Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Shooting Fireworks

Shot with Fuji FinePix HS10 set to "Fireworks." Photoshop for multiple images.
To shoot fireworks you need a rock solid steady camera and a long shutter speed. An expensive camera is not necessary. A good quality, solid tripod is a blessing, but anything to hold your camera steady will do. Once, while working for the newspaper, I snuggled my camera deep into a big, heavy camera bag and with the lens pointing out and up at the fireworks, I got my picture.

In fact the picture I got wasn't just good but really great. Shooting from such a low angle, with a really wide angle lens, it might have been a 24mm, I captured not only the fireworks but some of the spectators sitting in chairs. I popped a little flash into the picture to add a little detail to the spectators. This was a story picture, a picture of the event, and not just a picture of fireworks.

With a fully manual DSLR camera:

Shot with a Canon SD10 compact point-and-shoot.
First, think picture. Good photographers are creative artists first and skilled technicians second.

Find a good vantage point for your shots. Ideally, you want to capture more than just a burst of colour in a night darkened sky. A picture that addresses the who, what, where, when and why of the event will be the stronger and far more interesting picture in years to come.

My shot of the girls watching the fireworks at a neighbourhood park was shot with a simple Canon SD10 point-and-shoot set to extended night exposure. I found an angle to silhouette the girls against the bright smoke from the fireworks. I was lucky enough to captured three bursting rockets in one shot. Love it!

Here in London, the fireworks are sometimes launched downtown over the forks of the Thames River. The obvious picture here is a huge, colourful burst or two with colourful reflections in the water below. If you can find and angle to show a few tall downtown buildings in the background, all the better.

With picture thinking out of the way:

  1. Ensure the camera is rock solid. Any movement during the exposure will ruin the picture. Obviously a good tripod is the easiest answer. Anything less can lead to frustration. Sometimes, in a pinch, you will be able to find a support for your camera at the event but this is not to be counted on.
  2. Choose a focal length to match your vision but be prepared to change this during the show. Wider is usually better than longer for capturing the context of the event. Telephotos will fill the frame with exploding fireworks.
  3. Set your focus at infinity. You will always be quite a distance from any major fireworks display.
  4. Set the aperture. I usually start with f/8 and stop down to f/11 if necessary. Remember, f/11 lets less light into the camera than f/8.
  5. Set the shutter speed to "B" for bulb or time exposure. With the shutter set to "B" you can depress the shutter button a moment after hearing the boom of the fireworks rocket launching. This way the shutter is open when the display starts. Keep the shutter button depressed until the burst begins to fade. This may be three or four seconds. If the bursts are coming quickly, one after another or overlapping, try holding the shutter open long enough to capture multiple bursts. If you find that you are causing the camera to move during the exposure, try using a cable release. With a good, solid tripod, a cable release is rarely necessary.
  6. Set the ISO. This does not have to be high. I have had good result shooting from ISO 100 to ISO 400. Fireworks are incredibly bright. High ISO settings are not necessary and may result in overexposed and/or grainy, images.
  7. Don't use your flash, in most cases. It will do nothing but possibly burnout the nearby foreground with overexposure. If your flash is built-in, turn it off. (This doesn't mean you can't experiment. You're shooting digital; You've got nothing to lose.)
  8. Check your images as you shoot, making sure the bursts are not out of frame. If you have a zoom lens, you can tweak the focal length if necessary.

To summarize:

  • Find your vantage point.
  • Mount your camera on tripod and frame your shot.
  • Choose the focal length of your lens.
  • Set the lens to infinity.
  • Set the aperture - f/8 is a good start.
  • Set the shutter speed - "B" or time exposure is best.
  • Set the ISO. ISO100 often works. Do not use an ISO higher than 400.
  • Turn off your flash, if necessary.
  • Check your images as you work.

If you have a point-and-shoot, your options are limited and they change from camera to camera. You still need a good tripod but after that you may be at the mercy of your camera. My Canon SD10 had a long, nighttime setting that was excellent for shooting fireworks.

Dedicated fireworks setting: Fuji HS10
My Fuji FinePix HS10 actually has a dedicated "Fireworks" setting. I find the HS10 chooses a time exposure that is a little short but it does work. I may try shooting fireworks using the HS10 in manual mode next time.

And if you don't mind altering reality a bit, you can always take your pictures into Photoshop or another photo enhancement program.

Red Rock, Ont.: Fireworks shot out a bathroom window. No sturdy tripod.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Unenhanced vs. enhanced photos

I always print my digital images. I grew up printing my pictures in a darkroom and feel very uncomfortable not "printing" my digital images in my electronic darkroom: Photoshop.

The first image is an unenhanced grab shot of a number of goslings cuddling together to protect themselves from a cool, spring breeze. I racked the lens on my Fuji FinePix HS10 well out and shot the goslings with the camera handheld. Double-click to see the image full sized.

Unenhanced image as it came from the camera.
The second image has been taken into my electronic darkroom, Photoshop, and has had the white point set, the contrast has been tweaked using Curves, a little colour correction has been applied and then the colours have been saturated just a little. Finally, the image has been sharpened.

Enhanced image.

Whether you like what I did or you don't, it is clear that what the camera gives you is not the final say. Remember, the colour and the contrast delivered by the camera is not always dead on accurate. Photographers have been burning and dodging since the dawn of photography. There is little reason to stop now.

Clicking or double-clicking the above images should give you the larger, full-sized images.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Join "City Daily Photo"

Have fun, learn a little about your town, and force yourself to fine tune your photo skills --- all the while sharing your town with the world.

My health has been giving me some serious problems of late and I have been letting down the "daily photo side." I really am sorry as it is a good group of people. Some of the members are damn fine photographers.

