Neutral Density Filter Fireworks Photography - Digital Photography School

Neutral Density Filter Fireworks Photography

A Guest Post from Tom Bricker from DisneyTouristBlog.com

As most landscape photographers probably know, neutral density filters reduce the intensity of light reaching the lens, to allow longer shutter speeds or larger apertures. Think of them as sunglasses for your lens. While these filters have long been used for landscape photography, they aren’t typically considered for fireworks photography. At least not yet.

Neutral density filters allow longer shutter speeds, assuming the same aperture and ISO level. For example, if you were photographing a fireworks show and found that a shutter speed of 10 seconds at f/16 and ISO 200 achieved a proper exposure, a shutter speed of 80 seconds at f/16 and ISO 200 would be the proper exposure with a ND 0.9 filter. That’s a lot of pyro in a single shot, and the frame resulting from such a long exposure can be very impressive!

Disneyland's Summer Nightastic Fireworks - "Magical" (78 second exposure)

Given that exposure lengths will easily eclipse 30 seconds, you need to mount your camera on a tripod and utilize a remote shutter release when using a neutral density filter. Shutter speeds will typically be so long that using bulb mode is a necessity. This will require you to keep track of your exposure time mentally, while hoping that those pretty explosions don’t distract you. You may want to carry a stop-watch or use a timer on your phone (there’s an app for that!) to track your exposure time.

With exposures that long, there are obviously difficulties in using neutral density filters for photographing fireworks. You will typically take fewer photos per show. This means you have less of a margin for error, since, if you mess up one shot, that might be 20% of your photos for a particular show, whereas if you’re not using an neutral filter, one messed up shot is probably only going to constitute around 5% of your photos from the show. In addition to this, you’re more likely to make mistakes, as the combination of watching the fireworks and determining when to open and close your shutter based upon your mental count of the number and intensity of bursts can lead to over or under-exposed shots.

Disney New Year's Eve Fireworks!

Additionally, the number of bursts in each frame can make the shot look chaotic and less symmetrical than capturing one or a few bursts per frame. It can be visually jarring, and because of this, it’s something that you might want to use sparingly. Although I write that now, you’ll find that once you start using a neutral density filter for fireworks, it’s hard to put it down. You might find yourself addicted to either the stunning visual appearance of the explosive chaotic-ness of the photos, and you might also find yourself wanting to embrace the challenge of this type of fireworks photography. When you do poorly, it’s really frustrating, but when you do well, it’s incredibly rewarding!

Technique-wise, there are few better options than practicing. Not only is every fireworks show different in intensity, but different scenes within each show are different in intensity. Once you have an idea of the settings you might want to use with your neutral density filter, you may want to make a chart that quickly “converts” normal exposure settings for your neutral density. These charts won’t be universally applicable due to show intensity differences, but for those among us suffering math-phobia, these charts can be a lifesaver and provide a great jumping-off point.

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men

As far as which filter to get, the ND 0.9 filter has become the filter of choice for fireworks photographers due to its price and because it typically achieves optimal exposure lengths, but another option to consider is the ND 1.8 filter. Far fewer brands make ND 1.8 filters, and those brands that do are usually more expensive, but this filter is much more versatile for non-fireworks uses and offers a couple of advantages over the ND 0.9 filter.

First, since it stops 6 stops of light as opposed to the 3 stops of light that the ND 0.9 stops, you will be able to maintain the same long exposures as with the ND 0.9 filter while lowering your aperture even further. A lower aperture, in the f/5.6-f/8 range minimizes diffraction and maximizes sharpness, but also prevents the burst trails from becoming narrower, which occurs with smaller apertures.

Walt Disney World's Summer Nightastic! Fireworks Spectacular Grand Finale (75 Second Exposure)

In the end, these strategies can only prepare you so much. Your first time photographing fireworks with an ND filter might be discouraging. You may err on the side of caution and go for shorter exposures, questioning how on earth this thin piece of glass could allow you to take such long exposures. You might end up with mostly black frames or frames that are still over-exposed. As you photograph more with the neutral density filter, you’ll become more comfortable using it, and you will gain a pretty good feel for appropriate settings and exposure duration.

