This article was originally published on September 15, 2015 and has been updated to include current product information.
Following each of the balloon glow performances at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, you will be treated to a spectacular (and I chose that word carefully, as it is one of the finest displays that I have seen) fireworks display over the northern section of Fiesta Park.
Your lens selection will vary depending where you are in the park when the fireworks begin. If you are near the southern end of the field, you will probably reach for a telephoto lens, like a 70-200mm or 70-300mm, to frame the fireworks without any of the light poles or balloon crews packing away the aircraft. If you are closer to the north end of the field, with a full-frame camera, a wide zoom like a 24-70mm or 24-105mm will again be the lens of choice. For this type of wide coverage with APS-C sensor cameras, anything from a standard 18-55mm (or even better, something like a 15-85mm) will give similar wide results.
Here are some equipment suggestions that you will need to capture the pyrotechnic display:
- Plan on bringing a sturdy tripod that will hold your camera still during what may be an exposure of many seconds. Keep in mind that all tripods are not created equal. The weight of your camera and lens combination will dictate what tripod and head combination that you need to be using. A super small, thin legged tripod may not be rated to hold your EOS 5D series body with an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens.
- You will need a way to release your shutter without touching your camera, so it prevents motion blur and camera shaking. Plan on bringing a cable release or intervalometer to attach to your camera body. A TC-80N3 is used by most of the Canon family of cameras.
- An option for those who do not own a cable release is to use the two-second self-timer to fire the shutter. You can combine the self-timer with a 30 second exposure, along with the hat technique (explained below) to control your exposure length.
Here are my technique and exposure settings:
- I place my camera mode on “B” for Bulb and select an aperture of f/11 or f/16 at ISO 100. I use one of the first bursts as a test to determine which f/stop will work best. I suggest setting your white balance to “Tungsten,” which will show the most brilliant colors of the burst. After I have determined where the burst will take place, I fine tune my composition and get ready to create some beautiful imagery.
- When photographing fireworks displays, one very important tool is a black baseball hat. I use this hat to cover the lens during specific times of the fireworks being launched into the sky.
- Why a baseball hat? Let’s start with the premise that in any photograph, there are good elements and there may be distracting elements that take your viewer’s attention away from the color and beauty you want them to focus on. Such is the case with fireworks.
- I look to remove as many distracting elements from my photographs in the capture stage (as best I can). Some things can be removed in post-production, but that can be time consuming or difficult – better to remove it in-camera!
- When the firework is launched from the ground, it has a bright propellant that will overpower the subtle colors and shape of the burst — I will explain how to avoid having that bright tail in your imagery. This is where the hat comes into play.
- As I watched the aerial mortars being fired, I opened my shutter on the camera while I held the black baseball hat in front of the lens, which effectively acted as a second shutter that I can control at will. Be careful not to touch the camera with your hat, as it will cause the camera to move or create a vibration that will show up as movement in the fireworks image. I watched the propellant trail as the firework climbed high in the sky — and as soon as the burst began, I removed the hat from the front of the lens until the next charge was launched. Then, I replaced the hat in front of the lens until the next burst exploded. I usually collect around 10 bursts on a single frame, all without the white trails. The total time that the shutter stays open can be between 30 seconds to one minute. The use of the hat also prevents any ambient exposure building up and fogging your image.