Photography by Chance

Posted by on August 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm.

Everyone preps for 12×12 differently, but have you ever considered not prepping at all? Here’s Valerie McTavish‘s take on how she would run the 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon

Get the perfect shot. In one hour. And then do it eleven more times. It can be daunting to receive a clue and then come up with a plan for that quintessential shot. So, why not throw the plan out the window and leave that shot to chance.

Here’s the deal. When you get an idea in your head, you become focused on that concept. You might run out to the spot where you think you can get the shot. You might spend some time walking around the shot or you might spend a whole bunch of time setting up the shot, getting the lighting just right. And while it might be a great looking photo full of witty irony or whatever you were going for, it might be missing something; magic.

If you look back at images captured during the last two 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathons – guaranteed the ones that will stand out are the ones that make you say, “wow, how’d they get that?” These shots are not staged. They are not pre-planned, they just happened. The one that comes to mind for me was from Aaron MacFarlane for the theme ‘Tie’ that captured a car and a person crossing a line on the road at exactly the same time. It’s perfectly serendipitous – I’d be surprised if that was staged. I find captured moments in many of the shots taken in last year’s marathon by Best Series runner-up Robert Fougere. And while I might not use the word ‘magic’ to describe his image of a dog doing his business, I have to say it was a clever and unexpected way to represent the theme ‘My Entry Number.’

Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to leave things up to chance. Maybe you’re afraid that you might not complete the task in the time allotted or that the shot might not be perfect if you don’t have a plan. As one of the creators of Zufall (a tool that leaves adventure and travel to chance), I can assure you, something always comes up. The trick is to focus on the process or the journey, not on the end result. Be present in the moment, keep your eyes open and really look for that perfect picture to present itself. If you let go of the expectation of what that picture might look like and really focus on the theme, you’ll be amazed at the many creative ways that you can find the theme in the world around you.

Make no mistake, the marathon will still be a challenge, but if you throw away the plan and spend the day being aware of the beauty around you, you’ll be sure to not only have fun but get amazing shots that will make people wonder how you captured the magic. Happy Marathoning!

Valerie McTavish may not know where she’s going, but she always has fun getting there. One of the creators of the Zufall Adventures by Chance dice and the new mobile phone app (developed by Phil Wu, a 3-time 12×12 marathoner), she’s spent the last ten years finding adventure at the will of the dice.

You can follow her spontaneous randomness on twitter at @ZufallAdventure or read about her travels on the Zublog.

Six by Syx: Tip #6 Think of EVERYthing

Posted by on August 5, 2011 at 11:32 am.

To help prepare you for the marathon, Vancouver Photo Workshops instructor and 2011 12×12 judge Syx Langemann offers up a 6-part series of tips and tricks to get you through Saturday August 6th.

SO…
Your camera is clean
Your bags are packed
You’ve read over the tips one last time (seriously, go read them over – they are fun and informative!)
You’re ready for this marathon
SO…what are you forgetting?

6. THINK OF EVERYTHING

Start with your camera bag. This is essential for the day. Make sure you have things like:

  • Your camera
  • Your lenses
  • Your flash
  • Your reflector
  • Maybe a light meter (if you don’t trust the one in your camera). Maybe pack a grey card to help with exposure
  • I’m not usually without my iPhone, and that is an assistant that is always needed. There is a ton of reference and help out there, much like this blog; you just need to search it out. Also for the meter and the grey card, there’s an app for that
  • Tripod – no app will replace that

Now that you are packed, unpacked and repacked. Take out all unnecessary items that will weigh you down as the 12 hour day drags on. Try to pack light, but not too light; you don’t want to leave anything important behind.

Plastic bags, oh yeah, don’t forget those. They are great for protecting your camera from the expected intermittent rain showers in Vancouver. Even in August…you never know. They are also great if you find yourself in a sketchy place where you need to kneel down or lay your shoulder on the ground. Sometimes great photographs come from different angles. Think outside of the box and think ahead.

Once you’ve packed your camera gear, then it’s time to think about yourself. This is where you need to concentrate. Seriously, for some of you (Morten), not having your morning coffee will ruin a day, so plan accordingly.

