You may recognize this as one of my standard lens-test scenes. Thankfully, it also happens to be a great vantage point from which to watch a small-time pre-4th of July fireworks display!
The Equipment and Settings
- Nikon D700
- Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8 ATX PRO @ 16mm
- Giottos Tripod & Ballhead
- Bracketed Images at f/4 & 1 sec, from ISO 280 to 1800
- Manual Exposure, Manual WB, RAW
How We Shot It
One of the main problems with photographing a fireworks show, however, is the simple fact that most of the major public displays don’t take place until long after the sun has gone down, thus making it very tough to expose for fireworks and the sky in the same shot. Often times, if you’re shooting at the longer shutter speeds that give you a bright night-time sky, fireworks will completely blow out. Or, if you carefully expose for the fireworks so that they don’t blow out, the rest of your image will be super dark.
So, here is how I approach such a situation- I set up my bracketing to click 5-7 images, starting with the darkest exposure first. I wait until a good burst of fireworks, and start clicking. I may not end up using each of the exposures in the final image, however one of the darker exposures usually gets a good capture of the fireworks, and then the brightest exposure gives great detail in the sky and any other shadow areas. Here’s what the dark and bright exposures usually look like:
However, you have to be careful which ISO you choose because at lower ISOs your brightest exposure may wind up with a 10-20+ second shutter speed. Which, if you’ve ever photographed fireworks, can seem like a very, very long time! That is why I usually opt for a higher ISO, and sometimes I’ll even turn on Auto-ISO and set my max ISO to 3200 or 6400.
I would rather be able to quickly capture perfectly exposed images at ISO 3200, than under-exposed images at a lower ISO or very extended exposures that cause me to miss certain bursts of fireworks. This allows me to perfectly time as many sequences as possible for maximum results, instead of waiting 10-20 seconds while an entire burst of fireworks blows out the sky in my bright exposure.
So, there you have it. Cover your bases by bracketing 5-7 EV’s in 1-stop increments, (5-7 total images) …and shooting as rapidly as you can afford to using any exposure options at your disposal.
Personally, I like to mix and match from different sets of bracketed images. Why? Because the longer the fireworks display goes on, the more smoke starts to cloud your images. Depending on the wind this is sometimes not a problem, however other times it can totally ruin your shot. So, I often gather one of the earlier bright exposures, and any of the latter exposures that have a great capture of fireworks without blown highlights.
At that point, it is simply a matter of throwing the images at Photomatix or a similar HDR program, and seeing what happens. I prefer Photomatix because their anti-ghosting tools are superb, and a fireworks situation such as this are a bounty for HDR ghosting.
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Take care, and happy clicking,
Learn HDR Photography
For more HDR education, be sure to check out HDR Tutorial by SLR Lounge. This comprehensive “gold standard” guide will give you a mastery of HDR photography, from the scene considerations to the actual shooting to the post production. Click here for more info.
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