Over hollidays, I didn’t find time to finish A7 vs NEX 7 comparison, but I will jump on it next week. Meanwhile, I went to shot annual fireworks at 1st of January 2014 in Prague.
I thought that sharing my experience and adding few tips and tricks about shooting fireworks with Sony A7r might be a good idea.
As usual, good preparation is crucial for good results. The most important things to consider are location and weather cast.
Choosing right location is not an easy task. First of all, most big fireworks are designed by specialists and artists and choreography is rarely known in advance. Fortunatelly, you can usually find in press or web, from where fireworks will be launched, but you will have to predict the exact height and position of the effects in the air.
Once you got the idea, where the show will happen, there are still few things to consider when it comes to location.
a) Composition – you might want to shot only effects in the air, and that is probably easiest approach. In that case however, you will loose scale and thus the impression of size and glory of the blowing stars. If you decide to add some foreground, background or both, think thoroughly about it, and go visit’em to make test shots from choosen spots in advance. Another possibility is to use internet to find existing captures of the previous event (as many fireworks are repeated on occasion).
b) Space – When you are planning your shooting position, think about other people that will come to watch the show. You will need tripod and thus some space around. If you go where most other people will, you might find it hard to protect your setup from occasional bumping and knocking. That makes your task tougher, because masses usually go where the best view is.
c) Position is not only left/right or forward/backward. For fireworks, most important will be third dimension – lower/higher. That is because it will very much depend on your choosen location. Probably most beautiful effects are when camera is near water surface. You can get amazing reflection that way and richer image as a result. Small ripples on the water will create slightly diffused image which I personnely like most, while calm surface works just as a mirror.
If you however decide to add some background, you will find higher perspective more interesting. People in the forground looks amazing as silhouettes. They will add some drama in the images because of their usually very tense poses.
d) Light pollution. This is very important to think of, before you decide about location. If you choose shooting direction with strong lights in the background, you might face two problems related to the exposure – strong lights at longer exposure will lighten, reducing contrast of the fireworks, and last thing you want from fireworks are pale colors and dimmed highlights. Second issue are light sources themselves. At longer exposures, they will be blown out (brightest parts of images without recorded information) and if they are big or numerous, they will distract viewer attention in the resulting image.
Try to find the place, where background (air) will be toward dark as much as possible.
e) My last advise is related to my own experience…
I spent several days in planning my location and went to it several hours in advance. It was probably best location in the city (well I believe it at least :-)) and I was proud to be first on the spot. Knowing most of my collegues, who were comming slowly after me to pick nearby spots, I kept that selfconfident smile, signmark of a professional who knows he did a good job.
True, I was almost frozen-up and my legs were very heavy, but I simply enjoyed my victory…
30 minutes before the show there were lens on lens and tripod leg on tripod leg behind me, but I didn’t care much, as my spot was a very small tip of the sand creeping into river and none could really push me away. None when it comes to my photo mates, but I didn’t count on officers…
As I said, I was on this location many times before. Few years ago I learned my lesson to come earlier. This year I went there few time to check everything. But for some reason, city counciłors decided to plant grass seeds (in December in the sand !?!) and red stripes tape that we all ignored when approaching the location, shouldn’t been ignored 🙁
Interestingly enough, those who were standing few lines behind and thus had angry face expressions just a while ago, where now implemented those sly smiles which were decorating faces of first liners before.
When officers fired us away, I had no idea where to go, just 30min. before the show…
So my promissed last advice regarding location – be sure to have plan B.
Plan B is also important when it comes to weather. In the case of bad weather – rain, snow, fog, don’t give up. All those conditions are challenges and you should treat them so. Just be sure to protect you and your equipment accordingly and think well of how to use conditions in your favor.
Technique and Equipment:
Exposure – It is important to understand how the exposure works with fireworks… It is similar to flash, just it last longer. In other words – it doesn’t really matter what shutter speed you will set, if it will be long enough to let fire effect to expose itself.
However… there are again few things to consider – The length of exposure (related to selected aperture and ISO of course) will affect the exposure of your background (remember my paragraph about Light Pollution?) including the sky. And sky is kind of the canvas where you want to paint with your colors, so it should stay rather dark. Also part of the backround such as buildings or landscape could be overexposed at extreamly long exposures.
Aperture – fireworks are 3 dimesional effects and the spread of the explosions can be very wide. Therefore you will want to choose smaller exposures to ensure large enough DOF.
ISO – Working at longer exposures makes possible low ISO. I have seen many photographers pushing ISO at 400 or even 800 when shooting fireworks. I never went over ISO 100… Never needed to.
Focusing – try to focus at some distant place above which you expect the main show to happen. Than pull focus plane toward you by just a very little. (if not sure, leave it where it is)
So, while it always depends on the situation, here are my saggested settings:
Mode – M (manual)
RAW (RAW/JPEG if you are JPEG shooter)
WB – 4000-5200K (depend on the citly lights)
Shutter Speed 4s – Bulb
Manual Focus (pre selected)
That is basically all when it comes to settings.
