Shooting great firework footage is more than pointing the camera into the sky. The less light you have, the harder it is to focus or capture an image that isn’t underexposed or overly grainy. Throw in a fireworks scene that changes from dark to light within nanoseconds, and your camera will need a lot of help from its human counterpart. Let’s start with the gear, then go to the technical, setup and finally the techniques.
1 – Gear
Use a tripod, but set the drag loose to pan and swivel. A 3-chip cam captures images best, and HD is awesome, but, with good shooting techniques, any camcorder can capture the show,
2 – The Camera’s Eye
Never shoot with auto focus or exposure. In the dark, the auto iris opens wide, searching for light. When the firework flashes, the shot is blown out before the iris can close. When the sky goes dark, your iris opens again, searching. Auto focus is also in constant motion, attempting to adjust.
3 – No Gain, No Grain
Practice before the event. Test your image with your iris on its smallest aperture (around f8 or f11). You might think you should open wide to get in more light, but the images wash out with bright fireworks. Try an ND filter or circular polarizer, too. If you “gain” your image from zero to 9db or 18db, your video becomes grainy, which flattens the fireworks images and makes darker areas look reddish, not black.
4 – Get Focused
Landscape or Fireworks settings keep the camera from getting nutty, but manual gives you better control. Set your focus on infinity, if you have it. While it’s still light, focus on a roof, tree or pole that’s about the same distance as where you think the fireworks might be.
5 – Staging the Scene
Shoot people and fireworks separately. Don’t shoot a burst of fireworks, then the people… then the fireworks… you will constantly have to reset your iris and focus, which is difficult at night. Shoot people first, when you still have some natural light. A twilight sky makes a beautiful beginning, especially if you use that polarizer.
6 – Low and Wide
Get in close to people and shoot wide. The closer you get, the more light you can bring in, and you can keep the iris small. Shoot a low angle, especially children, so they are looking up at the fireworks. Shoot them from the side or behind to see the fireworks burst in the shot. If you angle it right, the faces are naturally lit by the fireworks reflection.
7 – Light Enhancement
Try framing dark subjects so there is a rim light behind them from a porch light or street light. Make sure it doesn’t spill on their faces, as it will wash out the glow from the fireworks.
8 – Boom Boom
After capturing the people, move away to get better sound. You’ll hear the boom as the fireworks are blasted from the cannon, a great audio clue that the flare is on its way. Once you’ve seen a few blasts, you can anticipate where they’ll end by following the tracers.
9 – No Lights, Please
If you can, ask the pyro-expert beforehand where he thinks the blasts might go. Set up so you have no background lights at all, especially no moving lights like headlights. You’ll want your black area as clean as possible for editing.
10 – Shooting Tricks
A one-hour tape should be enough for most shows. If you stop between blasts, begin recording on full black, before the flares enter the sky, Hold the shot until all sparkles have dissolved.
11 – In the Beginning
Stay wide at first to anticipate where the fireworks will land and keep them centered. Pay attention to the wind. If you’re downwind, you might get smoke from the fireworks.
12 – Zoom Zoom
Unlike still shooting, after you’ve shot a few bursts, you can experiment with movement. Zoom in to one blast, until it fills the screen, then let it to go black. Hold the focal point zoomed in for the next shot; hopefully the next blast will fill the screen. Then zoom slowly out. This makes for fun cross-dissolving.
13 – Across the Universe
As I see a tracer beginning, I like to pan across the sky in hopes of capturing as I pan. Then I keep panning to black.
14- Place Image Here
Try framing your shot so one burst lands in the lower left third of your screen and another in the upper right third. Then you can cross-dissolve them in the scene at the same time.
15 – Editing and Finessing
Vary your editing so it’s not boring. Start with a few people shots, then cut to a closeup of a face, as a flare flashes. This cutaway bridges the wide twilight shot with the darker nighttime shots. Then let one blast fill the screen. As it fades out, but is not fully black, dissolve your next shot in. I like to edit scenes in odd numbers: three blasts followed by a cutaway of someone enjoying the show. Then several more blasts, etc. The Grand Finale is always your ending shot, perhaps with a closeup of the joyous look on a young child’s face. Have fun!
Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer & editor.