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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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