  • Shoes – your feet are going to be doing a lot of walking, make sure you have comfortable footwear. I’m not sure that flip-flops qualify, no matter how hot it is
  • Hat – protect yourself from the sun and the heat
  • Sunscreen – because summer finally arrived!
  • Dress in layers – there is a chance of it cooling down into the evening. You will be tired and hungry, don’t add cold to the mix
  • Music / audio book – it’s gonna be a long long day, you might as well be in your own little world. This is one of those things that is easily left behind, and it can really change your shooting mood!
  • Food / snacks / water – last time I checked, we all needed these to survive. Make sure you have $ in you pocket and plan your feedings. It’s a proven fact that hunger is the cause stupidity*. You’ll need to stay sharp if you plan on winning. This year, the organizers have set up the home base at Urban Rush Cafe which offers breakfast, lunch and dinner options in addition to the usual coffee shop fare so that you can concentrate on your shots and not where to get some grub. Check in often to fuel up and chat with everyone. You might just get your brilliant idea for the perfect shot after a creative pow-wow with your fellow marathoners

Above all, you all will most definitely need to bring:

  • A sense of humour
  • A sense of adventure
  • A sense of direction. Don’t get lost – there’s an app for that

The themes are released every hour on the hour. Don’t miss a theme. Don’t miss a frame. Don’t shoot out of order.

I wish you all the best of luck tomorrow, and I look forward to seeing all the images with the other judges!

*Not proven by anyone that I can reference online, but I know that at some point in my life my mother told me this was fact. “Come in from playing and eat, you stupid kids,” she’d say.

We hope you’ve enjoyed Six by Syx: 6 Essential 12×12 Survival Tips. If you have a question or comment, leave us a note below!

Known for his Classically Twisted Nudes that push the viewer to discover new views of beauty, Syx Langemann has been photographing his own unique world since 1993 and can be found at Vancouver Photo Workshops teaching students how to capture theirs.

Syx is also one of the judges of the 2011 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon.

Six by Syx: Tip #5 Tripods, Low Light Shooting & Fun with Your Flash

Posted by on August 3, 2011 at 1:34 pm.

To help prepare you for the marathon, Vancouver Photo Workshops instructor and 2011 12×12 judge Syx Langemann offers up a 6-part series of tips and tricks to get you through Saturday August 6th.

This year, you will be faced with a later start time; therefore a later end time. As the sun goes down on the marathon, the doors open up to 2 hours of later shooting than the previous 12×12 cycles, and the fact is, you need to know how to handle less light to avoid blowing your other 10 exposures.

5. TRIPODS, LOW LIGHT SHOOTING & FUN WITH YOUR FLASH

During this year’s 12×12, you’ll be using 400 ISO film and this is locked in. Unlike DSLRs, if you are in need of exposure, ISO is not an option unless you change your film. Therefore, this is not an option to you. There are only two other tools available to you in order to ‘get light.’

1. APERTURE – and again, these values are functions of the lens. If you have a lens in your arsenal that opens up to 1.8 or better yet 1.4, this will offer you hand-held shooting options in lower light levels.

2. SHUTTER SPEED – the longer the duration of the exposure, the more exposure you will get, therefore the brighter the final image. If you are not able to gain light via the aperture of the lens, then you may need to slow the shutter speed down. The slower the shutter, the more chance there is for nasty camera shake to ruin your picture. Now, considering you’ll all be hanging out in a coffee shop all day long during the marathon, steady hands will not be on your side. The general rule of thumb to avoid camera shake while hand holding: 1/focal length of the lens (i.e. 1/100 for a 100mm, 1/50 for a 50mm). It is also suggested that you never dip below 1/30th of a second. Anything slower than this and camera shake is a guarantee.

If you have reached your limit in both of these areas, then there are a few tools that you may need to pack to help you out. One is a TRIPOD. Long exposures are reasonably easy to achieve with the aid of a tripod. We need to steady the camera so that it can shoot for longer periods than we can hand hold. Calculating the actual exposure values may seem a bit difficult, as the meter will not help when you are shooting in bulb mode. Click here for an online calculator that can help you to predict some of your exposure values.

