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Florida Guide > Miscellaneous

Photographing Illuminations

I am a huge fan of Illuminations, the Epcot fireworks show. I’m also a keen photographer, and have spent many a happy night trying to capture on film (well, a Nikon digital sensor) a feel of what the Disney Imagineers achieve night after night after night.

Lots of people ask me about how best to photograph the fireworks. It’s tricky, but not impossible, so if you want to give it a go, here’s how. It is worth mentioning here that this is the full-on photographer’s guide to the fireworks, with no-holds-barred full technical details. Squeamish should turn away now …

The Kit

Here’s a recommended list followed with a bit of an explanation why.

  • A DSLR with a wideangle lens (24mm or wider recommended)
  • A tripod and head, the sturdier the better
  • A cable or electronic shutter release
  • Available flash card capacity for up to 100 shots

In terms of specifics I’m currently using a Nikon D70. I’ve photographed the fireworks using both a 17-55mm f/2.8 lens and 12-24mm f/4.0 lens, both with excellent results. Using a tripod you don’t need a hugely fast lens. For the best results use the best optical quality you can get your hands on. My current tripod of choice is a Gitzo 2227 carbon fibre tripod with a 1276M magnesium offset ball head. For a release I use Nikon’s infra-red shutter release.

I went digital a couple of years ago with the D70 and haven’t looked back since. Any modern DSLR will make a great implement for fireworks photography as the immediate feedback given by the image preview lets you tweak the settings as you go. You just don’t get this with 35mm and while fireworks photography is no doubt possible with 35mm (or medium format for that matter) I would fear that the number of decent shots per roll would be in the low single figures.

For lenses I would recommend going as wide as you can get. I’ve had excellent results at 17mm (26-ish mm equivalent on a 35mm SLR) however I do sometimes find that the high aerial shots are beyond the top of the frame. There is no such problem at 12mm (18mm equivalent at a typical digital 1.5 focal length multiplier.) At 12mm there is often plenty of black sky around the display (it’s that wide!!) My take on this is that it’s better to get the shot and crop it later rather than spend a later hour at a PC looking at previews with the highest shells missing and wishing you had a few extra degrees field of view.

Use the sturdiest tripod you can get your hands on. I’m a big fan of Gitzos but that’s just my own personal preference. I’ve found the carbon to be a big plus as it’s so easy to carry around. The best tripod you have, after all, is the one you have with you!!

Setup

Give yourself lots of time. If in doubt, give yourself an hour longer than the longest time you think you need. Aim to be at the turnstiles at least an hour before the show. An hour and a half is better. Two hours is maybe a stretch but it does give you time to explore if you aren’t familiar with the World Showcase. If you are spending the day at Epcot but don’t want to lug a tripod around all day leave it in the car and go pick it up 90 minutes before the show starts.

There are many great spots around the lagoon for good fireworks photography. A great place to start is the France/USA/Japan side of the lake but one of the best aspects of photographing Illuminations is the variety of different locations.

At ultra wide angles watch for trees, steel towers and especially heads encroaching into the frame.

If you don’t get a spot right on the barrier don’t despair. Set your tripod up high and shoot over the heads in front of you. You will be surprised how easy is it to keep the heads out of the frame, although it can look a bit strange with the camera pointing up at the sky if you choose to have the horizon very low.

On the subject of horizons. Once you are set up, take a few test shots to make sure you have the horizon level. The night lighting at Epcot and reflections off the lake make it easy to screw up the horizon and it’s a pain to only find this out three hours after the show finishes.

Settings

In a word, manual. Switch off any and all automatic program modes and drop everything into manual.

Focus once and once only. I usually try to focus on the far side of the lake and let the lens’ depth of field keep everything else sharp. Take a couple of test shots and zoom the image preview as far as it will go to ensure everything is in focus.

Exposure! Here is the crux of the whole outing. My D70 gets no slower than ISO 200 so what follows is all based on ISO 200. If you can get ISO 100 use the extra quality and take a stop off the aperture.

At ISO 200 try starting at 2s at f/8 and take it from there as the show develops. I’ve found 2s works really well for fireworks. It’s a long enough exposure to catch full explosions and long trails but not too long that it picks up heaps of noise. As you snap away keep an eye on the image preview and go up and down a stop accordingly. Try a stop faster at f/5.6 for the first part of the show. The final part and finale have much more happening and I often get to f/11 and beyond. I try to keep the 2s exposure and control the light with the aperture. I find that having only one variable to worry about makes it easier to tweak things through the show. What works for me might not necessarily work for you so don’t be afraid to experiment.

Popular wisdom has it that it’s better to have any image stabilisation (VR/IS/etc.) switched off when using a tripod. I don’t know if there is any significant difference, but I tend to agree that if the camera is locked solid on a sturdy tripod it’s better not to have the gyroscopes fighting against themselves.

I always have my long exposure noise reduction switched on. At a two second exposure it isn’t too intrusive and it keeps my final images quite clean. I’m sure as sensor technology improves in the future the day will come when we can all dispense with this and shoot continuously.

Execution

Take dozens of photos. If you don’t get to 50 shots through the whole show you aren’t trying hard enough. If you get to 100 you are doing well.

If you can spot the shells being launched, aim to click the shutter release about a half second to a second after the launch.

Don’t be tempted to try to review any photos mid-show. Save that for when you are back home and can see the shots on a larger and clearer screen.

The results?

The words are all well and good, but what results should you expect?

If you want to see a sample of my results from the shoot that inspired this article there is a 4-part mini-series online at:

http://www.orlando-guide.info/forums/topic_35125.asp

http://www.orlando-guide.info/forums/topic_35164.asp

http://www.orlando-guide.info/forums/topic_35199.asp

http://www.orlando-guide.info/forums/topic_35319.asp

If you find you want to give any of this ago or want to talk about any of the above I am more than happy to field any questions. Just post your question to the forums (above link) and I will do my best to help.

Happy Snapping.

Author: Steve Harrison (Villa link: click here)
Other articles by this author: click here

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Page added on: 3 January 2007
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