Tag Archives: long exposure

Skies Ablaze – Capturing Fireworks

Pod People [C_033010]

Photo 1: Abstract Sausalito fireworks (aka Pod People)

Several times a year Americans (and others around the world) find an excuse to gratuitously burn large amounts of black powder in spectacular displays that serve no real purpose except to create awe and wonder. For that reason alone, I love fireworks.

Fireworks are an interesting subject for Night Photography and require a little patience and experimentation to do well. And I have found some new approaches to photographing fireworks that make them even more interesting – as shown in Photo 1, above. Yes… that is a firework burst!  For information on how I achieved that effect, see below.

Challenges with Fireworks

Fireworks come with their own set of issues. From the ephemeral nature of the light to the selection of a site to photograph them from.  I generally favor more distant locations where I am able to switch between telephoto and wide angle lenses to alter the composition of the shot.  At greater distances the flashes of the fireworks are also a little less challenging photographically.

Brief Intense Light

Firework bursts are brief lasting seconds or less, but surprisingly they are very bright. Because they are so brief catching them at just the right moment may at first seem daunting. As with all things night photography the camera is quite inadequate at metering or adjusting for fireworks in a way that will capture the drama and grace. So the first tip:

Tip 1: Stay in MANUAL mode and do not let the camera try to adjust anything.

I generally prefer settings that are approximately like this:  200 ISO, f/9, 10 seconds.  But may change those dramatically based on the outcome of a shot or two, and how much background I’m trying to grab.  For example, I will often choose shorter exposures at higher ISOs, and sometimes I use BULB mode.  More on that in a moment.

Location, Location, Location

As in real estate, location is everything. Fireworks, in my opinion look better against a city skyline, reflected in water, or next to the moon or a snowy mountain peak. But creating an exposure to include those background elements is tricky, sometimes very tricky.

Nearly every event in which fireworks are employed is massively crowded (think 4th of July) so finding a clear view and a safe hassle free space to set up a tripod takes a little creativity and patience. Fortunately fireworks can be viewed from near or far – and far is often a bit better.

Photo 2: Fireworks and the San Francisco Skyline

Weather may also be problematic – as in the San Francisco area where fog in the summer evenings and mornings is normal. Four years of shooting produced only one year with moderate haze (as in Photo 2). Two years were complete shutouts.  Photo 2 could be improved with a brighter background – either by taking a longer exposure at the time or by combining with an exposure taken earlier or later in the evening.

The minions in the Night Photography group were clamoring to shoot fireworks, but thrice burned equals twice shy despite a fantastic location found years earlier.

Tip 2: A good location is always the better choice. Location, location, location!


Wide shot or tight shot?

Photo 3: Tight coverage of a burst

Photo 4: Wide angle with pond and reflection

Straight shot or creative shot:

Photo 5: Changing focus during exposure

Fortunately there is no rule that says you can not try a number of different approaches in the same event – provided the event lasts long enough.  However it is best to start with trying to get a pleasing result that is conventional in nature that is, more like Photo 4, above.


As in comedy, timing is important.  Start the exposure too soon and you’ll catch the bright burst of the firework which may very well overwhelm the camera and produce a “white blob”. There are three approaches to the timing problem, and sometimes I use all three in the same night:

  1. Set the camera up with an intervalometer/locked remote shutter and just let it run.
  2. Manually release the shutter using a fixed exposure length as soon as you see a burst.
  3. Manually control the shutter in bulb mode.

The main reason to use a fixed exposure length is if you intend to stack or animate your photos – keeping the background exposures the same produces a more pleasing, flicker free result. However if your only goal is to “get the boom”, option 3 is probably the best.  I recommend shooting after the initial “boom” because what makes the firework appealing is the light spreading and then falling over time.  How long to expose depends on a lot of things, of course, including how bright the background is and how many fireworks are blowing up at a time.  The Finale is usually a good time to take your eye off the camera and enjoy the show because finale’s usually end up a washed out mess.

Tip 3: Start the exposure immediately AFTER the boom.

Creative License

So how did I get the strange effects in Photo 1 and Photo 5?  I adjusted the focus while exposing.  I have also played with the zoom while exposing.  In Photo 1 the shot started focused and I defocussed it.  In shot 5 it was the other way around – it started out of focus and finished less out of focus.

