fireworks like you’ve never seen them before

With the 4th of July right around the corner, fireworks are on a lot of people’s minds. If you live in a state that allows you to shoot off your own fireworks, like Kansas, then chances are you’ve already heard some going off around your neighborhoods at night. You may have even been the one lighting them.

Those little fireworks are great, but the real fun comes from the massive pyrotechnic displays that are put on all around the country on the 4th. The show that my town puts on is really a marvel, especially considering that Wamego’s population is only around 4200 or so. It is entirely hand fired, typically lasts about 30 minutes, and the seating is wonderfully close (about a baseball field’s length away). You really get to experience the fireworks, not just watch them. And this show is as intense, if not more so, than other popular shows I’ve seen in much larger communities. Every year, people from surrounding cities make the trek out to Wamego because the show is just that cool.

But this is not a post plugging Wamego’s fireworks show.

Ok, it’s not just plugging Wamego’s fireworks show.

As a photographer, I’ve always enjoyed trying to capture the kind of fireworks images I’ve seen in magazines and online and have always struggled to get anything close. So I gave up.

Then, last year, not too long before the 4th, I read an article from a JPG magazine user about a different technique she had discovered that makes amazing images of fireworks not only much easier to produce but also much more enjoyable to create. I remember trying it out last year and just giggling like a giddy school girl as a watched the images pop up on my LCD. It’s easy and fun and the results are unexpectedly delightful and full of mystery.

She called the technique focus shift. All you need is a solid tripod, an SLR camera, and a long lens. She used a Canon 5D with a 180mm lens; I used a Canon 40D with a 75mm lens (equivalent to 120 mm). Here’s how the technique works, along with some images I shot last year:

  1. Try to set up as close to the fireworks as you can. One “mistake” I made in the past was trying to get the whole sky in the shot. Forget that for this–you want to fill your frame with the fireworks, so get close, and use a long lens. Wamego’s show is great for this since every seat is virtually as close to the fireworks as safety would allow.
  2. Shoot in manual. You can’t let your camera try to meter for these constantly changing bursts of light–either it won’t be able to keep up, or it will try to properly expose the pitch black night sky, completely blowing out the bright light from the fireworks.
  3. Use your lowest ISO. For me, that was ISO 100. We’ll be doing longer exposures, so we want the least amount of digital noise possible in the final image. You might even consider turning on your camera’s own long exposure noise reduction option for this.
  4. Start with a shutter speed around 1 second. In the article, she said that her shutter speeds ranged from 1 to 6 seconds. I used 1 second for all of the images I shot last year. At that shutter speed, I found that an aperture of f11 or f14 worked well to produce well exposed images. You’ll have to experiment a bit with this.
  5. Use manual focus. Make sure you flip that little switch on your lens from AF to MF. This is where the magic happens. After you press the shutter button, you’ve got about a second to change the focus during the exposure. Large changes in focus work best. You can start with the focus set up close and shift it towards infinity during the exposure, or you can start at infinity and move it back up close. Try both. Try going from one end of the focus range to the other and back during the same exposure. With focus at infinity, the light from the fireworks will produce sharp lines on your image. With the focus up close, the light creates soft, colored balls or stripes of light. As you shift from one end of the focus range to the other, you produce incredible, abstract images of color and shape.
  6. The last step is something to keep in mind the whole time you’re exposing and shifting focus: don’t rock the tripod. 😉

Here are a few of my favorite shots from last year’s fireworks show. This was my first attempt at focus shifting, and I’m really happy with what I came home with.

For this first one, I shifted from a close focus towards infinity, which is why the green lights start big and get sharper as they move away from the center. The green heptagons came from a particular kind of firework that twinkled instead of burning consistently. ISO 100, f11, 1s, 75mm (120 mm equivalent), shifting from close to infinity.

In this one, I also shifted from close to infinity and just loved how it produced such organic, almost flower-like shapes. ISO 100, f14, 1s, 75 mm (120 equivalent), shifting from close to infinity.

I love that this one exploded out of my field of view, so I only really got the twinkling trails as they fell. ISO 100, f11, 4s, 75 mm (120 mm equivalent), shifting from close to infinity.

This last one is my favorite from the night. I was amazed not just by the fierce red color, but by the asymmetrical chaos of the main bloom. All the other smoke and stray light really added to the image. ISO 100, f14, 1s, 75mm (120mm equivalent), shifting from close towards infinity.

As you play with this, try shifting focus at different speeds: shifting slowly produces a smooth transition from large, out of focus light to sharp trails, or vice-versa. Shifting quickly produces sudden differences.

If you’d like to see more examples of what this technique can do, definitely check out the first article minka did, as well as the follow up story that she posted after the 4th of July last year.

Will you try out focus shifting this year? If you do, definitely leave a comment below with a link to your images. Or, head on over to the rik andes photography page on facebook and just post the images there! I can’t wait to see what you create, especially because I’m facing the distinct likelihood that, because of my travels this weekend, I won’t be able to capture any fireworks images at all, let alone see a big show. I’ll enjoy the fireworks vicariously through you this year.

Did you enjoy this little how-to? Feel free to pass a link around and tell your friends!


7 Responses to “fireworks like you’ve never seen them before”

  1. Gary B

    You nailed the post, the method, description and examples. Link sent to me from a friend, btw. VERY much appreciated. Rats…it’s only about one more year before I can do this myself. Grrr….still…BRAVO!

    • rik

      Thank you, Gary! Very kind words–I’m glad you enjoyed it. Don’t forget: different regions sometimes have local celebrations involving fireworks, and a few places do fireworks around New Year’s Eve as well. Or, if you live near Disneyland, you can see them every night! 😉

      Thanks again, and please, thank your friend for passing the link along. =]


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