Remote fireworks photography

Published May 26th, 2012. Filed in: Fireworks Photography Guides

In this article I’ll explain how you can take fireworks photos remotely using your DLSR.

 

Taking remote firework photographs – why?

First things first. Why would you want to take photos remotely when you could just stand behind your camera and manually take them? Well on some occasions there might be reasons why you can’t or don’t want to be behind the camera. Here are some examples:

You’re utilising spare equipment

I’ve been lucky enough over the years to accumulate a few cameras largely because I never throw anything away. But on any given display I can only operate one effectively or at the most two, if I divide my concentration between them (with all the risks that brings with it of producing lower quality work). So it makes sense then to put the spare cameras into action – remotely – on the off-chance they might pick up something good. The question really should be: Why not?

You’re firing the actual display

There are a lot of professional firers in our Fireworks Forum who have DSLRs. However while they are out firing a display so many of their cameras are at home gathering dust. Not surprisingly since it would be impossible to fire a display and take photos at the same time.

Or would it? Why not take your DLSR with you and use it to take some photos remotely? As I’ll explain in this article it doesn’t require a large investment in extra equipment and will only take a few minutes to set up. Imagine the photo below was you firing one of your shows. Wouldn’t this be a wonderful photo to showcase your company or even just to share with friends?

You want to experiment and be creative

When I first started photographing from remote DSLRs I did so on the basis it was spare equipment that might produce the odd good shot. The results however have far exceeded my expectations and at some shows the remote photos have been more interesting than the ones I have taken manually!

A fireworks photograph taken remotely from a completely unattended camera.

This is, in part, down to the huge level of risk-free experimentation you can do. Photos at an angle? Photos looking over the firer’s shoulder? Photos looking mostly at the crowd? Photos with a completely outrageous setting on the camera (like a very short shutter, or a tiny depth of field)? None of these are any problem because if, like me, you’re already occupied with the main DSLR or camcorder then anything else from your other equipment is a bonus. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t matter.

You want to take firework photos from a “dangerous” position

If you want to experiment with photos from very close to the fireworks, say for example between shell racks, you may not be able (or allowed) to stand there and take them. Here a remotely operated DLSR comes into its own, happily sitting there taking shots right in amongst the pyrotechnics.

 

Some unexpected benefits of remotely taken fireworks shots

Because your camera will be set up (on a tripod normally) and left, all the shots will be from exactly the same position and usually with the same settings. This opens up a couple of interesting possibilities in post production.

First, you don’t need to worry about missing key sequences because the camera is taking shots continuously one after the other. If you find some frames have one part of a sequence in and other frames contain other important parts you might think “I wish I had manually taken that shot and kept the shutter open longer”. But this is easily fixed afterwards simply by dragging and dropping the required shots on top of each other in Photoshop as explained in this article. Because all the frames are in exactly the same position they line up perfectly. Not only can you create longer exposures in post production, you can even take frames from any part of the display and merge them. This is especially useful if you want to fill every part of the frame or sky with effects, but those particular fireworks sequences happened at completely different times in the display. Take fountains from the start and merge them in an image with cakes from the middle and big shells from the end; the possibilities are endless.

Second, having a fixed position sequence of shots opens up creative possibilities afterwards such as massively long shutters (complete displays in one photo, as tested out in this article) and even timelapse video sequences.

Multiple images all combined into the equivalent of one very long exposure

Now you’re fired up with some good reasons why you should have a play with remotely taken fireworks shots I’ll run through the options available.

 

Remote shutter release

This is the easiest and the cheapest option. When I say “easiest” I mean you just need to press a button. And when I say “cheapest” how does around £3 sound?

To put it bluntly, no photographer should be without a remote shutter release in their kit bag. It won’t just allow you to take remote photos, it will also allow you to take long exposures without shaking the camera and also to manually operate the shutter in “bulb” mode. But let’s get back to the remote photo aspect…

There’s no reason when buying a remote shutter release to buy the official one from Canon or Nikon (or whatever your camera brand). Let’s be honest these are just a button on a length of cable. But you do need to ensure it has a locking option (to keep the button pressed in) and the more you pay the better quality and slimmer unit you’ll get. I have remote shutter releases in my kit bag ranging from £3 up to the Canon one which at the time of writing is £15 and they all work the same.

