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Shooting Spectacular Fireworks Video

July 4th, Independence Day, is always packed with activities. The day always ends with a spectacular display of fireworks. 2005 is of no exception. My friends and I had attended the fireworks show at the University of Redlands this past Fourth of July weekend. I had spent a great amount of time thinking about the gears I need to capture the moment and how to execute my plan at the actual event. Overall, I would say the execution of my plan was a great success and I have enough footage to make a memorial-able movie.

As smoothly as the fireworks show went, the entire process of capturing the show wasn't void of mistakes. While the experience is still fresh in my head, I will take this opportunity to write about tips and pitfalls for shooting a great fireworks video. I'm sure I'll need this information again next year for myself.

This article will start by describing the environment of the "Lights of Freedom" fireworks show at the University of Redlands. This description gives you the full disclosure of the environment so that the picking of the gear and cinematography techniques will make sense to you later in the article. Your fireworks show will also be in a similar environment.

After describing the environment, the article goes into a discussion of the gears you'll need to capture fireworks successfully. The discussion of gears will gradually change from the essentials to the desirables for creating high-quality footages. This gradual change will be a good transition into later part of the article where it will discuss how-to-use your gears and techniques to make a good video.

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The University of Redland's "Light of Freedom" show occurred at its football stadium. My friend was smart enough to purchase the cheaper seating on the football field rather than the more expensive bleachers. The bleachers were to the left and right side of the stadium. The field gave us plenty of spaces for blankets, chairs, and camera gears. We were able to sit at the other end of the stadium, right smack in the center.

Seating started at 5 or 6 PM and continued until the fireworks show started. The pre-fireworks show started at 7 PM and continued until 9 PM. The actual fireworks show start after sun down at 9 PM. We got there around 6 PM.

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The most essential cinematography gear you must have for capturing fireworks video is obviously a camcorder. Any camcorder will do, but the optimal camcorder is one that does well in low-light situations and have manual focus control (see Manual Focus later). Although the sun was in the sky and the stadium lights were turned on at dusk (see picture below), don't be fooled by the amount of light you'll have for the fireworks. The fireworks display will only start after the sun is down and the lights will be turned off. The ideal fireworks environment will be pitch black, as was in the show I attended.

Don't be fooled by the daylight and the stadium light. It will be pitch black before the fireworks start.

If you only have one camcorder, then you don't really have a choice. But if you have more than one, pick the one that is better in low-light environments. The better one generally has a bigger sensor, a larger aperture lens, and less low-light noise when the video is played back. You can determine the first two variables in the specification for your camcorders. The third variable you'll have to test with your own eyes.

Personally, I took my Sony DCR-HC90 MiniDV Handycam. This camcorder is compact, but has a huge 1/3" sensor used on many professional-grade camcorders. This camcorder has a f/1.8 lens, a fairly large aperture (smaller f-number, larger aperture). And based on my personal testing, it has far less noise than my other camcorders.

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Battery & Storage

The next most essential elements you'll need are battery and storage. Storage could be video tape, optical disc, or flash memory card. A camcorder is useless without battery and storage. Plan ahead and pack enough of each for the amount of footage you want to shoot.

The actual fireworks show will generally last only 30 to 45 minutes. But you should consider whether you want to capture any pre-fireworks entertainment or not. You might want to capture your family and friends getting settled in your seating area or to capture what they do for fun to pass time. You should reserve one blank tape (assuming video tape is your storage medium) for the fireworks only, because you probably don't want the tape to end during the fireworks display. Bring one large battery pack, or multiple battery packs, that would last the entire event.

Seating for our event was at 6 PM. The fireworks didn't start till 9 PM, three hours later. We sat around passing time for three hours. And I managed to shoot some videos as well during then. If the fireworks event you are attending is as long as the one I attend, then you need to bring enough batteries to last 4 hours. I brought a 2-1/2 hour Sony NP-FA70 battery pack and shot about an hour worth of footage. Many times, I had to keep the camcorder on to check camera angles and adjust focus, rather than shooting video.

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Now we start talking about gears that are not absolutely essential, but should be. A tripod is not essential, because you can still shoot fireworks while hold the camcorder in your hand. But your hands will never be as steady as a tripod. And you will probably be tired after only a few minutes. Remember, fireworks generally last 30 to 45 minutes. If you really want a high quality production, get yourself a tripod. It will make shooting fireworks a breeze.