You can get great effects just by using a longer shutter speed and a tripod. There are a lot of moving lights and people downtown. Don’t forget, the 12×12 falls on the finale of the Celebration of Lights. Point your camera toward moving traffic through the legs of pedestrians. Watch the lights around you and think about how they move. Thinking of your frame in terms of ‘seconds’ and not fractions of a second requires a different creative process. Think about how movement of things will be recorded by the camera, how the moving lights will draw lines in your frame. If this is the type of low light shooting you do, then consider how these lines affect your composition and the reading of your image.

You can also set you camera for a long shutter speed, 30 sec, a higher aperture, and run around with a flash light and create photos like the one that you see on the far left.

Go against the grain, hold the camera to intentionally give your photographs movement. This concept can be fun on its own, but can also be the foundation for another great low light technique. Move your camera and paint with the existing lights.

SLOW SHUTTER SYNC or SHUTTER DRAG is an effect that I really enjoy in my own photos. Mixing a flash with a slower shutter, allowing the ambient light to balance the exposure creates more pleasing low-light photographs. In fact, if you find yourself shooting inside anytime throughout the day, this tip may also apply to these situations. This technique requires some understanding of how to handle your specific flash. In fact, the more you know about your flash the better. FLASH EXPOSURE COMPENSATION is also useful, but its a bit beyond this blog entry.

During a shutter drag, the burst of light from the flash will freeze the motion of the subject it illuminates while the ambient light in the background of the image reveals the movement of the camera. This has a nice effect and is a great low light technique.

Have a question or comment? Leave us a note below.
I hope that one or more of this week’s tips will help you in the low-light portion of the 12×12. Stay tuned for the final tip this Friday!

Known for his Classically Twisted Nudes that push the viewer to discover new views of beauty, Syx Langemann has been photographing his own unique world since 1993 and can be found at Vancouver Photo Workshops teaching students how to capture theirs.

Syx is also one of the judges of the 2011 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon.

Six by Syx: Tip #4 Exposure Compensation, Fill Flash & ND Filters

Posted by on July 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm.

To help prepare you for the marathon, Vancouver Photo Workshops instructor and 2011 12×12 judge Syx Langemann offers up a 6-part series of tips and tricks to get you through Saturday August 6th.

Coming to a ‘correct’ exposure may not always be easy. However, if you follow last week’s tip, then you should at least end up with a photo. It may not be the prettiest photo you’ve ever created, but it’ll be something.

Creating a final photograph that is similar to what you envision in your mind’s eye is dependent on your exposure values. Finalizing these values requires an understanding of how these numbers effect your exposure, as well as how they affect the artistic properties of the photo.

In fact, we need to know them well enough to bully and push them around to get what we want via the exposure compensation button, and if that falls short, we may need a little extra help.

4. EXPOSURE COMPENSATION, FILL FLASH AND NEUTRAL DENSITY FILTERS

Film has a bit more latitude than our digital sensors. Therefore, having an exposure that is slightly on the ‘+’ side of ‘0’ or neutral isn’t bad. It essentially burns more information into the film. Some cameras may have an EXPOSURE COMPENSATION button, some don’t. If a button does exists, then you are able to lock in + or – values that apply to your meter and affect the exposure level of your photograph. Riding the line and/or slightly pushing your exposure can yield some great detail in your prints.

No matter how much exposure compensation or corrections we try to make in the camera, we cannot fix for the contrast in a scene without help from some form of bounce or an artificial light source. Essentially we need to fill in some of the shadows to reduce the contrast of the scene. This is known as FILL FLASH. Due to the great number of different camera types and flash types that are being used during this marathon, it is difficult to address any one specific system. However, the concept is the same from point-and-shoot to SLR. If the flash is attached to the camera and as long as it reads TTL -Through The Lens (thyristor flashes will also work), then the flash will emit only the intensity of light that the camera is asking for. Basically a TTL flash will output power based upon the camera Aperture setting. So popping my flash up will give me less contrast by filling in the darker area of the exposure. For more advanced flashes and cameras, you may also have a Flash Compensation Button that will decrease the flash by a few stops in order to leave some of the character of the shadow in the photograph.

