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Posted on July 4th 2013Top
Categories: Challenges | Summer
Fireworks how to photograph bulb setting

Every year on the fourth of July, we go to our local lake in the evening. It's filled with people waiting for the fireworks to start.

One year I set out to get a couple of fireworks shots. You know, just a few, 200+ shots... just enough to get by :)

I used the bulb setting on my camera.

Fireworks how to photograph bulb setting

The bulb setting lets your finger decide the shutter speed. When you click down to take the picture the shutter opens, and when you let go, the shutter closes. This is an excellent way to capture things like fireworks or shooting a picture of a freeway in the dark to capture the head and tail lights as long trailing lines.

Fireworks how to photograph bulb setting

On these images I used a mono pod to stabilize the camera. With these long shutter times you are bound to get camera shake if the camera is not stable. You could also find a park table or a wall, but that is of course a little less flexible.

Fireworks how to photograph bulb setting

I set my ISO fairly high - 3200 - but you can go all the way to ISO 100 if you want. The higher the ISO, the more light sensitive the capture will be, but the trade-off is more grain to the image. The longer shutter speeds help reduce grain some though. I should probably have set my ISO a bit lower now that I think about it.

Fireworks how to photograph bulb setting

To set your camera to the bulb setting, you may have to look at your camera's manual. For my Canon 20D the bulb setting was at the end of the shutter speeds, one click after the longest shutter speed of 30 sec, so keep turning on the wheel until you get to bulb mode. It will say "bulb".

On my Canon Mark II, the bulb mode is a separate letter on the mode dial where you select, P, AV, TV, M etc. The bulb mode is the "B" setting and you will see the word "bulb" on the top display and also in the view finder.

If "Bulb" mode is not a separate shooting mode on your camera, I recommend shooting in M mode using a fairly large depth of field or aperture of F 8 - F 22. The bigger the aperture number the wider the depth of field will be which means less blurriness around your field of focus.

Here is an example of depth of field (DOF) from the parade I posted earlier

Fireworks how to photograph bulb setting

On the left image you see that the horse's head is a bit blurry as are the leaves in the background, but the man on the horse is in focus. This shot was taken with an aperture of 2.8 - quite a narrow depth of field. On the right hand side the men are all sharp. This image has a wider depth of field. The image is still taken with a 2.8, but because I am so far away from them, that increases the depth of field quite a bit. You do see a bit of blurriness on the man in the pink shirt on the horse, but not too much. Also the leaves on the left side over the man in the cowboy hat are noticeably more sharp than in the left picture.

To reduce DOF blurriness I recommend increasing the aperture to something like F8 or F10 or even higher. Something to remember is that the higher the aperture, the smaller the opening in the camera, which means the less light it takes in, so a longer shutter speed is required to get enough light in your capture. With bulb mode, you going to do exactly that - get long shutter speeds.

Fireworks how to photograph bulb setting

The next step was a bit of trial and error for me. At the lake I clicked the button when I anticipated the firework going off and let go when it was at it's height of exploding. But you can try out different strategies too. The longer you hold down the shutter, the longer the tails of the sparks are going to be.

So in short, a good starting point would be

Use a mono-pod a tripod or some other means of stabilizing your camera.

Camera settings:
ISO 200,
Aperture F10,
bulb shutter speed/mode

Remember to check your display every once in a while and adjust your settings to try out different ones over the course of the display of fireworks to maximize your chances of a couple of winning shots! There is a little bit of luck involved in getting a really good one.

Happy capturing!
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