It's been a while since I've taken pictures of a fireworks display. This Independence Day I had a chance to attend one of the displays in Austin with my photographer friends Andy, Steven, and Yang. The show was put on by the Austin Country Club on the lake near the Pennybacker Bridge. The boats that gather to watch the display make for an excellent foreground for fireworks shots!
We arrived about an hour early and staked our spots with our tripods on the bridge. I chose to travel light, taking only my Fujifilm X-E1 with a 14mm (21mm equivalent) lens and a tripod. Because of some issues I was having with my shutter cable release I used the 2 second timer in the camera to fire my exposures. I got my composition lined up before the show started and locked the tripod down tight. The exposures were going to be a bit difficult. I needed to expose for both the fireworks and the lake and landscape. This would be a great application for bracketed shots for HDR. However, I chose not to do this for a couple reasons. Primarily, I wanted to maximize the number of shots I was getting since I had no idea how long the show would last. The other reason is just plain laziness. I knew that it would be extremely time consuming to do seamless blending of multiple shots and I just didn't want to take that much time in post processing.
I set my X-E1 to record a raw file and a high resolution JPEG with the Velvia film simulation. The Fujifilm X series cameras produce great JPEG files and I find that I often use them over the raw file. For these shots I was sure that I was going to end up using the raw file since the dynamic range was so wide in these scenes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the JPEG files looked quite good and I felt that I really couldn't improve on the Fujifilm colors. It only took very minor adjustments of the JPEGs in Lightroom to boost saturation a bit and lighten the foreground slightly to get the look I was after.
My exposures were around 15 seconds for the most part. I wanted a fairly long exposure to help smooth out the water and allow time for the fireworks to ascend and burst. It really just takes trial and error to find the sweet spot. I worked as quickly as I could early in the show to find a good exposure. As the show progressed I kept a close eye on the brief preview on my LCD and increased ISO and shutter values as needed to keep up with the rapidly darkening sky. Some shots were deliberately kept dark, favoring the fireworks over the landscape. I opened others up to better reveal the environment at the expense of color in the fireworks. It was a challenging environment to capture!
My preference would have been to use the bulb shutter and it was unfortunate that I couldn't get my release cable to work. It came down to persistence and a bit of luck to get a handful of exposures with enough interesting elements. I managed to capture a few good variations of the whole scene as well as the differing shapes and colors of the fireworks.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of shooting a fireworks display is the finale. The rapid fire of mortars makes for a big blown out blob in the sky very quickly. I have to say that I didn't really come away with anything I was happy with out of the finale. Maybe next time! We did stick around after the show though and I caught a few shots of the boats leaving the area. Long exposures made for some interesting abstract patterns in the water.
This was my first visit to this annual display and I really enjoyed myself. I'll look forward to attending it again, perhaps from a different vantage point next time. Happy Independence Day, America!