DSLR Video Assignment #2: Playing With Fire(works)

In honor of the upcoming July 4th, holiday (for those of you in the United States), my homework assignment is to play around with capturing fireworks. You can use the below tips to experiment with your fireworks video.

Tips on How to Shoot Fireworks Videos:

  • Use a tripod.
  • Sure it’s good to have some motion in videos, after all they’re called motion pictures. But motion from a shaky camera is not what we’re after. Handheld and shaky camera movements can lead to blurry footage and can cause motion sick prone people (like me) to become nauseous. The fireworks themselves blasting through the sky are all the motion you need. So lock that camera down to a tripod. Make sure it’s a sturdy tripod though because it could be windy out there.

  • Use manual exposure settings.
  • If you use the auto exposure on your camera, most likely the fireworks will come out overexposed. Auto exposure will have a difficult time capturing fireworks because of the stark contrast between the dark night and the very bright fireworks. It’ll will try to average the exposure of the dark and the bright to get a proper exposure, which unfortunately may mean clipped and blown out fireworks.

  • ISO – Keep it low
  • You might think you’ll need to use a high ISO since you’re shooting at night, an inherently low light environment. But a high ISO introduces noise into your footage. Secondly, you’ll actually want to expose for the fireworks themselves, which are bright bursts of light. If you expose for the night environment, you’ll wind up with overexposed fireworks.

  • Use manual focus settings.
  • If your camera offers continuous auto focus in video mode, I’d suggest turning this feature off when shooting fireworks. Auto focusing in the rapidly changing environment of fireworks may all but be impossible. Instead, set your camera to manual focus, and focusing on infinity should do the trick to get sharp fireworks.

Creative Ideas for Capturing Fireworks:

  • Slow Motion
  • Change your camera settings to film at a high frame rate, so that you can slow the footage down in post. A higher frame rate gives you more information so that when slowed down, there are more frames to play with. For example if you film at 60 frames per second and convert to 24 frames per second there’s plenty of frames to work with. If you try and slow down your footage beyond the information you captured, the frames may be repeated and you’ll end up with jerky footage.

  • Unfocus your DSLR to get a nice bokeh effect.
  • Turn those crisp firework sparks into mesmerizing round spheres of dancing lights just by taking your camera out of focus.

  • Vary the shutter speed.
  • You might like the look of fireworks in a more stuttered motion (faster shutter speed).

  • Reflections
  • Fireworks may often be shot over an expanse of water. Perhaps you’ll be able to see a reflection of the fireworks in the water below? Or maybe you can see the reflection of the fireworks in a window or someone’s eye glasses or even their eyes? Or maybe we can just add that in in post production if we’re truly ambitious. I haven’t tried any of these myself yet so I’m just throwing out ideas.

  • Adjust the White Balance settings.
  • Some videographers suggest setting your camera to daylight white balance to bring out the reds of the fireworks. If you want to cool down the color you can try the tungsten white balance setting. Check out the picture at Firework-Review.org.uk for an excellent example of how the white balance settings affect the firework colors.

  • Vary the focal length/field of view
  • Take some wide angle footage to orient your viewer to where you are. Include some reference points (buildings, boats, foreground) to convey the large magnitude of the fireworks display. Then film some mid shots. For example, film the scene so that all fireworks bursts can be seen in the shot. Then take some close up shots so that a single fireworks burst fills the frame.

  • Capture the audience
  • It’s always a good idea to capture the reactions of others around you who are viewing the fireworks. This can help draw the viewer in emotionally as they watch others ooh and aah at the fireworks display. You can get some great shots of the colored lights of the fireworks reflecting off of people’s faces.

Where I live, we have weekly fireworks displays so in the below video I tested some of the above ideas. However, I could not get reaction shots since I went alone and did not want to be arrested for being a creeper with a huge camera and lens directly pointed at some stranger’s cute little kid. . . Although on a side note, in the United States it is legal to film people without their permission as long as it’s in a public space. Think paparazzi and TMZ. They would cease to exist if it were illegal.

The below video is the result of my attempt at this homework project using a Canon 5D Mark III. I apologize for the blurry footage in the beginning. Remember, I’m just learning as I go and hoping to take you all along for the ride so that you can learn as well:

One final tip: Set it and forget it. At a certain point, just set the camera aside. You can keep recording the show but quit fussing with the camera and just be in the moment instead of worrying about trying to capture it. Life is short so enjoy the fireworks display right before your eyes instead of through the LCD screen. And enjoy your friends and family around you. Have a safe and happy July 4th!

Study Break – Random Fact:

Speaking of life being short. Did you know that when you die you can have your cremated ashes made into a professional fireworks display for your loved ones to watch? One company offering such a service is Angels-Flight Another company, Heavens Above Fireworks also offers self-fired rockets and also offer services for pet ashes as well. Now that is truly going out with a bang!

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