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Flash, Smoke and Bang
Photographing Fireworks in San Miguel

by Scott Umstattd

San Miguel de Allende is the right place to photograph fireworks. Here are some tips for photographing fireworks that will gain the admiration of your friends and family while satisfying the personal, technical challenge of capturing pyrotechnics in images.

Location. Location. Location.

To get an iconic shot of San Miguel fireworks, aside from pressing the shutter button, the most important thing you can do is to put you and your camera in the best possible location. This means that you probably want to be farther away from where the fireworks are being launched or where the crowds have gathered to enjoy the spectacle.

Location is important because where you place yourself and your camera determines what other elements are seen in the picture.

If you are learning how to photograph fireworks, this simple tip may be the one that makes your pictures stand out. If you have a zoom lens you can be farther from the action and you can show the environment (buildings). If you are stuck with a wide angle lens you'll need to get closer to the action in order for the fireworks to fill the frame.

Composition Is Key

As with every photograph you take, the difference between just another picture of fireworks or a stellar image that makes people respect your skills is how you compose your shot. Simple composition components include where you place the elements, bridge, buildings, trees..., in your shot.

Don't put the buildings smack dab in the middle of your shot. Move your camera ever so slightly so that your subject is off center.

Use Fireworks To Light Another Subject

While you will be shooting fireworks at night, you are not necessarily shooting in a low light situation. If you have positioned yourself in a place using building, trees or other objects to help define the scene, then let the light emitted from the fireworks be the light that exposes those otherwise dark/unseen objects. Focus on something other than the fireworks and you will be surprised at how these dark or otherwise unseen objects are depicted when they are lit up.

Focus And Expose Your Shot In Manual Mode

Your camera is smart and quite often it can find the right exposure settings for you. But when you are taking pictures of fireworks your camera will make decisions for you that may not give you what you need. Set your aperture as low as it goes, raise your iso as high as you can and use a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second and you should be ok.

In order to get the streaming action that fireworks create, use a shutter speed that lasts half a second. You will need to vary shutter speed based on other lighting conditions, e.g., street lights, sunset, etc. This is another area where you will have to try several different settings until you get it right. Remember, with longer shutter speeds you have to use a tripod to keep everything steady and in focus.

You are smarter than your camera. You can learn how to photograph fireworks. Your camera cannot.

Anticipate The Action

As the fireworks show progresses you will get a good idea of how far up the fireworks are going into the sky before they explode. Also, carefully notice when the fireworks launch. As with sports photography, you have to think ahead of the action. When you are aware of the launch and you know how high the fireworks are going, then you can be prepared by having your camera and lens focused in the general area where the explosions will take place.

Watch For Smoke

Fireworks blow up. And when things blow up they create smoke. The "cleanest" pictures of fireworks will be found very early in the display. As more and more fireworks explode, more and more smoke will cloud the sky. To get pictures that are smoke free, get your winning shots in the first explosions.

However, all is not lost if you missed the first round of fireworks. You can use the accumulated smoke to your advantage, as the light emitted from the explosions will be caught by the smoke. This can help to give your picture more drama. If there is any amount of wind try to get upwind of the smoke so that the smoke does not become the subject of all of your pictures.

Don't Use A Flash

There's no point in using a flash. Your in-camera flash won't make it to the explosion and an even if your external flash does reach that far, it will likely emphasize the smoke rather than the flares from the fireworks. Then, as batteries are expensive, save your flash for another day and another assignment.

Take A Lot Of Pictures

Just like with sports photography, you have to take a lot of pictures to get "the one" that is a winner. Take a lot of pictures to increase the odds that one of them will blow away the competition... and your friends. Delete the bad pictures. Don't keep hundreds of bad pictures on your hard drive. They take up space that can be used later and better.

Be Patient

Don't freak out if your first round of pictures don't turn out. Be patient and keep shooting. Use the photo techniques described here as you work to get that killer shot. Don't give up. Remember, here, in this city that loves pyrotechnics, you'll have a lot of opprotunities to get it right.

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Scott Umstattd is a well-traveled photojournalist and freelance photographer working with numerous organizations and non-profits including Major League Baseball, Delta, Home Depot, Bank of America, Habitat for Humanity International and The Carter Center.

Currently inspired by the culture, colors and people of San Miguel de Allende, Scott is using his 20+ years photography experience for live event photography, fashion photography, weddings, portraits, art/archival photography and fine art photography.

You can see some of his work on his website http://www.scott-pix.com/
And you can follow him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ScottPictures/

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