Painting with sparklers

Published May 6th, 2011. Filed in: Fireworks Photography Guides

Painting pictures with sparklers is great fun. It also teaches you a number of photographic techniques you’ll need to master for shooting firework displays. In fact I’ve always sworn by sparklers over the years as being the best way to get the feel of fireworks and it’s cheap too!

Sparkler writing

No article about sparkler writing would be complete without some sparkler writing saying, er, sparklers!

 

What you’ll need

To make pictures with sparklers you will need to hold the camera shutter open while you “paint” in the frame. A digital SLR is recommended since this will have all the manual controls you need. However some compact cameras also have a manual mode, so even if you don’t have a high spec camera you could still try this. Have a look on your camera for a manual setting (usually “M” on the dial) where you can control the shutter and aperture. The camera must also have a manual focus mode.

A tripod is essential. Your camera must remain completely stationary during each shot. You cannot do this type of photography hand held.

All of the photos in this article were taken using the following equipment:

  • Canon EOS500D digital SLR
  • Standard 28-55mm lens
  • Tripod
  • Remote release cable for the shutter
  • Coloured and gold sparklers plus something to light them with
  • Some willing and able assistants wearing gloves
  • Lots of coffee and some ginger Hob Nobs (optional but recommended)

 

Setting up your camera

The beauty of digital photography is that you can experiment with different settings until you find something that works for you. Here are my suggestions to get you started:

Shutter speed

If you are using an SLR the best shutter speed to use is “bulb”. This means you can manually open and close the shutter and makes this type of photo so much easier. I would only recommend using this if you have a remote release cable however, otherwise you can get camera shake when you press and release the shutter button on the camera body.

If you have neither a bulb setting or a manual (or remote) shutter release then use a shutter speed that will give you enough time to paint your pictures. In my experience this is at least 8 seconds – ideally more.

If you don’t have a remote release cable and are using fixed shutter speeds, try using your self timer too. This means you’ll get a good 10 seconds before the shot starts. Plenty of time for any camera shake to settle and for you to get into place – especially if shooting on your own.

Aperture

This is how wide open the aperture is when you take the shot. For most firework shots I use a narrow aperture of around F13. For sparklers I like to have the people show up along with some of the lawn and garden. So for this type of shot I usually open the shutter right up as far as it will go – in the case of these images it was F3.5, the widest this lens would go.

ISO

This setting determines how sensitive to light the camera sensor is. However a more sensitive sensor means a lot more noise in the shot, especially for long exposures.

You don’t have to set the ISO but I find it’s best to otherwise the camera might use a different setting in each shot. On automatic mode it might also see the dark frame and freak out a bit, pushing your ISO right up to make it more sensitive to light.

For these shots I used an ISO setting of 100. This ensured virtually noise free images.

Focus

This often catches out inexperienced photographers! Focus must be set on manual. This stops the camera “hunting” when it sees a dark frame and doesn’t know what to focus on.

With SLRs your lens will normally have a switch to flick over to manual mode. I usually focus on something the same distance away as the sparklers in automatic mode and then when it has locked on,  switch to manual to keep it there. You can also light up the subject with a torch and focus on that, or set your focus during the evening when it is still light.

With compact cameras it can be a little more tricky as many of them have retractable lenses and the camera can power down between shots meaning you lose your setting. Every camera is different so consult your manual.

However you do it, focus must be set to manual and at the right distance to make the photos sharp.

White balance

As with ISO you can leave this on automatic if you’re just starting out. But if you want to ensure the colours are consistent between each shot, set it manually. I used the “outdoor” setting for these photos. You can read more about this setting in the White Balance and Fireworks article.

Flash

This should be turned off.

 

Taking your first shots

Start with something simple such as shapes. Do a quick rehearsal before lighting the sparklers. Then open the shutter and away you go. If you’re doing this with children please do take a moment to read the sparkler safety article first.