With this information and these settings in mind, you should be prepared to photograph fireworks with a neutral density filter! Remember, this type of fireworks photography is more advanced, and does have a steep learning curve. Do not get discouraged if your first few tries at shooting fireworks with a neutral density filter are unsuccessful. As with any type of photography, you will become better with more practice, and will over time find yourself quite comfortable photographing fireworks with a neutral density filter.
98 Seconds of HalloWishes Fireworks

Tom Bricker is a travel photographer specializing in photography at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. He runs the site DisneyTouristBlog.com, where you can find more of his photography, and his tips for great Disney vacations. He also has co-authored a book on photographing fireworks, which you can find at HowToPhotographFireworks.com.

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  • http://www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    New Years Eve in Italy and fireworks were being let off and aimed just about anywhere so I had to look down from a shelter for this one. I tried to go out but a huge rocket missed my head by a foot or less:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Italy-at-Night/G0000vwYVzqJ0uSE/I0000nHhxcE5wAec

  • http://disney-photography-blog.com/ Alexander Catastroff

    Great post! Thank you!

    I’m a Disney world vacation photographer and this comes in handy when taking pictures of fireworks. In fact, it looks like you have a picture of Disney fireworks right here! Lol

    http://disney-photography-blog.com/

  • Mei Teng

    Love all the fireworks images. Explosively beautiful and colourful.

  • http://www.clickmacrophoto.com/lenses/canon-100mm-f2-8-macro-lens/ Omar Lodhi

    Hi Tom,
    Its nice to use the use of ND filters when everyone is going photoshop.

    Omar Lodhi
    Macro Photography

  • Ben

    Same concept could probably then be used with lightning, providing the storm was striking often.

  • http://www.framesandfocus.wordpress.com Gracie

    Haven’t tried using an ND filter to photograph fireworks, but maybe I’ll give it a try. In the meantime, here’s a shot I took last night.

    [eimg url='http://framesandfocus.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/mg_3693-fireworks.jpg' title='mg_3693-fireworks.jpg']

  • Michael

    I am not really moved by your images, photographing fireworks this way looks more like scratches on a film plate, and I really prefer proper explosions instead of streaky scratched lines.

    Nice techniques but not my cup of tea.

    [eimg url='http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/411/ny1s.jpg/' title='ny1s.jpg']

  • Michael

    I still prefer a faster shutter speed when photographing fireworks, I like you techniques but the result just doesn’t do it for me. Horses for courses I guess?

    [eimg url='http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/825/ny1dps.jpg/' title='ny1dps.jpg']

  • ingix

    Wow! Thanks a lot for this idea!
    Just one question – you mention ND 0.9-1.8 as the best appropriate for fireworks. Does this mean that my ND-8 will be too dark?
    But anyway I will try it at least once ))

  • Brian Price

    Those fireworks are great. I really like the one with the silhouette. Here are a few that I took this past 4th of July. I didn’t use a filter but next time i think I will try it. [eimg url='http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.447275168636577.103610.100000622934553&type=3' title='?set=a.447275168636577.103610.100000622934553&type=3'] i would love to get some feedback.

  • lee

    Has anyone tried a polarizer filter for fireworks?

  • http://tomandmargotsphotos.blogspot.com Tom Savage

    Great idea. I love the way you still get the dark sky with the long exposure time.

    Tom Savage
    tomandmargotsphotos.blogspot.com

  • Peter Kovak

    Funny thing that in spite using ND filters I’ve never thought about putting them on for fireworks. Nice idea, thanks!

  • http://imamtho.wordpress.com imamtho

    haven’t try to take a fireworks photograph using ND filter, interesting to try.
    here my shots few months ago ;
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/imamtho/6788414311/in/photostream
    http://imamtho.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/the-longest-musical-fireworks-in-indonesia/#more-16

  • http://imamtho.wordpress.com imamtho

    i need to try using ND filter someday.
    Here is my shots without ND ;
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/imamtho/sets/72157629096166405/with/6788414311/

  • Valerie

    That sounds like it would have awesome results! The only question I have is. . . How do you keep the people in the foreground so clear with such long exposures? I took fireworks shots this past 4th of July with an exposure not nearly as long as that (1 sec.) and while the fireworks were nice, the people were moving around and creating a horrible blur. Did you use photoshop? or take multiple exposures and blend them? Any advice would be helpful.

