An experiment with natural lighting.
The other night I had the opportunity to photograph a bonfire event with a fireworks show. Typically when you shoot fireworks, you bring a tripod. You need long exposures to capture the full essence of the explosion. Also, when you know you’ll be shooting in a very low-light situation, you bring flashes. I brought neither.
For the record, it is always better to be prepared. I had multiple tripods in my car as well as a full lighting kit. The issue was in transit. I did not know the police would block off all the roads leading to the event. Furthermore, I didn’t know how long a walk it was from my car to the area I’d shoot at.
Call it laziness, call it a sense of adventure to challenge my photographic abilities (I prefer the sound of this one), but I decided to leave all of my gear behind and tackle this event all natural. I brought with me only my Canon 1D Mark IV with a 70-200mm lens, my 5D Mark III with a 24-70mm lens, and a notebook.
When shooting in the dark without flashes, the first thing you have to do is find your light. I spent my first 15 minutes walking back and forth across the area, mapping out the light points. I didn’t bother shooting during this time. In my opinion it is always better to have a plan before you start firing off frames.
A few things were working to my advantage. The food trucks were brightly lit. I knew I could get a secondary image there without much trouble. A live band was playing inside a greenhouse. It was one of the only indoor aspects of this event, but it also had its own lighting. This would be another easy secondary image.
Unfortunately, the three main aspects of the story were all poorly lit and deeply challenging in their own ways. The event itself, Christmas in the Nighttime Sky, is a charity fundraiser for children in need. Admission is a new toy. Knowing this, I realized that a photo of the donations would be one of my main storytelling images.
I started with workers sorting through gifts next to a Santa sign. It didn’t take long to realize that location wasn’t going to work. The sign was the only source of light. I tried overexposing the sign to show the foreground, but then there was a giant strip of white in the center of my photo. This is really distracting to a viewer because the eye goes to the brightest spot first. I tried properly exposing the sign, but then the presents and volunteers were completely unrecognizable.
I ended up moving inside where Santa Claus was meeting with children. There was a single light above his chair. It gave me enough light to work the area, but to properly expose the image I had to shoot at 1/60th of a second with a 4000 ISO. This means that every time a child moved there was motion blur in my frame. Because this was my only option for photographing this aspect of the story, I posted up and waited. Luck came my way when a sleeping baby was placed on Santa’s lap and he stayed as still as possible in order to not wake the child.
The next issue was the bonfires. Bonfires are a lot of fun to shoot because there are so many things a photographer can do with them. You can underexpose to catch the waves of the flames. You can overexpose to cast an orange glow over the crowd. The problem is you have to time it right when overexposing to avoid motion blur.
To illuminate (pun intended) how much creative control a photographer has when shooting fires, I’ve added a collection of images with different exposures. All of these are shot at f/2.8 with a 4000 ISO, but the shutter speeds range from 1/6th of a second to 1/1500th of a second. There is no wrong way to shoot this, it just depends on what you want the finished product to look like.
Finally, it was time for the fireworks. After speaking with my editors, I knew this was going to be the main art for the following day’s paper. The pressure was on. It was at this point I made another decision that greatly jeopardized the results of this shoot. I switched my camera to aperture priority.
Typically I’m a die-hard advocate for shooting everything in manual mode. I like to control all of my camera settings to create the image I want. In this situation, I knew the cards were against me. I wouldn't know how bright the fireworks were until they exploded. Even after they burst, the amount of light they give off fades with the explosion. I knew there wouldn’t be time to adjust my settings for fireworks that burst with differentiating amounts of light.
In aperture priority, the camera does a lot of this work for me. Because my aperture and ISO were already set, all I had to do was worry about my shutter speed. In this shooting mode, the camera evaluates the amount of light and selects the appropriate shutter speed for you. This allows me to focus on my subjects rather than trying to figure out a proper exposure in my head.
For anyone looking to shoot in this mode, don’t just flip the switch and call it a day. You should still control your variables. In aperture priority, you can elect to underexpose or overexpose the image as you see fit. This means instead of dealing with shutter speeds, I’m dealing with stops. I can under- or overexpose up to three stops.
You might ask why I even bother with aperture priority if I’m still going to fiddle with my settings as I shoot. The answer is simple. Aperture priority gives me my starting point. It sets the shutter speed at a stop to properly expose the image. From there, all I have to do is consider how much I want to adjust. In back-to-back explosions, my shutter speed changed from 0.7 of a second to 1/32 of a second. This is how much the lighting can change in a given moment when shooting fireworks.
With my camera ready to go, all I had to do was find my foreground. For anyone who read my blog post about shooting stars, my statement stands: Having just a firework or just stars in your image is boring. You need to find a foreground to either set the scene or add a layer of detail to your photograph. I chose four young children sitting on a wall.
With my subjects elevated, two things were working in my favor. First, there would be less separation between them and the fireworks in the background. This gives me the glowing silhouette that outlines their bodies while also removing dead space in the center of the frame. Second, the wall blocked out the bonfires. This helps because the light of the fires would have created competing exposures for my camera. In that moment, I wanted the fireworks to be properly exposed. If I had a lot of ambient light they wouldn’t have been.
I tend to write a lot of blog posts about lighting, specifically natural lighting. The answer for that is simple. When I arrive on assignment, the first thing I look for is light. It is essential in every image and one of the easiest variables to mess up. By taking the time to learn your camera settings you can adapt to the challenges of any situation. Furthermore, by taking the time to assess your environment and think about how the light falls, you can start to elevate your photos by forcing the light to work for you instead of against you.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to see a post about something you’re having photographic troubles with, let me know in the comments section below. I’d be happy to create another post addressing your questions.