Plus, with a tripod, you will actually be able to watch the fireworks yourself. No matter how good your camcorder gears are, the fireworks are always more magnificent in person than when you watch it on TV. The reason is because your eyes can determine the motion of the sparks and distance, thus, the fireworks looks 3-dimensional. When you capture this 3D fireworks show on your camcorder, you effectively rendered the show in 2D, due to the flat TV screen.

I use a Bogen-Manfrotto 3021 tripod legs with a Bogen-Manfrotto 3055 ball-head. This set-up is hefty, therefore steady on the lawn. People walking around on the grass didn't jar it much at all. Although hefty, it's light enough to carry from the parking lot into the stadium without much strain. An optional shoulder strap for the tripod is a must for easy carrying.

The ball-head works well for photography, but is not necessarily the best option for cinematography; a pan-head would probably work better. However, the ball-head is generally enough for fireworks, because you will most likely frame it once and never touch your gears again during filming. Unless there are other sights that are lighted up and interesting to look at during the fireworks, there is no reason to use a pan-head.

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Accessory Lens

Accessory lens is another non-essential, but highly desirable item. If you bought fireworks ticket to watch fireworks at designated locations, I can guarantee you that the stock lens on your camcorder is not wide enough to capture the show. I brought my Raynox MX-3000PRO 0.3x Ultra Wide-Angle lens to use with my camcorder. At the widest zoom setting, with the wide-angle lens, I was barely able to fit the fireworks into the movie frame.

If you are watching the fireworks from a distance, rather than from the designated location, your camcorder may not have enough zoom to get close enough. Most camcorders nowadays offer at least 10x zoom. If you have 20x zoom on your camcorder, you are probably in good shape. Otherwise you can get a telephoto accessory lens for your camcorder that will get your video closer to the action.

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Directional Microphone

The built-in stereo microphones on your camcorder are designed to capture sound from all directions. They capture sounds near you well because the camcorder designers assume that most of us will use it to capture our family events at home or at the park. You might want to frame your joyous baby, while recording your grandparents' peek-a-boo noises behind you.

Depending on your goal for capturing the fireworks event, the directional microphone may or may not be necessary. If you wanted to capture all the commotion at the event, such as the noise generated by the people talking around you, then the built-in microphones are sufficient. The on stage entertainment and the fireworks will sound a bit muted and distant, depending on their sound volumes.

On the other hand, if your goal is to capture a high quality fireworks display, you will probably want the audio to focus on the fireworks, the music, and the announcements. You'll probably want to filter out everyone else around you. A directional microphone is helpful in this case. You can aim a directional microphone in any direction and only sounds in that direction will be heard loud and clear. All other sounds will be muted and distant depending on their volume.

For the fireworks show I attended, I brought a Sony ECM-HGZ1 Gun Zoom Microphone. This directional microphone uses the Active Interface Shoe specifically designed for the Sony DCR-HC90 Handycam. This microphone has three settings: Zoom, Gun, and Off. Although the lens is zoomed out all the way to capture the fireworks, I wanted to capture sound in the longest distance; fireworks and stage are far from the camcorder. Therefore, I kept the microphone in the "Gun" setting. This microphone works well. In my post-show preview of the footage I captured, the sound was loud, clear, and crisp. There were hardly any distracting sounds from other directions.

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Multiple Storage Formats

Having a digital camcorder that can shoot on tape and memory card can be a blessing and a curse. The Sony DCR-HC90 Handycam has the ability to shoot videos and pictures on MiniDV tape and Memory Stick Duo. It also has an awesome 3-megapixel picture mode. So while seating, I switched to memory card mode to shoot pictures of my friends. During pre-show, I switched back and forth between tape and card. At one point, I was video taping the flyover when I noticed that the image stabilization doesn't seem to be working too well. Then I realized that I was actually recording video in card mode, rather than in tape mode. So a small portion of my footage is in low-quality MPEG format rather than the high-quality DV format. If your camcorder has this feature as well, make sure you are in the right mode during filming.

