as the fireworks fade; you never quite know what you’ll get.
  5. Check your shots – if they’re too “messy” (light messily sprayed all over the exposure), try decreasing your shutter speed (to 1/2 sec or less) . If they’re too “static” (your shot looks “frozen” in time), try increasing it (2 seconds or more). Remember, the slower the shutter, the more motion you will capture.

To make things easier, you could lug a tripod or Gorillapod with you, but I prefer to hand-hold my shots. Not only can I move the camera a bit faster, but the added camera shake can make for some interesting effects. Note that if you want to include static subjects like buildings in your picture, you WILL need to use a tripod, or everything will look like a blurry mess (don’t even think your IS or VR lenses can save you!). All these shots were taken at Disney World, during the Epcot “Illuminations” or the Magic Kingdom “Wishes Spectacular” show:

Magic Kingdom - Wishes Spectacular

A spongy-sea creature?

Magic Kingdom - Wishes Spectacular

A distant nebula?

Who needs Rorschach ink blots when we have funky fireworks! Show them to your friends, and show them how crazy they really are!

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