Fireworks Live

Fireworks at Lake Bled Slovenia

The ancient Chinese invented this fascinating art of throwing fire at the sky, known as the fireworks. As a photographic subject it stands a bit on the “amateurish” side, whatever this is supposed to mean. In an essence this is a subject of pure enjoyment and amazement, but containing hardly any meaningful depth or message. It is an equivalent of your popular talent show instead of the sophistication and seriousness of National Ballet or Opera. It is no secret that the popular votes and “likes” will always go to the easy and the smart.

But on a technical side photographing fireworks is not an easy undertaking at all and requires quite a bit of “smart” and even some luck. Equipment such as a tripod and cable release is necessary, unless you are going for random unpredictable results. Choosing your location is of significant importance as well, if you would like to achieve complex landscape images instead of a simple one dimensional impression. And do I have to mention that you have to be completely ready and set before the display starts? Firework displays do not last. Try not to forget this fact and always keep in mind a quote from a 1986 classic movie Top Gun: “This thing will be over in two minutes! Get on it!”

 Fireworks at Lake Bled, Slovenia

Contrary to a public belief, for this type of photography, large aperture lenses and the latest High ISO cameras are not required, since fireworks themselves are a pretty bright subject. A near base ISO settings and f:5.6 or even f:8 apertures are not uncommon when shooting at BULB setting on a tripod. BULB or simply B is a camera setting that will keep the shutter curtains open as long as the release button is pressed (I use here the classic analogy even though on mirrorless cameras shutter sequence operates differently). Name of this setting comes after the German word “beliebig” which can be at best translated as “arbitrary” meaning that you will have your sensor or film exposed as long as you feel it is necessary. How long it is necessary in case of fireworks depends on the action itself. In my experience it is best to capture just a couple of individual bursts of color and to close the shutter before the drawing of light trails becomes to fuzzy or even blown to unappealing white. The problem with this approach is that you are essentially blind to what your camera is recording and you are only mentally predicting the outcome while observing the spectacle off camera. When the shutter closes you are presented with the results, but then it is already too late to correct for potentially stopping the action too soon or too late. This is how it was done since the dawn of photography and only endless years of trial and error yielded the experience necessary to master the subject. But not anymore.

Enter Olympus Live BULB

In 2012 Olympus presented this splendid little camera with an unimaginative name OM-D E-M5 and it comes with one special feature called Live BULB. With its ability we are no longer blind to what the camera is seeing during long exposures. This function accurately refreshes displayed image on preset intervals so that we can see what is going on with exposure and when it is the proper time to call it quits. This is especially useful for shooting firework displays, but also when practicing advanced techniques such as light painting. The magic and the fun of using this feature are indescribable. I have already awarded it to be The most fun Imaging Invention of the year 2012.

Live BULB menu

Unfortunately this feature in its current implementation is not without limitations. It maxes out after 25 minutes of exposure when set at 1 minute intervals at 200 ISO and things get much worse at higher ISO of 1600 when image gets refreshed a mere 9 times. The key here is to predict approximate exposure times required for a particular subject and set Live BULB intervals accordingly. For this purpose I have put together a table with recommended interval settings.

Live BULB optimal interval chart

In case if some of you are wondering what is the difference between Live BULB and similarly named Live TIME function, the answer is: not much. The only difference is in the way you operate the shutter: Live BULB uses press and hold (or lock) technique, but Live TIME on the other hand requires one press to begin exposure sequence and another to end it. Personally I prefer the former.


Live BULB Optimal Interval Settings Chart (OM-D E-M5)

Printable PDF document of the optimal Live BULB/TIME interval settings is available for you to DOWNLOAD HERE free of charge. Choosing longer intervals is prudent, but for optimal refresh rates recommended values are best. The provided values are not tested for every possible instance and a subject to change by the camera manufacturer. Use this document at your own responsibility.

Field notes: Olympus 12-50mm and 40-150mm M.Zuiko’s were used in combination with OM-D E-M5 camera. Sirui T-2204X tripod and K-20X ball head provided the necessary stability during the exposures. Cable remote and “Anti-Shock” delay were also used to further minimize vibrations.

© 2013 The Unpublished Journal by Peter Mlekuž, All Rights Reserved