If we decide to use flashes then we’ll have to understand a little about sync speeds. Sync speeds refer to the maximum shutter speed that you can use your camera when also using a flash. Most cameras drop the shutter speed to 1/200th of a second or so. Some sync at 1/60th of a second. These sync speeds are going to be a limiting factor when calculating exposure while using a flash. If you make the decision to use a flash to fill in the shadows of a scene, you need to be aware that the shift of your shutter speed may cause gross over-exposure. With the shutter speed slowing to allow for the flash to occur, the ambient light – bright sunlight, burns out the photograph.

A higher aperture would need to be used to balance this movement out, which then calls into question the power of your flash and the distance of your subject. Basically, things get quite a bit more difficult throwing your flash up on bright sunny days if you want to use lower aperture values or your subject is too far away.

This brings us to the last part of this tip which is NEUTRAL DENSITY FILTERS. These are filters that can be purchased to ‘subtract’ the amount of light entering the camera. The filters can be purchased in different increments from -1 stop to -10 stops. The use of these can help you control the bright sun coming into your camera, which in turn can offer you wider apertures for shallower DOF or longer shutter speeds to capture movement.

This week’s 3-part tip involves shooting in bright sunlight and some of the problems that we might face. Next week we’ll deal with low light and fun flash tricks.

Have a question or comment? Leave us a note below.
Click back next week when Syx shares Tip #5 & 6, the final tips before marathon day!!!

Known for his Classically Twisted Nudes that push the viewer to discover new views of beauty, Syx Langemann has been photographing his own unique world since 1993 and can be found at Vancouver Photo Workshops teaching students how to capture theirs.

Syx is also one of the judges of the 2011 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon.

Six by Syx: Tip #3 Exposure 101

Posted by on July 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm.

To help prepare you for the marathon, Vancouver Photo Workshops instructor and 2011 12×12 judge Syx Langemann offers up a 6-part series of tips and tricks to get you through Saturday August 6th.

This is the third in our series, and this week we are going to talk about exposure. Exposure is the foundation from which any great photograph is constructed.

Once we have locked in the ISO of the film that we are using, the only two exposure tools available to us are the Aperture and the Shutter Speed. Let’s chat a little about each tool.

3. EXPOSURE 101

APERTURE refers to the size of the opening inside the lens. It controls the intensity of light that enters the camera. Technically, we can use this to help control the exposure values. By using a smaller hole in the lens we will need a longer shutter speed; the larger the hole in the lens, the shorter the shutter speed we need. Creatively speaking, aperture controls our Depth of Field. Depth of Field (DOF), relates to how much of the image is in focus from foreground to background. The lower the F-number, the larger the hole in the lens, therefore the shallower the DOF.

SHUTTER SPEED refers to how quickly the curtains open and close – how long the film is exposed to light. Based upon the ISO, the aperture and shutter speed are balanced to make a correct exposure. Shutter speed creatively controls motion in our picture. If the shutter speed moves fast it can stop motion, but this will require the correct aperture value to make a correct exposure. If the shutter moves slowly, the aperture can be ‘closed down’ (the F-number moved up) to correct the exposure.

When you are shooting your camera on a Program or Automatic mode, the camera is basing the exposure on the reflected light in the scene. It comes to the ‘best’ exposure value based upon an average grey to ensure the photograph is not over or under-exposed.

Our job is to balance the aperture and the shutter speed to get the picture we want, both in exposure value and in creative outcome. As long as we balance the numbers so that we can see a ‘0’ or ‘neutral’ exposure within the viewfinder, then we should have the correct exposure. However, we need to be aware of the combination of numbers that we are using to ensure that our photos are creatively successful. Again remember that a correct exposure is based upon an 18% grey. So as long as your scene contains both light and dark values, the camera should be judging the scene correctly. Look for this in your view finder:

By adjusting the aperture and the shutter speed, we will eventually come to a middle ground where the exposure should be correct.

So try this (you don’t even need to shoot the camera): Just move the camera around a scene from dark tones to light tones and watch your meter move. Then try to balance out the aperture and the shutter speed numbers so that the meter in your view finder is at ‘0.’ Then mentally trip your shutter. That should be a correctly exposed photograph.

Next time we will discuss a more advanced way of thinking about your exposure, but practice up, cause Tip #4 requires complete understanding of this one. See you next week.

Have a question or comment? Leave us a note below.
Click back next week when Syx shares Tip #4. You won’t wanna miss it! 