Once you start playing with the focus, do not expect to have sharp images which is why I recommend you get the conventional exposure first before you get all creative.


Struck by Lightning – an Interview with Phil McGrew

My friend, and fellow moonatic*, Phil McGrew found himself instantly thrust into the international spotlight for an image he captured from his office window. The occasion was a rare display of violent weather in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The photo has gone viral with over a 200,000 views on Flickr (1,474″favorites”) as well as international appearances.  For mysterious and unfathomable reasons, Phil’s photo didn’t make it to the famed “Flickr Explore” which clearly is not measuring how phenomenally great a photo is!

Bay Bridge Lightning Strike!

Photo by Phil McGrew - The Sizzle Heard Around the World. Used with permission.

More than just a few people have “honored” Phil by copying his photo and posting it among their own work. I understand the temptation. But that’s just plain wrong (not to mention a violation of copyright law).  Phil has given me permission to show his photo and tell his story.

You may be here because you’re looking for some specific information.  If so, here is the cheat sheet – or just read on for more interesting data.

Is this Photoshopped? Is it Real?

First let’s get a few things right – lots of speculation and conjecture about the photo has swirled on various social networking sites. None of that related to anything Phil ever said or wrote. All of it due to misquotations and assumptions.

Phil took the photo from his office window. Those “dots” are rain on the window because Phil wasn’t too eager to put his brand new Canon 5D Mark III out in the elements. The ISO was set to 100, and f/10 was the f-stop.  The photo was captured using an intervalometer that continuously snapped 20 second photos. He didn’t try to “time it”.

Here is how Phil describes it:

The photograph is a single, 20-second exposure. The Daily Mail interview implied that all 8 strikes hit at the same time. There are actually 9 strikes, and some people argued that the lightning didn’t all hit at once. All I can say with certainty is that there are no strikes on the photo before or after this one, so all the strikes had to have occurred within the 20 seconds. Some people commented that the photo must have been compiled in Photoshop because it didn’t look like there were any cars on the bridge. However, in a 20 second exposure, car headlights and taillights appear as a streak. Because our vantage point is higher than the traffic deck that streak of car lights also seems to blends in more so it looks like part of the bridge.

What Was the Most Difficult Part of Getting this Image?

The most difficult thing was getting my office completely dark so I could eliminate reflections on the window. I have five computers, six monitors, a mini cell tower, and a router. Like a lot of home offices, it’s full of lots of electronic things with blinking lights. 

Can I Buy This Image?

Phil is overwhelmed with requests at the moment but he is feverishly trying to set up to sell and license the image.  Check Phil’s website:


He hopes to have an order page set up soon.

Can I Use this Photo on My Desktop?

Not legally, no. Making a personal copy is a violation of copyright law. However the Google Photos Screen Saver is able to pull and display photos from Flickr and other sources.  For example if you add this to the “Google Screen saver” it will pull in the latest of Phil’s shots.


How Did You End up on the News?

You may have seen Phil’s shot. It was featured on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, and his shot has been widely shown on local, national and international news stations.  Here is how that came about.

My girlfriend Sherry urged me to contact the NBC Bay Area news the first night because we knew they’d be featuring the storm, and by the time I realized I had lightning and that it was in focus and not overexposed, there was still time to make the 11:00pm broadcast. I had a contact number for the assignments desk because I had contacted them previously to let them know about a great story featuring Eric Harness.  (NOTE: That is Eric Harness of StarCircleAcademy!) He’d found a camera in a creek bed while hiking in Yosemite and used social media to post a few of the photos in an attempt to locate the camera’s owner.  I called the assignments desk again to tell them about the photo, and posted it to my Flickr account so they could see it. They decided they’d like to use it during the broadcast. We thought it’d probably just appear once at the beginning of the weather segment, and we were shocked that they actually showed it four times during the broadcast, mostly as an interstitial, but still, it was fun to see.

Are You Really 49 Years Old, You Seem Much Younger?

I think one thing Phil definitely regrets is being made several years older needlessly.  When I asked him whether he was indeed 49 his answer was:

No, but I hope to be someday so I wasn’t too upset when the Daily Mail listed me as 49. I thought it made me sound more experienced.

