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Shooting Fireworks (Indoors)

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

You ready for the 4th?

I don't mean having ample supplies of hot dogs, beer and industrial strength Independence Day sunblock. I mean having all your camera gear ready to make gorgeous fireworks pictures.

The first fireworks I remember as a kid were at Asbury Park, N.J., where all my Italian aunts, uncles and cousins lived. On summer vacations from the steamy Bronx, my parents and I would join friends and family at the beach for fireworks shows that began on July 4th and extended throughout the summer. Oh, how I remember looking up at the sky and feeling that exciting, yet also terrifying, jolt in my stomach each time I saw one of those bombs bursting in air. The silent sparkle of the cascading light immediately after each explosion only added to the magic.

Magic it surely was, especially to a 7-year-old. But photographing fireworks isn't magic. In fact, it's a cinch.

I've even photographed them indoors.

It's odd, when you think about it, that this most dramatic kind of photography - the kind that makes non-shooters exclaim, "Boy, you must have a really good camera" – is not especially complicated, doesn't require catlike reflexes, doesn't even require precise exposure calculation, or "a very good camera." In fact, on more than one occasion when I have been photographing a nocturnal light show I have done so with one hand on the camera, the other on a cold scotch or Bud.

The first rule of thumb is that you almost always will be photographing fireworks against a black night sky. That means you will be hard-pressed to overexpose your photograph no matter how long you keep your shutter open. The other rule is that fireworks tend to be incredibly bright – that's why we can see them from miles away. That also means, conversely, that you will be equally hard-pressed to underexpose your image since the light trails of the buzz bombs, whizz bangs, or whatever it is they are called today, will register on even the slowest film, provided you have a reasonably forgiving aperture or lens opening.

Our longtime friends and colleagues Pat and Wayne Fisher have been shooting stock pictures of fireworks and other gorgeous scenes for years. Their formula for fireworks success is to use a fairly slow film (say ISO 50-100), a mid-range aperture setting of f.5.6-6.7, and an exposure time of at least 15 seconds, and maybe as long as 30.

Similarly, the National Geographic's Photography Field Guide, first published in 1981, says basically the same thing, only with faster film (f.8-11 for film up to ISO 200; exposure times of 10-20 seconds).

You get the idea: This isn't rocket science. In fact, it should be fun.

The technical fine-tuning involved is comparatively minor. First, you should focus on infinity and have your camera on a tripod. (This is a rule made to be broken, by the way. See below.) Second, you should set your camera to Bulb or Time, to allow for long exposure times. Third, since you probably will want to capture more than one fireburst at a time, you might consider blocking your lens with a piece of cardboard, or even a baseball cap, to keep extraneous smoke from registering on your image while your shutter is open. If the fireworks display you are shooting has a synchronized musical accompaniment, you often can anticipate when a big burst will occur and be ready to uncover your lens. Be careful not to jostle your camera, though.

Speaking of lenses, Pat and Wayne generally use fairly short glass – 50mm-100mm – and to keep from blocking the view of others in the crowd, they often will not extend their tripods to their full height. ("Sit down and shoot up," was how Pat once put it.)

This same arrangement also works remarkably well for lightning flashes. Here, though, the biggest problem is getting the lightning to cooperate. Be aware, too, of the brightness of the sky. Often, spectacular lightning displays can occur against a mottled or even bright sky. Better to close down a stop or two to compensate for the added brightness. I made one of my favorite lightning pictures – in fact, it may have been my only lightning picture – at a wedding. It was during the reception at a mansion in Oxon Hill, Md. The manor house was near the top of a hill and the sky was very dark as the light show began. I set up a tripod on a columned terrace and set the camera to Bulb. But to add a little spice, I used an ultra-distorting fisheye lens so that the columns appeared at each side of the image as two big white parentheses, encompassing multiple lacy lightning bursts far in the distance.

I don't know if the bride and groom liked the pictures as much as I did, but they certainly were my favorites of the evening.

Then at another wedding, I broke the rule about always being on a tripod – to wonderful effect.

In this case, the wedding couple had hired a pyrotechnician to put on a small fireworks display as night fell on their reception. With a shouted call, everyone raced from dinner to come out onto the lawn and see the show. Since neither Judy nor I had time to set up our tripods, I made some available light shots handheld. The fireworks looked remarkably good, but the best stuff was of the wedding couple, peering up at the sky, awash in the brilliant reds and yellows of the fireworks. Who cared if the picture wasn't tack sharp? I submit it was better for the blur.

Finally, there is my picture of master bladesmith Rob Hall, in my book about life on the Chesapeake, Faces of the Eastern Shore. Rob is an incredibly talented guy – the Damascus blade kitchen knife we bought from him is easily the finest knife we own. To capture Rob amid a shower of sparks, I didn't do much more than what I would have done to shoot fireworks. Granted, to light up the interior I used studio strobelights, but I also used a very long exposure to capture the fireworks-like shower of sparks from his anvil. Note: This really is two pictures in one. The strobes capture the interior during a fraction of the 1/4- to 1/2-second exposure. But the long exposure also allows the sparks to draw a pattern on the film, in much the same way that a cascade of fireworks registers.

As often happens with fireworks shots, people tend to be impressed when they see this one. But in fact, I made 12 nearly identical pictures of Rob during the shoot, and all I had to do at the end was pick the one with the prettiest fireworks.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Master bladesmith Rob Hudson of Rock Hall, Md., sends up a shower of sparks at his anvil. It was a carefully choreographed "performance" that led to this dramatic image of indoor fireworks.

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Frank Van Riper Archive:

Pre-Digital Prestidigitation

Dropped Cameras: An Anecdotal Indictment

The Print Lab Around Your Neck

Wedding War Stories

The Eyes of History

Digital Master of a Barren Beauty