  • Timmy

    Wow! I don’t know how many fireworks photos I have taken over the years, as an older guy who used film for more years than digital, it’s still thousands. This idea never came to me, I’ve used ND filters for all sorts of stuff. I can’t wait for the next fireworks show

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz amir paz

    spectacular images

    last independence day, i had the rare oportunity of making one of my most favorite fireworks display pictures

    with a shutter speed of only 30 seconds. looking much more as if it were open for a longer time:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/6975478782/in/photostream

    i will definetaly try some ND filters next year :)

    Amir

  • Duncan G.

    Sorry about the long delay, we had no fire works until this past weekend 5 August I shot in ND # 8 filter using an Nikon D2x A first for me in shootin’ fire works and I was quite pleased with the out-come, my problem is who and how do I check them with to see if I done right , any one got any ideas please I’m not a pro only an am Thanks for any help. Duncan G.

  • http://www.bestexposures.com Jason

    You speak of making tables of conversion times from correct exposure without ND and then with… but did not put down the formula to do that. Can you contact me with this information.

    Jfeldman@bestexposures.com

  • http://icelandaurora.com/blog/ Tony Prower

    It is a great idea to use an ND for fireworks! I will have to give this a try.

  • http://www.joecampanaphotography.com Joe Campana

    It is really appreciated when photographers offer their advice for free.

    It would also be appreciated that when explaining certain concepts for beginners and amateur photographers like f-stop, aperture, small aperture, small opening, large aperture, relationship between the two, etc., that more attention be placed on the wording used. I’ve been in photography long enough to figure those things out for myself when a writer is not really very clear on the subject.
    However, I do not really know how some beginner or even advanced amateur could distinguish between the intended meaning of ‘lower aperture’ or ‘smaller f-stop’.

    Thanks nonetheless for trying.

    JC

  • Rajasingham Vaithilingham

    Every headings gives new experiences In photographing landscapes and fireworks. Thanks for useful and helpful informations. May god bless u for a long and healthy live, to help the photographers by giving tips like this.

  • Photography by James

    Cable releases similar to the one in the link below can be programmed in all sorts of ways, including exposures up to 100 hours, and cost next to nothing. It is a great tool for long exposure, time lapse and other remote control applications.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Remote-Control-Shutter-Release-DC274/dp/B00C95M46W/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1388223857&sr=8-8&keywords=remote+shutter+release

    NB make sure you buy the right one for your model of camera.

Some older comments

  • Joe Campana

    July 2, 2013 03:53 am

    It is really appreciated when photographers offer their advice for free.

    It would also be appreciated that when explaining certain concepts for beginners and amateur photographers like f-stop, aperture, small aperture, small opening, large aperture, relationship between the two, etc., that more attention be placed on the wording used. I've been in photography long enough to figure those things out for myself when a writer is not really very clear on the subject.
    However, I do not really know how some beginner or even advanced amateur could distinguish between the intended meaning of 'lower aperture' or 'smaller f-stop'.

    Thanks nonetheless for trying.

    JC

  • Tony Prower

    December 3, 2012 08:43 pm

    It is a great idea to use an ND for fireworks! I will have to give this a try.

  • Jason

    August 23, 2012 05:46 am

    You speak of making tables of conversion times from correct exposure without ND and then with... but did not put down the formula to do that. Can you contact me with this information.

    Jfeldman@bestexposures.com

  • Duncan G.

    August 9, 2012 03:09 am

    Sorry about the long delay, we had no fire works until this past weekend 5 August I shot in ND # 8 filter using an Nikon D2x A first for me in shootin' fire works and I was quite pleased with the out-come, my problem is who and how do I check them with to see if I done right , any one got any ideas please I'm not a pro only an am Thanks for any help. Duncan G.