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4:3 or 16:9

My Sony DCR-HC90 MiniDV Handycam is cool. It can record in both 4:3 standard and 16:9 wide-screen aspect ratios. In fact this camcorder is specially designed for optimal operation in 16:9 wide-screen mode. It even has a wide-screen LCD. What better opportunity to shoot in the 16:9 mode than this event?

Wrong! The 16:9 wide-screen mode is the worst mode to use for fireworks. While the lighting was on, I had an excellent framing of the stadium, bleachers, and people lining the left, bottom, and right side of the 16:9 frame. When the sun was down and the lights were turned off, it was pitch back. All those great framing elements were gone as well. When the fireworks started, the gorgeous fireworks stayed in the center of the stadium. The fireworks never traveled outside the 4:3 aspect ratio. So the left and right side of my footage were wasted (see picture below).

Even worse, by using the 16:9 wide-screen mode, there were more data capture on the left and right side, but less data on the top and bottom of the frame. At such a close distance to the stage, even with a wide-angle lens, I was unable to keep all of the fireworks in the frame (top and bottom) at all times.

Perhaps, the 16:9 mode is useful if you capture the video vertically. This may even be a good work around if you are seated so close to the stage that you can't fit all of the fireworks in the frame. But it would be a pretty artistic video to show a 16:9 frame vertically on a 16:9 horizontal television screen. (This technique was used in "The Matrix" movie. Remember where?)

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Manual Focus

You have to be able to manually focus your camcorder in order to produce a high-quality fireworks video. Before the fireworks start, the environment is pitch black, forcing your camcorder to hunt in auto-focus mode. The lens will surely be out-of-focus when the fireworks start (see picture below). There are always period of pauses in during fireworks shows. Your camcorder will hunt again at that time. Always pre-focus your lens to the correct distance before the fireworks start.

What's the correct distance? If you didn't pay for a show at a designated show location. Then you are probably capturing the fireworks from a long distance. The infinity setting might be suitable for you. But at the stadium, the fireworks were pretty close. The infinity focus I sat was completely off. I couldn't set the focus on my camcorder till the pyrotechnic engineers shot fireworks tests (see later section).

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I sat the camcorder to use auto-exposure for this fireworks event. It worked well. The Sony DCR-HC90 Handycam seemed to expose the fireworks just right. While reviewing the fireworks at home, I realized that the Sony DCR-HC90 Handycam has the ability to display the exposure used for filming. For the majority of the fireworks, it used shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, aperture of f/1.8, and gain of 18 db. The only time it change exposure is during the finale when a lot of fireworks exploded in the sky at once (see picture below). Your fireworks video will turn out just fine in auto-exposure mode. But if you want more consistency, try an exposure close to my settings.

During the finale, the exposure decreased due to the brightness of the fireworks.

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Unlike photographic techniques you learned, the rule of the third is not very useful for fireworks video. The environment is pitch black. In these cases, you will want to center the fireworks in your video frame. To keep the fireworks display interesting, the pyrotechnic engineers will be sending the fireworks into the different sections of the sky. Basically, the pyrotechnic engineers will have done the framing for you.

The photographic techniques will only come in handy if you are shooting the fireworks from a distance and are able to frame it with other elements, such as with the city skyline. As an example, I will tell you about my experience shooting fireworks at "A Night at the Moulin Rouge" show last year. In the picture below (shot with a Panasonic PV-GS50S Digital Palmcorder MultiCam Camcorder), I placed the Hollywood Bowl dome near where the rule-of-third grids cross. Note that the fireworks are also located at the upper rule-of-third line. This framing helps balance the fireworks, the dome, and the television screen.

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Test Your Set-Up

After being seated, the first thing you should do is set up your tripod, frame the fireworks, and set the focus. Of course, there are no fireworks at that time, so you can only use your best judgment. The good news is that the pyrotechnic engineers always fires off a few test rounds of fireworks before the show starts. That is the perfect time to adjust your camcorder setting and testing your gear. While the test shots are fired, frame them in your camcorder and adjust the focus to the right distance.

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After going through all that effort, start recording a few minutes before the show, just to make sure you won't miss the beginning. Then sit back, relax, and enjoy the show . . . unless you have to hold the camcorder because you don't have a tripod!

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Copyright © 2005 by Chieh Cheng. All Rights Reserved.