Bad 4th of July fireworks photography – an expert tutorial

As proved last year, I am a terrible fireworks photographer on the 4th of July’s Freedom Over Texas celebrations. It’s not for a lack of trying really because I actually do my best at hunting down fireworks events as if I’m a newspaper photographer. A lot of times I’m fairly happy with the results on non-4th of July fireworks shows like this one from the Mayor’s Holiday celebration where I was taking my picture right next to a Houston Chronicle photographer (her pictures were better FYI):
Houston Mayor's Holiday Celebration 2008

I’m also somewhat proud of this picture a few years ago on Thanksgiving’s Uptown holiday something or rather in the Galleria area:
Uptown Holiday Lighting 2010

This year however I was determined to find out why my 4th of July pictures come out dull and uninspired. Last year, the biggest culprit was my location. A few years ago, I was very close to the fireworks but there was no way to tell whether it was in downtown or someone’s backyard since it was only pictures of the fireworks and no building.

Clearly, to get that “Disney Magic”, the background needs to be compelling because the fireworks by itself will not cut it. On that spirit, I wanted to make sure to get the Houston Skyline in my picture. Right off the bat, there were two problems sure to doom this year’s shoot:

  1.  Not having access to a high-rise building or a rooftop near downtown would mean that I couldn’t get close enough to get the perspective that I really wanted and would have to be farther away and there would be unwanted artifacts in my image – street lights, police cars, closer buildings, trees, etc.
  2.  That would also mean that I would have to use a short telephoto lens and it would create a new set of problems since stabilization becomes a real issue while zooming in from afar on long exposures.

This was not looking good. Still, I shoot for fun, and I wasn’t planning on walking for more than a few blocks away so I staked my claim on the pedestrian bridge near Montrose Blvd that links Memorial and Allen Parkway. I like that area and have shot there before from shooting the bat colony to the Tolerance statues.

This was the wide angle view about 2 1/2 hours before the shoot. Pretty nice actually I thought.
Downtown Houston through Buffalo Bayou

I zoomed in for a few test shots and was fairly confident I could get both the buildings and the fireworks in the same shot. So far so good though I noticed as people walked on the bridge, it would vibrate. The bridge it self is very sturdy with iron beams and a concrete platform. Not wanting to take a chance at walking and not finding a better spot, I was hoping that once the show started, people would not be walking around as much and the extra weight (there was a lot of extra weight let me tell you) would help the bridge not move as well.

Downtown Houston through Buffalo Bayou

And so I played the waiting game. My camera was in manual mode and was set for the bright downtown skyline so when I noticed these old-timey war planes (I really am ashamed to not be able to identify types of air craft), I didn’t have the best settings. I had also left my 80-200 f/2.8 lens at home so 85mm was the longest I could go so this is it. Still, it’s not something you see every day.
Freedom Over Texas

At around 8:45, the time was perfect. It was dark enough to see fireworks, but the light over the horizon was still lighting up the sky and the buildings enough to where they wouldn’t just fade away. The earth’s rotation is known for having a predictable schedule so I don’t know why they don’t start the fireworks this time especially given it was in a week night.
Downtown Houston through Buffalo Bayou

To quote Kansas, “I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moment’s gone”. It was starting to make sense all of a sudden. Maybe it wasn’t completely my fault why my 4th of July pictures don’t measure up. IT’S SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT! The other non-4th of July pictures – Christmas and Thanksgiving shots were shot in environments full of background lights.  The fireworks were still brighter, but there was much less difference in dynamic range and enough for the camera and post processing software to repair.
Freedom Over Texas

By the time the fireworks started at 9:45, there was very little light left to bring up the buildings without using a shutter speed of 2 seconds (maybe if I had my f/2.8 telephoto it would be better). As you can also see, I clearly mis-judged where the fireworks would be. I was hoping it would be closer in, but the bayou curves a bit to the left before it goes to downtown.

Freedom Over Texas

I have to also mention that this year’s fireworks were kind of sub-par compared to the previous years. There was not a lot of action.
Freedom Over Texas

The grand finale made the problem of the imbalance of light even worse. It was so bright that in order for the fireworks to not look like a bright white flash, the entire downtown would not show up.
Freedom Over Texas

Lessons learned in the quest to take 4th of July fireworks pictures?  Since there are things both out of and within our control, I’ll name them all to guide anybody who wanders here after a google search:

  • Location, Location, Location.  Pick a location that has both an interesting background and a clear view of the fireworks.  This one is within your control if you plan ahead, know about street closures, parking, etc. and you show up early enough.  It also wouldn’t hurt to be rich or have contacts that let you borrow this location.  Don’t pick bridges as they vibrate.
  • Bring water with you.  I can fit one 20 oz bottle of water in my camera bag, but a small cooler would have been better.  For this, having a friend come with you might help.  If this friend or  friend of a friend is not into photography, it would work out even better since they can carry stuff for you and you can bribe them with beer.
  • Bring a tripod.  In the Christmas picture above I was able to get away with not having a tripod because I was under the fireworks and was shooting an ultra wide angle.  For telephoto lenses, you’re SOL.
  • Start the fireworks as soon as the sun sets.  Don’t wait until it’s pitch black.  I’m looking at you honorable mayor of Houston. Start it early!  It’ll help with traffic issues too as people aren’t going to be as drunk on the way back.
  • There is no right or wrong camera setting.  It all depends on how bright your background is, types of fireworks, and how much trails you want to show.  Personally I like shorter exposures because it captures the fireworks as seen but some people like long trails.   Just remember the fireworks is much brighter than you’d expect so unless you’re landholding and absolutely need to use a fast shutter speed, you want to stick to lower ISO’s.

That’s it! Next year I might check out Hermann Park or somewhere else unless I get a better location. Freedom Over Texas (the main fireworks show and concert) in Houston has kind of lost its luster, but of course 4th of July itself is one of my favorite holidays which deserves celebration.

Update 10-20-2014

I’ve noticed that a lot of people are actually landing on this page and since this writing, I have actually taken some decent fireworks photographs.  I have a better camera now which helps me with a couple of stops of dynamic range, but even then, it seems that the above is true about having to find an interesting foreground:

This picture for instance was taken handheld and has a lot of other visually pleasing elements and subjects than just the fireworks – the kid looking at fireworks for the first time, the reflections, etc. I was also close to everything so there is less haze and other distractions.
Uptown Houston Holiday Lighting 2013

Preparing professional fireworksSame here in the same location a year earlier. The fireworks is what gets your foot in the door, but the subject is what makes things interesting because let’s be honest, most of the fireworks looks about the same. They all get the boxes of the stuff from the same warehouses and the same blokes wire them up and hook them up to their panels. See my story of how I got to work with these up close once.   Very few things are original unless you really really get to the high end stuff.
Uptown Park Holiday Lighting

Going back to fireworks, I decided to go to another fireworks show instead of the big one and again, found a nice subject. It’s all about research.
4th of July Celebration at Hermann Park

Finally I came full circle to the big fireworks show and did everything right but it was too late at night, I was too far, and it was once again “someone else’s fault”. 🙂
2014 Freedom Over Texas

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