It’s also a good case of “don’t believe everything you read.”

Is This Lightning Strike Your Favorite Shot?

Definitely not. My favorite shots are the ones I’ve had to work for. Lunar and solar alignments require some effort to plan. As a former nuclear engineer, I love the challenge of doing calculations to figure out where the moon or other planets are going to be and when, then scouting out the best location and angle to get an interesting shot. Then, of course, you have to hope for clear skies, which is never a given here in the Bay Area. The lightning show was more of a “I’m going to set up the camera and see what happens, maybe I’ll get lucky” event. In fact, once I set it up, I went into the other room and watched TV for a few hours. Don’t get me wrong, the attention that it’s gotten has been an amazingly fun and overwhelming experience, and I’m really grateful for all the kind words and interest people have shown in it. I never thought I’d be on local or national news, or appear in back-to-back issues of San Francisco Magazine, without having committed a serious crime. However, I’d have to say that one of my favorite photos is the full moon over the Transamerica building in San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge in the foreground. It took quite a bit of planning and the sky ended up with some really amazing colors. It was kind of a “magical” moment where everything just went right.

Moonrise Over San Francisco

Photo by Phil McGrew. Used with Permission

What Subjects Most Interest You?

I gravitate towards night photography. But I’m still trying to figure out what kind of photographer I am so I always try to shoot a variety of subjects. My Flickr account is a little all over the place because just about everything interests me. Night scenes, animals, landscapes. The only thing I don’t really shoot much is people. I think that’s because I’m actually pretty shy and I’m never really sure how to approach them.

Are You Surprised About Your Instant Fame?

I can’t think of anything that hasn’t surprised me. The first night I thought it was great that the local NBC late news showed it four times during the broadcast. I still have no idea how an image clearing house in the UK found it on Flickr, but I was surprised when they called me later that evening to ask if they could distribute it. The next morning, it appeared in the Daily Mail and people started forwarding it to me, and obviously, their other friends. It just sort of took off from there. Before the Daily Mail article, my main goal for that day had been to try to catch the jet fly over for the Giants home opener. I certainly wasn’t expecting to get hundreds of emails and Twitter posts, much less do interviews with local news stations. The whole thing has been one surprise after another. 

What Photographs and Photographers Most Inspire You?

I didn’t study photography formally so I’m probably not as familiar with the “greats” as other people are. However, I’m always inspired when I surf Flickr and see the amazing night photography featured.  I get assistance and inspiration from a variety of photographers I interact with whether they know it or not.  The greatest influences thus far are people I’ve personally shot with and they include Steven Christenson, Harold Davis, and Fred Larson.  There are so many people out there with interesting views and great composition that it doesn’t seem fair to only name a few but that’s the top three.

NOTE: Steven and Harold are also founders of StarCircleAcademy – thanks for the plug, Phil!

More Exposure for Phil

Phil Appears on CBS News, San Francisco

Listening to the Sky

Persistence pays off. It is a LONG drive from Kailua-Kona to the Telescope row on top of Mauna Kea. Nearly 3 hours each way. I made this trip 3 times now. The first time was to scout locations. As I was setting up the camera it grew dark. Everything seemed to be in order but I realized that I *didn’t* bring my interval timer with me, so I pulled the plug and hiked back to the car. The next day I went back and set everything up again. In retrospect, I spent so long fiddling with the unit to make sure my attempt wouldn’t be in vain that I could have set the timer to start about 40 minutes earlier in the evening.


8 Hours of Exposures on Mauna Kea powered by my "Beefy Battery Solution"

I was also conservative. I configured the timer to take 160 exposures (at 3 minutes each) because I knew the daylight would come and overwhelm the shot. But again, I could have added another 20-30 minutes of exposures and perhaps gotten some interesting color in the twilight.

While the experiment was a success I clearly bumped the focus after getting everything set up so it was not as sharp as I’d have liked. Still, 18 hours of set up were worth it, I think. Maybe.

Mauna Kea – 8 Hour Timelapse

When Star Trail Academy launches, the gear and techniques used here will be what we teach. In fact, at our next workshop, we’ll even supply the mountain (but not this one).