by Stewart Marsden
As a small child, I realised that through creativity and image making I could communicate ideas effectively with people, which really excited me. I pestered my parents into buying me a camera for a school trip which unleashed a creative force inside me that turned into a lifelong pursuit and passion. That includes being the official photographer to the Mayor of London’s New Year Fireworks Display.
With this experience and the upcoming Guy Fawkes Day celebrations, Vanguard asked me to share my top tips for getting the best results in photographing fireworks.
From the hundreds of photos of fireworks posted online every year, it’s clear that there is an appetite to shoot these spectacular displays. Whether you are at home, at the pub with friends and family or at a public event, here are some tips which may help you get the best results.
The first time I went into London to photograph the London New Year Fireworks Display I ended up sat on the side of a road shooting them. I had planned with a friend to shoot the display from a construction site somewhere in South London, but as we didn’t have permission to be there it ended up with us being escorted from the premises by the police. We ended up in a street where we could just see the London Eye and waited for the display and hoped for the best. I was pleased to get a couple of cool images that night and enjoyed the high spirits and energy of a city in celebration, but this left me strangely energised, determined to do better next time.
In 2015 and 2016 I was commissioned by Visit London to photograph the London Fireworks which gave me some opportunity to really produce something special. With the vast array of images of the London Fireworks that get posted on Social media every year I wanted to make images that were iconic and different. Context is key, the images must scream London, before they scream Fireworks. This sent me on a journey around the capital looking for some locations to shoot from and I was given exclusive access to some really great locations.
Based on this experience I realised that deciding where to take the photos is the most important element of great fireworks photos. Not only do you need to take into account where the explosions will be, but also what is in the foreground of the shot. If there’s no context in the shots there is nothing to separate them from the millions of other images on the web. What you are looking for, ideally, is an uninterrupted view of the fireworks. To ensure you get this, you will need to consider wind direction too. This is because you don’t want the smoke blowing towards you and dulling the shots. If there is no wind, you will find the first photos you take will be the sharpest so check the weather forecast.
As a result, a great location can help your shot stand out from the crowd, or just enhance your shots for your personal portfolio
Location Example - South Bank View
Location Example - Horse Guards View
Once you are happy with your location, set up your tripod and frame the shot you want. This is easier if you have been to the event before and know roughly where the fireworks will explode. It is at this point you need to take a photo, without fireworks, of the illuminated foreground exposing for the scene as it is. This image comes in handy later, keep reading and I’ll explain why.
While any camera will do, a steady tripod is a must for good firework photography as you will be using long exposures to capture the patterns effectively. You can't take decent fireworks photos without a tripod because you will be using long shutter speeds. If your camera moves while you're taking the photos they just won’t work. I used a Hasselblad H6D100C with a collection of lenses and having a brute of a medium format camera to hold rigid, I reached out to Vanguard UK who sent me two Alta Pro 2+ tripods, one with a 3 way pan head, the other with a video head as I was filming the display also which worked brilliantly.
For the same reason you need a tripod, you need a remote shutter release to keep your camera completely still. Pushing the button will move your camera despite what you might think and the shots will end up blurry. If you don't have a shutter release, you can use a 2 second delay as a last resort, but you will definitely miss photos using this option.
Set your camera to manual. This is vital to getting good shots. You need to set up your focus beforehand. Simply, you can set your lens to infinity for the fireworks, however this depends on location. If you are near buildings you might want them to be in focus, it is best to decide based on surroundings. If you try to use autofocus, it can 'hunt' and you will miss photos as it tries to focus on something in the dark.
• Shutter Speed - Bulb mode is going to be your best friend. With your remote release, you will be able to keep the shutter open for as long as the burst of fireworks goes for. I recommends exposure time of between 8 – 15 seconds for a large display. It might need to be longer for a smaller show. Be aware, the longer your shutter is open the brighter the image will end up, so keep an eye on your aperture - adjust if needed.
• Aperture - Once you have your settings for your pre-composed photo, it is simple to set the aperture for fireworks. Because the Fireworks are so bright, I recommend dropping your aperture anywhere between 1.5 – 3 stops depending on how bright the display is.
• ISO - You want to keep your ISO as low as possible (100-200) to minimise 'noise' in your shots
• RAW - It’s important not to fuss over the camera display image, this isn’t any representation of what your finished image is likely to be. It is because of this, we recommend shooting fireworks in RAW because the files are very forgiving. While it is better to achieve the 'correct' exposure in camera, the ability to post produce on RAW files increases your chances of getting the shot you want.
It’s important not to fuss over the camera display image, this isn’t any representation of what your finished image is likely to be like because you will need to process your files" Remember that photo I told you to take while setting up the composition? Here is where you use it. Because the fireworks are so bright, in order to maintain the integrity of the highlights, the foreground will become darker, if not completely black in some sections. Also the city lights are often switched off before the display.
You need to overlay the foreground of the pre-composed image over the under exposed areas of the fireworks image. This can be done using layers in Photoshop and luminosity masks for selection where you brush in (or out) the aspects of the image you do or don’t want in each layer.
Further adjustments can be made very specifically using curves and levels again targeting specific areas of each layer using luminosity masks. The resulting image is something more balanced than with a single exposure. With preserved shadow details and highlight details from both sets of exposures.
This is what the difference looks like:
Photo taken while setting up the composition
Overlaying the photos
Blending the photos
Final Poster on the night
It is also worth mentioning that while the camera and settings are important, so are creature comforts. Remember to pack a chair, jacket, food, drink and a flashlight so you can enjoy the experience more. Overall it’s important to have fun, because if it’s not fun, it’s not worth it.
I hope that helps...
I believe photography teaches you how to see and fully experience life in the decisive moment and this is particularly true of photographing fireworks. Fireworks pass in seconds, but a great photograph can capture the moment for life. This in turn helps you live your life with more vitality. Sharing those photographs brings people together so we can feel connected, and bring joy to the lives of others as well.
Stewart Marsden is a well established and respected photographer with published works for the City of London as well as many more.
He is a Vanguard Ambassador and photography speaker.
"I’m a photographer, I make photographs because photographs tell stories. I started this journey many years ago as a small child I realised that through creativity and image making I could communicate ideas effectively with people which really excited me. I pestered my parents into buying me a camera for a school trip which unleashed a creative force inside me that turned into a lifelong pursuit and passion. Fast forward to today and I still feel as fresh, and enthusiastic about photography as ever and excited by the prospect of being a better photographer tomorrow than the one I am today."
Article published on Vanguard LIfe 10/10/2018