Neutral Density Filter for Photographing Disney Fireworks
I’m a big fan of photographing the Disney fireworks with neutral density filters. I’ve photographed all of the fireworks shows enough times that I have more photos of them than I’ll ever know what to do with, but I can’t resist the urge to shoot them every night we’re at Disneyland or Walt Disney World. It’s like some strange addiction.
Neutral density filters for fireworks appeal to me for a couple of reasons. First, they can make for a colorful, chaotic, and bombastic (/obscure ISO 5571 reference) photo. Second, they add a challenge to photographing the fireworks, making fireworks photography a high risk, high reward proposition.
The purpose of this post is to demonstrate the level of risk inherent in using a neutral density filter, and the potential fruits of taking the risk. This post assumes you know both how to photograph fireworks and have a neutral density filter. If you don’t know how to photograph fireworks, here’s a good starting point. If you aren’t familiar with neutral density filters, here’s a post I wrote a while back and have updated regularly comparing different options I’ve owned, tested, and researched.
The best way to tackle this post is through examples, so let’s take a frame by frame, minute by minute, look at my shots from the “Remember… Dreams Come True” fireworks at Disneyland.
After we’re done with the series, I’ll examine the upside and downside to using an ND filter to photograph fireworks…
9:23:09 p.m. – Since “Remember… Dreams Come True” starts at 9:25 p.m., you might be thinking that the time here is a typo. It’s not. Knowing that the lights illuminating Partners and in the trees are turned off once the fireworks start, I started this 280 second exposure roughly 2 minutes before the fireworks were set to begin to obtain an even exposure of the foreground. I’ve seen others accomplish a similar result via compositing multiple photos, but I wanted to do it the natural way. I think the difference here is that the trees and Partners more naturally blend with the sky. At nearly 5 minutes long, the other 2.67 minutes of the photo came during the opening minutes of the fireworks. As soon as the first scene ended, I closed the shutter…
9:27:50 p.m. – With the neutral density filter I was using, overexposing the scene is a not much of an issue, but focus is. Had I been playing it safe, I would have thoroughly reviewed my first shot to make sure my exposure guestimates were on-point and (more importantly) I would have zoomed in on the first photo to make sure everything was sharp. At f/3.2, it’s very easy to mix focus. However, I wanted to enjoy the show, and I also was willing to take the risk to catch more ambient light. This shot lasted 95 seconds…
On Page 2, we’ll look at the rest of the shots, plus general thoughts on using neutral density filters for fireworks…
Do you always recommend a ND 10 filter? I’ll be shooting fireworks for the first time there in January. Thank you
Tom – Thank you so much for your detailed tips on shooting fireworks! My hobby is Underwater photography, but have just started getting into Nighttime and was thrilled to come across your blog. Long story short — got some great firework photos at Disney and have YOU to thank for them. Email me if you are interested in viewing the results of what you made possibl
Hi Tom, great info here. I’ve learned a lot from your site. One thing that isn’t clear to me — when shooting fireworks, how do you determine the proper exposure (length) for one of these super long exposures when using a ND filter and bulb mode? Can the light meter in the camera give you this info directly, or do you meter it without the filter and then use some math to scale X number of stops depending on the strength of the filter? Put another way, you’ve got 280/95/67/112 second exposures in your example above. Did you know ahead of time that was the time the shutter would need to be open (based on ISO/aperture, filter strength)? Or is this more of a trial-and-error thing where you’ve learned certain ‘recipes’ that work well. [and is your fireworks ebook still for sale, the site looks down?]
I am interested in purchasing/downloading/reading the eBook you mentioned, “How to Photograph Fireworks,” but the link no longer works. Do you have an alternate link, or another way we can access it?
I’ve got the same question: I would love to buy the firework photography eBook, but it doesn’t seem to work. Is it no longer available?
If you are unsure about calculating exposure times with an ND filter on, I’d recommend getting an app for it. There are a few, for iPhone I have used this one: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ndtimer/id390568001?mt=8
At the moment I am on Windows Phone though (some of the Lumias have fantastic cameras) and I use this NDF Calculator. It has some nice features. You can stack an arbitrary number of filters [not something most people need :-)], save filter configurations as named favorites etc. It will also allow you to set regular alarms for your exposures, so that the app doesn’t need to be running while you are shooting. If you’re out shooting with friends, you can set different alarms for each person if they do not have calculators.
You can get it here: http://bit.ly/NDFCalc
Great tips. I guess everyone doesn’t like to just ‘wing it’ and calculate roughly in their head. Thanks! 🙂
Best article I have read for the ND..Great job. I usually use a 0.9N.D. and I have also used a 10 Stop Variable ND. I just ordered the Hoya…Thanks so much for sharing the info. Excellent article. On my way up to Disney after the Hoya arrives..Thanks again. Jean
Good luck–hope it works well for you!
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Hi Tom! Great article. One question for you, do you use in camera noise reduction? I shoot with a Nikon and if I use the in camera noise reduction it takes the same amount of time as the exposure after the shutter closes to process the image. With something like a fireworks show I’m afraid that would end up wasting a lot of time. Any opinion?