Known for his Classically Twisted Nudes that push the viewer to discover new views of beauty, Syx Langemann has been photographing his own unique world since 1993 and can be found at Vancouver Photo Workshops teaching students how to capture theirs.

Syx is also one of the judges of the 2011 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon.

Six by Syx: Tip #2 Load It and Leave It

Posted by on July 13, 2011 at 12:34 pm.

To help prepare you for the marathon, Vancouver Photo Workshops instructor and 2011 12×12 judge Syx Langemann offers up a 6-part series of tips and tricks to get you through Saturday August 6th.

Welcome to the second tip installment of Six by Syx. I assume since last week you’ve all checked your batteries and/or gone and bought some new ones, so now let’s take the next logical step.

With DSLRs, workflow is different than with film. We charge the battery, empty the card, put it back into the camera and away we go. We know that the camera will be shooting to the card as long as there’s room on it. There’s no way for the card to be inserted into the camera incorrectly. However, with film this isn’t the case. Loading the film incorrectly will cause you to miss the ‘lead’ and result in a roll full of black frames, essentially a whole un-exposed roll of film. Loading the film properly is paramount to you having any pictures at all.

Once the film is loaded properly into the camera we need to tell the camera what ISO that roll of film is so that the meter reads correctly. In the film world you cannot change your ISO from shot to shot. Once your film is loaded, you are locked at that ISO for the whole roll of film. The only exposure tools available to you would be your Aperture and your Shutter Speed. So this tip is:

2. LOAD IT AND LEAVE IT

When you open the back of your film camera, your unexposed roll of film is usually loaded on the left side with the uptake spool on the right. Usually there is a little coloured line or mark of some kind to let you know how far you should pull the lead or ‘tail’ of the film and where is should be placed. Some cameras want you to manually feed the lead into the spool; other more automatic style SLRs will complete this process by itself given that you have placed the lead of the film in the correct spot.

Unfortunately there is no visual confirmation that your film is loaded properly unless you are actually loading it manually and you can see that it’s done correctly. You need to be careful and maybe even load in a test roll or two to make sure that you are doing it properly. We have a few weeks yet until the 12×12, so why not put a few rolls through the old camera. Test things out. Practice.

HINT HINT – you will be shooting Kodak Ultramax ISO 400 speed film. You may even be able to practice with the same film!

Have a question or comment? Leave us a note below.
Click back next week when Syx shares Tip #3. It’s gonna be a good one! 

Known for his Classically Twisted Nudes that push the viewer to discover new views of beauty, Syx Langemann has been photographing his own unique world since 1993 and can be found at Vancouver Photo Workshops teaching students how to capture theirs.

Syx is also one of the judges of the 2011 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon.

Six by Syx: Tip #1 Check Your Battery

Posted by on July 6, 2011 at 2:20 pm.

To kick off the one month countdown to this year’s cycle and to help prepare you for the marathon, Vancouver Photo Workshops instructor and 2011 12×12 judge Syx Langemann offers up a 6-part series of tips and tricks to get you through Saturday August 6th.

So you’re excited. You’re dusting off the old film camera, cleaning the lenses and packing your bag with the essentials you’ll need to compete in this year’s 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon (#12x12yvr for all the geek folks). Then consider this series of posts your film photo check list.

This will be a series of tips & tricks you’ll need to shoot your 12 exposure roll of film with confidence and not end up with 12 blank frames that will put your philosophy degree to work trying to convince the judges that it was a conceptual decision.

So first let’s start off with something very basic. Seriously, so basic that you’re going to read this and say…”That’s not a tip.” But if you don’t start here, you’ll be stopped short of completing anything.

1. CHECK YOUR BATTERY

The last thing you want to do is start a hike on a hot day without water, and this is just as important for your camera.

Let’s be honest, most of us haven’t been shooting film that much since the last 12×12. In fact, some of us may be shooting this camera for the first time in order just to compete in the competition. Either way, batteries lose their charge even when they are not being used. Batteries can lose their charge on the shelf, that’s why they have ‘best before dates’ on them.

The battery in the camera will allow you to turn the camera on, it will assist the shutter & mirror, and if you have a motor drive or a display of any sort, the battery will be used to power these.