The official Canon shutter release. Others are available.

To take remote shots using the shutter release you need to do the following:

  • Set up your camera in the desired position, on a tripod of course!
  • Your focus must be locked on manual. Tip: Focus on something at roughly the same distance as the fireworks in auto focus to get a fix and then switch the lens to manual to keep it there. Never take remote photos on auto focus – no exceptions! Once it gets dark the camera will “hunt” for focus on auto mode and it will totally ruin your shots.
  • Set your camera to manual mode and select an appropriate shutter speed and aperture. If you are unsure have a look at this article and start with 8 seconds shutter and F11 or F13 aperture. I also lock my ISO to 100 and set a manual white balance to daylight (sunlight) – the latter both help to keep your shots consistent.
  • You need to set your camera to take multiple shots (or sequential shots, each camera calls it something different) if the shutter is pressed down and kept down. The default setting is a single shot which is not a lot of use unless you do only want one photo.
  • Connect your remote shutter and do a test shot to make sure it all works.
  • When ready to start, simply lock the remote shutter permanently on. Your camera will now start to take photos continuously; make sure you listen for the shutter firing more than once so you know it’s working correctly. If it does one shot and stops, check the shooting mode is set to “continuous”. Tip: Shortly before the display double check the lens is not misted up.

You might be thinking at this point “Doesn’t that mean you’ll get loads of empty shots before the fireworks start?”. The answer is yes, you do. But don’t worry about this! I often start the remote cameras 10 or even 20 minutes before the fireworks begin so I have time to retire to a safe distance and get my other equipment ready. 10 minutes of 8 second shots is only 75 shots and an 8GB card can hold 1000+ shots. You only need to sit down and work things out in terms of card capacity with short shutter times such as 1 or 2 seconds and if you have to start the camera quite early on. In those cases, a programmable remote (see below) might be a better option.

One thing that did concern me with a continuous sequence of shots was whether the camera would have buffer issues and get ahead of itself. In other words if the constant stream of images writing to the card would be too much to handle.

I can report that I have used a Canon EOS350D (quite an old camera) right through to a 550D with no issues losing images in this way. Still, it might be worth you doing some pre-fireworks checks if you have an older DSLR or a memory card rated with a slow transfer speed. Just set the camera up at home taking continuous shots, leave it for half an hour, then check it is still taking them and writing them out to the card OK.

 

Timed or programmable remote shutter release

These are nice pieces of kit and well worth the extra money over the normal standard shutter cables as described above. I paid around £30 for a good quality one on Ebay but upon checking the prices for this article I see similar ones for even less than this! This compares very well to the £100+ often asked for the official Canon or Nikon ones.

My timed shutter release purchased through Ebay. Works very well.

This type of shutter release does the same action as the basic one (ie. operate the shutter) but has a built in controller. You can set a number of options including:

  • How long to wait before starting to take photos. Useful if the fireworks are due at a set time and you have to leave the area early.
  • How long to keep the shutter open for.
  • How long to wait between each photo.
  • How many photos to take – though I leave mine set to ‘-’ which means it keeps on going!

Set up for this is very similar to the basic shutter release so follow the instructions above. However when it comes to the shutter setting, you may wish to change this. I personally prefer when using this type of remote to set the shutter to “BULB”. This means the camera shutter is totally controlled by the remote. Then, set the required shutter time (such as 8 seconds) on the remote itself. This keeps things simple and ensures all your shots will be in sequence without any clashes in timing between the remote and the camera.

If your remote takes one single photo then stops, check the “Number of photos to take” setting which catches most people out including me! The remote’s manual will specify the setting for unlimited photos, usually ‘-’ or ’9999′.