Equipment – I decided to use Sony A7 and A7r. As a main camera I choose A7r. But thanks to the small camera bodies I managed to put them both on my Gitzo 2541 T tripod and Manfrotto studio ball head. On the ball head I mounted one Novoflex macro reail on which I put two Manfrotto clamps – from each side one. Because my macro rail is short and because I needed to adjust both cameras for composition, I mounted A7 directly on the Novoflex clamp and A7r on another small Sirui ball head. So A7r was slightly higher and I was able to first adjust composition for A7 with a main ball head and finally to do the same for A7r with the Sirui head.
There are specialized tripod holders for two or more cameras, but this was my temporary solution.
Planning to be near the water and rather near to the show, (but still not sure about exact place of the show), I decided to go with Leica Vario-Elmar 35-70/4 R lens. Lens is optically really good and is one of my favorites as it works similar to Leica MATE at 35, 50 and 70mm. There are no problems with corner smearing or color casting on A7r so that was my main lens. On A7 I mounted Canon EF 14/2.8 L II USM with Metabones SA III.
I also packed Leica Vario Elmar 80-200/4 R and CV 21/1.8 (but I forgot M mount adapter).
However, when moved by officers from planned location, I was looking for the alternative spot, but my choices were very limited. At the end, I was standing in the crowd, and was lucky to use my A7r with 35-70/4. Everything else remained unpacked. But I learned my lesson – next year there will be plan B.
Right from the beginning I wanted to change lens for 80-200 and go somewhere close to 100mm, but that wasn’t possible in the situation. There is where A7r resolution comes handy and I was able later to crop the files as if longer lens were used, while still keeping reasonable resolution.
One more thing to understand about exposure – Because each firework effect expose itself, by keeping your shutter open, you are actually layering effects… Most of the effects comes in short repetitions, but they usually culminates at different places (mainly hights). This is where all magic starts – you have to experiment with shutter speeds, creating your own unique effects, that noone else will ever see in reality. But if in the sequence, several effects explode at the same place, you might also end with overexposed highlights and your image will be ruined. That’s why I like to play with diferent shutter speeds. Many professionals uses Bulb mode and simply watch the fireworks and accordingly control exposure. I am afraid of forgetting or failing to press shutter on my remote control, so I rather change shutter speeds manually. I used wired remote, because in all those cameras and (useless) flashes around, my infrared controler might fail.
Complete show last 15 min. so I didn’t have time (neither space) to change lenses or composition and thus most of the shots looks the same with just different fireworks effects. But I needed one shot and got over 10 at the end.
Here are 3 of them.
This was original composition at 70mm. I should use longer lens and get closer, but using A7r you actually can crop as much as you can see in the following images, still keeping some 6-8 Mpx for printing. So from a single location and with a single FL, you can make different crops and make those fancy collage images that are to be seen all around those days 🙂
This shot is very similar to the one that I delivered to my client. (He wanted only one, but I can’t publish it) There were more green and it was slightly richer, but this one was my preference anyway, so I am happy with his choice 🙂 This was lucky combination of the selected shutter speed and firework choreography.
Sometimes however, simplier resulting effects makes more impact. In this shorter exposition (in terms of choreography) only two effects were combined and I think that is enough.
Finally – here is little trick for you… I haven’t tried it this time, but if you zoom your lens during exposures (avoiding camera shake of course), you might get some amazing effects.
If you have some additional questions, feel free to ask.
Side note: Originally I wanted to use Zeiss ZE 21/2.8 on A7, but this Metabones adapter does not focus to infinity with neither of my Zeiss ZE lenses. Warning! Do not buy Metabones Adapters if you plan to use them with Zeiss ZE lenses!!! They will most probably not focus to infinity and Metabones will offer you re-adjustment, but you will have to send your adapter back to tehm at your own costs. Even that will be OK, if… My first adapter that I bought from them had the same problem. Instead of sending it back for re-adjustment, I sold it locally and ordered new one, but asked ametabones to double check infinity focus with it. They promissed to do so and sold me second adapter. The adapter that come was much better in that regard, but still wasn’t able to reach infinity at 100% (Zeiss ZE only).
I lived with it, untill suddenly decided to go with their new Metabones SA III for FF camera. I begged them to triple check if it will focus to infinity with Zeiss ZE lenses and as usual they promissed to do so.
But, it doesn’t. Meanwhile ai bought many other adapters from them, and was kind of satisfied with the quality (but Novoflex is much better in that regard).
To sum it up – I spent tremendous 2000 USD for their adapters in the last 2 years and they keep sending me adapters that are not according to their own specification, no matter how many times I ask them to check it. Even the smallest eBayer selling cheap Chineese knock-offs treat its customers better…