You need these in order to shoot, so please check you battery. Maybe even treat your camera to a fresh new battery to ensure that things are working properly.

Have a question or comment? Leave us a note below.
Click back next week when Syx shares Tip #2! 

Known for his Classically Twisted Nudes that push the viewer to discover new views of beauty, Syx Langemann has been photographing his own unique world since 1993 and can be found at Vancouver Photo Workshops teaching students how to capture theirs.

Syx is also one of the judges of the 2011 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon.

Tips for Taking Better Fireworks Photos

Posted by on July 22, 2010 at 10:00 am.

Last night, the annual fireworks extravaganza known as the Celebration of Light kicked off in Vancouver. The show – amazing fireworks displays choreographed to music – is a true spectacle and offers up a great opportunity for some amazing shots…if you know how to set your camera that is. Even pros can get this very wrong but believe it or not, even a cheap point-and-shoot can catch a magical moment. The sparkle is in the details.

To help snap-happy Vancouverites capture some of the glory for their computer screens and walls, the 12×12 friends at CBC Radio One’s On The Coast called me for some tips and tricks. You can hear the full interview right on their website but here is a more comprehensive rundown of how to capture those transient sculptures of light for posterity.

The 6 Rules of Fireworks Photography

Getting great shots of fireworks, whether they be the massive constellations created during the Celebration of Light or a simple sparkler, requires some basic understanding of your camera along with some basic planning. In short, it can be boiled down to a 6-point list:

  1. Long Exposure
  2. Slow-to-Medium Aperture
  3. Stable Surface
  4. Low ISO
  5. High Image Quality
  6. No Flash

1. Long Exposure

The human body is an amazing machine. One of the things it is incredibly good at doing is merging images. As a result, when we watch fireworks we see wonderful streamers and ribbons of light. But when we snap a picture of fireworks, we are faced with the grim reality: They are rarely actual streamers of light. For the most part, they are simple points of light that move through the air. And with a short shutter time, the camera only picks up a fraction of a second, leaving all these points of light hanging in the air disconnected from each other.

To capture the true beauty of fireworks, you need a longer exposure time: 2 – 4 seconds is usually a good setting. That’s easy enough if you have an SLR camera, but what if you only have a cheap point-and-shoot with no shutter settings? The answer is simple: Trick the camera. There are many ways of doing this, and they depend on the camera. If your camera has a fireworks setting you’re good to go. If not, you need to set it to either a “night” setting with no flash or a “party” setting with no flash. By omitting the flash, you force the camera to leave the shutter open longer and that means you get  more movement in the light.

2. Slow-to-Medium Aperture

You may think you need a fast lens to take good fireworks photos, but the reality is you need a medium-to-slow aperture to get the good shots, especially if you are taking them from far away. An f-stop of between 8 and 16 will work best because it will give you a deep focus plane and produce clearer photos all around. Unless you are doing extreme close-ups like the sparkler at the top of this article, bokeh (shallow depth of field) should be avoided at any cost. Focusing on fireworks is pretty much impossible, especially with a point-and-shoot. A fast lens (aperture numbers lower than f4) pretty much guarantees blurry photos you’ll hate.

3. Stable Surface

The third rule comes as a result of the first: With longer exposure times you need a stable surface, otherwise everything will get awfully blurry. A photography teacher once told me no one can really hold a camera steady for more than a quarter of a second (1 / 15). This can be improved somewhat with optical image stabilization but even then you are pushing it with an exposure longer than half a second. In short, you need to put your camera on something.

The optimal solution for a stable surface is of course a tripod, but that’s not necessarily something you have lying around or something you want to drag with you to a fireworks show. Fortunately, there are many other options. In lieu of a proper tripod, any solid stable surface may do the job just fine. A table, a fence post, a tree branch, the hood of a car…as long as it is stationary and your camera can balance on it, you can use it.

You can also experiment with some stable body support: Your head for instance, is far more stable than your hands so simply looking through the viewfinder and holding the camera against your face will result in far less shaky photos. You can add to this stability by leaning your dominant arm against something stable like a fence, a car, a tree or a lamp post. It’s surprising how effective this is.

The bottom line is the longer your shutter is open, the more stable your surface needs to be. Experiment and see what works best.