Nope, I don’t use in-camera noise reduction.
Did you use the baseball cap trick in any of those photos? When would you say are good times to use that trick or not use it? I’ve tried it a couple of times and have gotten mixed results (probably because I didn’t think about it far enough ahead and totally guessed on exposure times.)
I was under the impression that the ND-400 was a 9 stop filter instead of a 10. That would explain why my math never added up!
I always suggest people get that model….its a perfect balance of cost and quality. I think I’ll give it a go with fireworks in 2 weeks 🙂
Ha! My math NEVER adds up with neutral density filters. I’ve given up on trying to calculate a proper exposure with math because I never seem to get the results I expect that way. I just guess…which is usually close enough!
I definitely think the ND-400 is great for all-purpose uses, but it can be a little intense for fireworks unless you want the really long exposures. I generally use that CHEAP-O one for fireworks, and the ND-400 for everything else. This time, I wanted the really long exposures, so I used the ND-400 for fireworks, too.
Hey Tom, thanks for the very informative article and the wonderful pictures.
I was wondering, have you ever used a graduated ND filter? I bought one for a trip to the Grand Canyon last year and now find myself not really using it all that much. I guess though it would be a way to help with foreground exposure or exposure in other parts of the shot while letting the ND filter on top do its bombastic thing.
I’m not a fan of graduated ND filters. I think they are a relic of the film era, and you can better control this type of thing by doing an exposure fusion or blending two images in Photoshop. It’s not at all difficult, and much more precise.
If anyone has a use case I’m missing, I’d love to hear it, but as it stands, I think grad-ND filters are one of the most overrated piece of photography equipment.
I enjoyed reading your article. I have used the Hoya .9 for fireworks in the past. It the 10 stop filter a big jump in quality over the .9 in your opinion? Also, what were your other settings? I usually use ISO 100-200 and then a f11-f16. Oh….and one more question. Do you set your focus to infinity? I have not known to do that in the past but have heard others doing it. Looking forward to our trip next month so I can give your tips a shot! Thanks!
Take a look at the ND filter article for more info on which filter(s) you might want.
Other settings: f/3.2 and ISO 100.
I’m curious, in your description it doesn’t sound like you changed any settings during the show except for different exposure times (accomplished in bulb mode). Is this normal for when you shoot fireworks? I tend to find myself playing with settings as I go along based on the results I’m getting. I probably watch less of the show this way, but the perfectionist in me tends to want to correct things when I see a way to improve.
Yep, that’s normal for me. From time to time I’ll change the aperture for the finale if I’m using a less intense filter, but otherwise I don’t mess with things. I like to enjoy the show as much as possible when shooting.
On that final shot why not manually trigger a flash off camera to get the illumination on the Partners you wanted?
That would be pretty distracting for other guests watching the fireworks.
GREAT tutorial. I have yet to use a ND filter for fireworks because of the high risk, but I am going to try it out this March on Wishes. At which stop were the photos above taken? I have the Cheap O ND filter and noticed there are no specific measurements on the rim, just small “dashes”. I am assuming letting the most light in is a 1 and letting the least amount in is a 10? It seems like a get a lot of vignetting at anything above “8”, at least in daytime shots. Anything I can do to avoid this, or is there a defect in my filter?
I used a 10 stop filter for this. The Cheap-O filter is an inexact science. I rarely know what stop-intensity I’m using with that…I just guess.
I probably wouldn’t use that Cheapo-O during the day. I’ve heard the color cast/shift is pretty bad with it during the day.
I love your ND fireworks shots. I’ve never been brave enough to try this technique because I’m not sure I’d get the exposure right. When I shoot with my ND filter, it usually takes me a few tries until I’m happy with the exposure. This article certainly helps clarify things though. Have you ever tried light painting with an iphone or flashlight to illuminate the Partners Statue? Not that your method in the first shot of exposing before the show starts didn’t turn out great, I was just wondering how the light painting might look.
Nah. Just like a flash, that might be a tad distracting for other guests. I’d be a hypocrite by poking fun at the iPad users if I did that!
Damn Tom, this is probably the most epic and thorough ND-filter-fireworks post there is. The play by play of your photos gives a much better understanding of your methods as well as how you use your gear. I’ve never even though of shooting before the show begins to catch ambient light nor to hold the shutter open after the finale – so thanks for those tips as well.
I’ve yet to shoot fireworks with a ND filter, so these long exposures you discussed are things of legend. The risk/reward is tough though, as like you said, margin for error is really slim which doesn’t work well with the way I shoot. Hell, I can think of a dozen or so times where I bumped my own tripod – and that’s with a 10 – 30 second exposure.
I might give a ND filter a try during Hallowishes next week just to see. Oh, and as for a Fireworks contest from PhotoMagic – sounds like a great idea but only if we can rope you in to judge!
No problem. Can’t wait to see what you all bring back from PhotoMagic!