I took today's picture from the parking lot at my family doctor's office. I loved the imaginative balconies, the hard light accenting the strong, repetitious shapes and  bringing out the texture in the concrete. The bright, blue sky next to the grey and red-brown of the apartment was another plus.

Check out City Daily Photo and if your town isn't being represented, think about it. If it is being represented, note if a picture is really posted every day. If not, why not contact the person running your city's site and see if they could use a shooter. They just may love having the help. (I know I would.)


Friday, May 20, 2011

Pictures roll in with the fog

You can set your white point almost to the max; Your strongest black is a gray.
When I saw the fog this morning I knew I had a picture making moment. Fog delivers beautiful images where normally the scene would be too busy to be worth taking. The fog mutes distant colours while making those very close to the camera pop in comparison. Fog adds mood and depth to an image with distant, distracting backgrounds fading gradually into the soft mist.

Sometimes the fog itself can be the focus of your images but for most pictures apply the usual rules: Have a strong, main subject, watch your composition and shoot fast. Fog can lift without warning.

A little selectively applied saturation helps this lilac bush pop.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Saving pictures with sharpening.

Enhanced with Photoshop Smart Sharpen.
I like to say that sharpening doesn't really work, and it doesn't. It is actually an edge effect that increases contrast along the edges in an image, giving the illusion of sharpness. The truth is the sharper the image, the cleaner the edges and the better sharpening works. All that said, if you are using an image small on the Web or simply making snapshot sized photos, sharpening can save a picture that is just a little too soft when it comes to focus.

Unsharp mask, despite its name, is usually the best choice for sharpening. There are three controls to be set when using unsharp mask (USM): Radius, threshold, amount. I usually use a radius of about .8 pixels, a threshold level of about 3 and for amount I like to vary the percent but 100% is a good starting point. The radius controls the size of the edges affected (too much and you will not sharpen small details); The threshold controls the brightness level at which sharpening starts (too low a setting and you sharpen grain); and the amount is the overall strength of the sharpening effect (too much and you will produce the infamous halo effect known as over sharpening.)

A couple of caveats: Sharpening is irreversible. Always save an unsharpened original. (I always save my original, unenhanced images. I save my enhanced images under a modified name and thus do not overwrite my original image.) And always apply USM last. Sharpening is the very last thing you do to an image before saving it. Remember, digital images are inherently a wee bit soft; A wee bit of USM before saving is always a good idea.

If you have Photoshop, I have CS5, you might play with the Smart Sharpen setting. I have been quite impressed with it thus far. Click on the Smart Sharpen link to see the Adobe instructions. USM emulates an method used in the good old days of film to give the illusion of a sharper image. Smart Sharpen takes sharpening control to another level.

For more details on USM sharpening, click on this link to the Guide to Image Sharpening. Read the info in the guide and you will know more than the average pro photographer about USM.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

It gives me nuts!

My little Fuji FinePix HS10, and it is rather little compared to a full-fledged DSLR, is fun. Yet, I have to agree with the little boy who said about something that bothered him, "It gives me nuts!"

For years I shot with a high-end Canon EOS DSLR. The quality was superb. Now, shooting with what is essentially a sophisticated but dated point-and-shoot, I have to make some trade offs. I say dated because there is now an HS20 and it reportedly fixes some of the problems that I have encountered with my first generation camera.

But what the HS10 lacks in absolute quality, it makes up in fun. I shoot for the Web or to make small snapshots. The quality is more than adequate for my needs.

This shot of a young bride dancing with her father was shot at ISO 800. I popped some straight on strobe into the scene, punching up the highlights and to opening up the shadows a smidgen. I set the zoom to its widest setting, 24mm, laid down on my stomach and with the screen on the camera back pulled out and rotated, I composed my picture.

I may not have ultimate quality but I have a picture with visual impact. It is a different shot from the one being captured by the photographer standing off to the side with a high end Canon camera equipped with a pro telephoto 'L' lens. It is a judgement call but I prefer my angle. Now, if I just didn't have the shutter lag I must contend with. (Reportedly, the new HS20 is not bothered by shutter lag to the same extent as my older model.)

Fuji FinePix HS10, lens cranked out to telephoto. Auto.
With ultimate quality well out of my reach when shooting indoor stuff like the above, I must cover myself by shooting other images outside using lots of available light. Unfortunately, it was heavily overcast on the day of the wedding. Shooting inside a covered gazebo, I was still up against some low light level issues.

Note: When shooting the bride, groom and groom's parents, I was well off to the side to stay out of the way of the photographer hired to shoot the wedding. This angle has the benefit of making for a tighter grouping with almost no dead space between the subjects' heads.

I got the images I needed with a camera I can easily carry and I'm happy --- even though the little devil can really "give me nuts."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Rules are made for breaking

Wide angle setting on a Canon S90 on fully automatic. No room to get back.
 Never shoot a portrait with a wide angle lens. It's a rule. Use something between 85mm and 135mm. I like 105mm, myself.

Yet, if the space is tight and the portrait is begging to be shot, forget the wide angle rule.

My granddaughter loved the blue Jelly Dog the moment she saw it in the store. Her dad made the mistake of letting her hold the stuffed animal "temporarily." Giving up that blue doggie was tough but Fiona did it. But her dad couldn't give up the stuffed dog as easily. He carried the memory of his daughter's delight and subsequent disappointment for days --- until he returned to the store and bought Blue.

I saw Fiona clutching Blue tightly to her cheek while sitting in her backward facing car seat. The 85mm was out; No room. The 28mm was in and so was the picture. So she's a little distorted, I can live with that.

The lesson: always take the picture. Always. If it doesn't work out, so what. But if it does . . . Eureka!