4. Low ISO

ISO is a number that signifies the light sensitivity of your camera. The higher the number, the more light sensitive the camera becomes. But with light sensitivity comes film grain, or its evil digital sibling noise.

Back when film was the norm, we had to pick an ISO value in the store. With digital cameras you can usually set the ISO value yourself. That also goes for point-and-shoots, though you may have to search a bit or even crack out the manual to find the setting. Most point-and-shoots are set to Auto ISO by default. This is the worst possible setting for fireworks photography. With the flash turned off, the camera will panic, raise the ISO value to its highest point and in many cases, it will even add “exposure compensation” to further ramp up the ISO. As a result, your photo may end up being noisier than the actual fireworks.

The general rule for fireworks photography is to set the ISO to 100. It’s a very low number (for reference the “standard” ISO value in film is 200) but it produces very little noise and very clear photos. At the same time, it forces your camera to create longer exposures.

5. High Image Quality

A photo is only as good as its image quality. Fortunately digital cameras, even the really cheap ones, now produce very high quality photos…as long as they are told to. For unbeknownst reasons, many cameras have a default setting that is not the best quality possible, and a lot of people roll the quality back as well.

When you take photos of fireworks, you should always set the image quality as high as possible. There are two reasons for this: First off, you will want to zoom in on the image later on (fireworks look amazing up close) and secondly, you should frame your images quite wide when shooting fireworks so you will more than likely do some cropping afterwards. The higher the quality, the more cropping you can do without losing resolution in the process.

6. No Flash

I worked as a photo developer and retoucher for 3 years while in university. More than anything, I walked away with one observation: On-camera flashes were invented by someone who really hates people. The number two photo problem (after cropping people’s heads or legs off) was incorrect use of the flash. The best example of this is clearly visible when you go to large sporting events or concerts. Every time you see a flash go off you can rest assured that photo is going to look terrible. Why? Because an on-camera flash is meant to illuminate objects no more than 3 meters away from the camera. In other words, if you take a photo of something far away using a flash, the camera will assume the object is properly lit and expose it accordingly. As a result, you get a horribly underexposed photo with washed-out colours and some really bright objects in the foreground.

Think of it this way: When taking photos of fireworks, you are taking photos of light, not illuminating the subject. So turn the flash off. As a bonus, this will also force the shutter speed up and give you longer exposures.

Bonus: Landscape Mode

As mentioned in point 2, focus is a challenge, especially with a point-and-shoot. Auto-focus will not work in this type of low-light environment and leaving it on may result in blurry photos or a camera that refuses to even take a picture at all. To circumvent this issue, try setting your camera to Landscape Mode. This will set the focus to infinity, which works well for any object farther away than 8 meters and the camera won’t bug you with flashing focus lights.

Other Tips and Tricks

  • Get to the location early. Chances are there are some serious photographers out and they will stake out the best spots. Tag along and get the best view.
  • Stand up-wind. Fireworks use black powder, and black powder makes a lot of thick white smoke. Standing up-wind means the smoke will blow away from you and cause fewer problems with smoky photos.
  • Take a lot of photos. It’s hard to guess when a particularly dazzling firework will go off, and if you see one and then click the shutter release, you’ll only get the tail end of it. Shooting more frames means you’ll have more chances of getting that great shot.
  • Shoot wider frames. Don’t zoom in on the fireworks themselves. The best fireworks photos are always the ones that have something else in the foreground or background. Try to frame your photos so that you get reflections off windows, water or other people. That way the photo also has a scale reference. A bridge or building in the background gives scale to the light show.
  • Experiment with your settings. If you have a digital camera, you are blessed with the ability to instantly review your shots. That way you can mess around with the settings on your camera to get the best possible shot.
  • Catch the beginning of the show. More often than not the end of the show is the best, but it’s also the smokiest. White smoke tends to pop out in photos so you are likely to get the clearest fireworks photos early on in the show.
  • Have fun. Spending too much time focusing on getting that perfect shot will ruin your experience. Try to have fun and enjoy the show as you snap away.

For further reading, Digital Photography School has a great article on the subject with hundreds of comments that offer additional tips.

Have a tip of your own? Post it in the comments section below!

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