Where the timed release comes into its own is using it with very short shutter times. With shutter times of say 1 second or less you would probably not want to take continuous shots which could fill your card up quickly but would rather take a shot every few seconds, for example. In practice there are not many firework shoots where this has applied but it is particularly relevant when taking daylight shots for a timelapse.

 

Wireless Remote and programmable shutter releases

Both of the shutter releases above come in wireless flavours too. Here you are not attached to the camera via a cable but instead have a wireless connection extending up to 100m.

I don’t have one of these in my kit bag but prices for a programmable wireless unit which gets good reviews, such as the Hahnel Giga T Pro II, are around £80.

The reason I don’t use one of these for fireworks is because the whole point of the exercise for me is to leave cameras operating remotely. If I have to actually stand there pressing a shutter button, even some distance away, the camera is not being left to its own devices so I can do something else.

Also, if you are going to either lock the shutter down or program the shutter release, why not use the cheaper wired versions and start them before the display? At worst you’ll have a few hundred empty shots before the fireworks but at best you’ll know the camera is working from when you start the shots.

Where I can see these having some use is shots which are not remote in the sense the camera is unattended, but rather remote in the sense you are not physically behind the camera. I’m thinking of very specific sequences in a display, maybe of the firers or audience but only during the very brighter sequences. Or, when you want to remotely take shots on “BULB” and vary the shutter manually each time but don’t want to be near the camera.

Outside of fireworks, wireless shutter releases have lots of application in areas such as wildlife photography.

 

Laptop and camera software via USB

It’s possible to run your DSLR direct from a laptop via the USB connection. You’ll need to check with your supplied manual and software whether your camera supports this but my Canon DSLRs all came with a program on the CD that could do it.

PC controlled cameras are typically used in studios where the photographer wants to instantly review the images being taken on the monitor rather than download them from the camera’s memory card. However the use of manual settings in the software and the timelapse feature also means you can run the camera from a laptop out on a display.

For fireworks I can only think of a few cases where people would want to run the camera from a laptop though. One is where someone just doesn’t want to buy a remote release cable and already has a laptop and the free software supplied with the camera. But this is quite a lot of hassle and extra setting up when you could just spend £3 on a remote release cable.

The other is where you want to do something immediately with the images being taken. At one of Firework Crazy’s review nights for example I wanted to upload each image taken to the UKFR website so in effect creating a high resolution webcam of the event, such as this one:

Here I used a third party camera control application that allowed me to run a batch processing script on each new image, resizing it and uploading via a mobile connection. All quite clever and all quite unnecessary for 99.9% of you doing fireworks photography.

 

Essential equipment

There are a couple of basic requirements for taking these types of photos apart from the equipment detailed above. You should be familiar with these if you’ve taken fireworks shots before. They are:

A tripod. You need to keep your camera steady for any long exposure and certainly for this type of shot. Remotely taken shots don’t require anything special in terms of a tripod and basic £10-£20 ones work fine.

Remote fireworks photography

This fireworks photograph was taken remotely by a DSLR on a basic tripod and using just a cheap wired remote

A DSLR with a physical remote release connection (it’s a socket like a headphone connection). I’ve not come across any modern DSLR without this but it is worth checking first. Note that non-DLSR cameras such as bridge cameras or compacts may not be suitable if they have an infra-red remote instead of a wired one.

On the subject of your DSLR it is also worth checking you have a full manual mode and for the programmable remotes, a bulb setting too. Again, most – if not all – modern DSLRs have this ability and this is usually only in doubt for bridge cameras and particularly compacts.

If you have any DSLR released in the last decade or so and it is a full blown DSLR and not a bridge or compact camera you will almost certainly have the above options and will only require a tripod and the remote release of your choice!

 

A final word

Those are your options for taking remote images. I hope this has whetted your appetite to either take your DSLR along to a display (for you firers) or to utilise any spare equipment you have in your camera bag.

If you have any questions or want to share photos you have taken, be sure to register in our Fireworks Forum. You can also email me although I cannot promise to answer individual enquiries.

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