Making shapes with sparklers

Some simple shapes to start with using green, red and gold sparklers

You can see in the images above how the sparkler trails paint on the photo. If it’s really dark there isn’t really a limit to how long you can keep the shutter open for.

Once you’ve done the basics you can have fun with all manner of shapes.

Drawing with sparklers

A teddy bear!

 

Writing words

This is great fun especially with kids because you can write your own messages to people. This does take a little trial and error though. For these shots the UKFR Sparkler Operatives used a couple of different techniques, pick one that’s best for you:

Face the camera and just write: The easiest way however the image will appear backwards in the final shot. Simple to fix however as nearly all photographic software has an option to “flip horizontally” to make it the right way around for the writing.

Writing with sparklers

Some very wobbly attempts at writing with sparklers

Face away from the camera and write: Here the writing is the right way around as the camera sees it. It’s a little more tricky though because you have to make sure at no point does your body block the camera’s view of the sparkler. If it does, you’ll get gaps in your writing.

Face the camera and write backwards: This is the hardest. Doing it this way means the writing is again the right way as the camera sees it, but you have to write backwards. Tricky but a great deal of fun.

 

Multiple shapes

If you want to have a picture with multiple (and separated) segments, you need to get a little more creative. We found two good ways of doing this while making this article.

The first is to take the whole shot in one go and use a wooden board to shield the sparkler from the camera while you move it around the frame.

Pac Man in sparklers

All one shot with the sparkler hidden between each segment

The second way is to take different shots, each with its own part, and combine these afterwards on the computer. I’ll cover that a little later in this article.

 

Getting creative

After covering the basics for this article it was time to get a little more artistic. In this first shot the assistant stood very still while wings were drawn behind her. Lastly, the sparkler was put in her hand so the light from this lit her face up (which would otherwise have been dark).

Drawing angels with sparklers

Drawing angels with sparklers

In the next shot the senior UKFR Sparkler Operative suggested a naked nymph and duly volunteered! Here, I started with a halo before blocking the sparkler view with some wood so I could move the sparkler behind her without leaving a trail. From there I drew wings before putting the sparkler in her hand to light up her face (for around 5 seconds).

A naked nymph

It has to be said sometimes I think I have the best job in the world!

As you can see from these shots you can have so much fun trying all manner of images.

 

Combining images afterwards

Providing your camera stayed still on the tripod you can combine a sequence of shots into one afterwards on the PC. This can make some kinds of shots easier particularly if you want to change sparklers between each shot.

In Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements) open each of your images that you want to combine. Pick one to use as the base image – it doesn’t matter which one. Now drag the other images on top one by one. Make sure you hold the shift key down while clicking and dragging, since this tells Photoshop to place each image exactly in the middle of the frame.

Your image will end up at this point simply showing the last photo you dragged into the frame. Select this layer in the layers window and change the mode from “normal” to “screen”. As if by magic, the image underneath will now show and be combined with this one. Repeat this with each layer. Depending on the amount of light in each shot you may get better results with different modes than “screen” so experiment however this technique only works with mostly dark frames as shown below.

Painting with sparklers

Combining three images into one in Photoshop

 

Conclusion: What you have just learned

You may not realise it yet but creating this type of image has taught you some key techniques for photographing any kind of firework display:

  • Setting your focus and keeping it locked there in manual
  • Manually using the shutter to let the fireworks paint a picture
  • Getting used to using very long shutter times
  • Using the camera on a tripod

The image combining technique shown above can also come in useful for fireworks displays. Let’s say you’ve taken three shots in a row. The first one has some good ground action, the second some medium height action and the last some very high shells. On their own each shot is OK but nothing special and you think if only you’d kept the shutter open for longer to get all three sequences into one shot. Well now you can combine them in Photoshop. The effect is exactly the same result as if you’d had one long exposure. Try it!

I’d like to say a big thanks to my three assistants for this article who, due to the nakedness in one of the shots, have asked to remain anonymous.

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