  • amir paz

    July 22, 2012 01:51 am

    spectacular images

    last independence day, i had the rare oportunity of making one of my most favorite fireworks display pictures

    with a shutter speed of only 30 seconds. looking much more as if it were open for a longer time:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/6975478782/in/photostream

    i will definetaly try some ND filters next year :)

    Amir

  • Timmy

    July 21, 2012 01:36 am

    Wow! I don't know how many fireworks photos I have taken over the years, as an older guy who used film for more years than digital, it's still thousands. This idea never came to me, I've used ND filters for all sorts of stuff. I can't wait for the next fireworks show

  • Valerie

    July 21, 2012 12:31 am

    That sounds like it would have awesome results! The only question I have is. . . How do you keep the people in the foreground so clear with such long exposures? I took fireworks shots this past 4th of July with an exposure not nearly as long as that (1 sec.) and while the fireworks were nice, the people were moving around and creating a horrible blur. Did you use photoshop? or take multiple exposures and blend them? Any advice would be helpful.

  • imamtho

    July 20, 2012 04:31 pm

    i need to try using ND filter someday.
    Here is my shots without ND ;
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/imamtho/sets/72157629096166405/with/6788414311/

  • imamtho

    July 20, 2012 04:25 pm

    haven't try to take a fireworks photograph using ND filter, interesting to try.
    here my shots few months ago ;
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/imamtho/6788414311/in/photostream
    http://imamtho.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/the-longest-musical-fireworks-in-indonesia/#more-16

  • Peter Kovak

    July 20, 2012 10:12 am

    Funny thing that in spite using ND filters I've never thought about putting them on for fireworks. Nice idea, thanks!

  • Tom Savage

    July 20, 2012 06:23 am

    Great idea. I love the way you still get the dark sky with the long exposure time.

    Tom Savage
    tomandmargotsphotos.blogspot.com

  • lee

    July 20, 2012 05:01 am

    Has anyone tried a polarizer filter for fireworks?

  • Brian Price

    July 20, 2012 03:54 am

    Those fireworks are great. I really like the one with the silhouette. Here are a few that I took this past 4th of July. I didn't use a filter but next time i think I will try it. [eimg url='http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.447275168636577.103610.100000622934553&type=3' title='?set=a.447275168636577.103610.100000622934553&type=3'] i would love to get some feedback.

  • ingix

    July 20, 2012 02:38 am

    Wow! Thanks a lot for this idea!
    Just one question - you mention ND 0.9-1.8 as the best appropriate for fireworks. Does this mean that my ND-8 will be too dark?
    But anyway I will try it at least once ))

  • Michael

    July 20, 2012 02:11 am

    I still prefer a faster shutter speed when photographing fireworks, I like you techniques but the result just doesn't do it for me. Horses for courses I guess?

    [eimg url='http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/825/ny1dps.jpg/' title='ny1dps.jpg']

  • Michael

    July 20, 2012 02:03 am

    I am not really moved by your images, photographing fireworks this way looks more like scratches on a film plate, and I really prefer proper explosions instead of streaky scratched lines.

    Nice techniques but not my cup of tea.

    [eimg url='http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/411/ny1s.jpg/' title='ny1s.jpg']

  • Gracie

    July 16, 2012 09:50 am

    Haven't tried using an ND filter to photograph fireworks, but maybe I'll give it a try. In the meantime, here's a shot I took last night.

    [eimg url='http://framesandfocus.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/mg_3693-fireworks.jpg' title='mg_3693-fireworks.jpg']

  • Ben

    July 16, 2012 01:12 am

    Same concept could probably then be used with lightning, providing the storm was striking often.

  • Omar Lodhi

    July 15, 2012 04:08 pm

    Hi Tom,
    Its nice to use the use of ND filters when everyone is going photoshop.

    Omar Lodhi
    Macro Photography

  • Mei Teng

    July 14, 2012 01:51 pm

    Love all the fireworks images. Explosively beautiful and colourful.

  • Alexander Catastroff

    July 14, 2012 03:55 am

    Great post! Thank you!

    I'm a Disney world vacation photographer and this comes in handy when taking pictures of fireworks. In fact, it looks like you have a picture of Disney fireworks right here! Lol

    http://disney-photography-blog.com/

  • Steve

    July 14, 2012 02:22 am

    New Years Eve in Italy and fireworks were being let off and aimed just about anywhere so I had to look down from a shelter for this one. I tried to go out but a huge rocket missed my head by a foot or less:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Italy-at-Night/G0000vwYVzqJ0uSE/I0000nHhxcE5wAec

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