Neutral Density Filter for Photographing Disney Fireworks

9:29:32 p.m. – Immediately after that shot was finished, I started this 66 second shot. Since I’m using a 10 stop ND filter here, I had to use a pretty much wide open aperture.

This would normally be beneficial as it negates diffraction from higher apertures, but in this case, it causes issues because I have Partners in the foreground and the fireworks in the background, plus a fairly shallow depth of field at f/3.2 (ideally, I would’ve used f/2.8, but that was too shallow).

This means that I couldn’t set the focus on “almost infinity,” as Partners would have been terribly out of focus if I did. Instead, I manually set the focus between Partners and Sleeping Beauty Castle before the fireworks using Live View (before putting the ND filter on the lens), then I took a test shot to confirm focus.

All was well at that point, but there’s always the concern that adding the ND filter will mess with focus, and with the ND filter on and without the fireworks, it was too dark to test…

9:30:40 p.m. – I started the next shot almost immediately, and about 30 seconds in, Sleeping Beauty Castle caught on fire. Intentionally, of course. Fire adds a tricky element to these photos, since it’s a more intense light than fireworks. I wanted to capture it reasonably well-exposed; it’s a little blown here, but it’s impossible to perfectly expose fire without underexposing everything else. To hedge my bets, I decided to cut my exposure short (still managed to clock 67 seconds total) so I could get a second shot with the fire in it just in case this one was too blown. I think it turned out nicely–I especially like the glow it cast on the crowd and pumpkins.

9:31:48 p.m. – As soon as I let up on the shutter, I pressed down again (always using a remote and bulb mode, of course) and let loose for 112 seconds. The downside to an exposure nearly twice as long as the last shot was that I lost the rim lighting that I liked on the crowd and pumpkins. The upside was more bursts. Overall, I think I like the previous shot more, but that’s likely because it’s so much different than the rest of these photos.

9:33:46 p.m. – The pinwheels here are much like the fire in the previous shots, as they are very intense and easily blown out. I was fortunate with this photo that they didn’t start spinning until I was almost done with this shot anyway, so I didn’t have to cut the exposure short to save them from being blown. I was able to go for a full 161 seconds and capture a lot of bursts.

9:36:29 p.m. – This shot is by far my favorite of the bunch. It’s only 38 seconds long (out of necessity due to those pinwheels), but that’s fine because the bursts launched during this scene are varied in location and color. The main reason for using the ND filter is to put several different burst types together for something more vibrant and scene-filling, not merely pushing the limit of exposure times. Several minute long exposures are great for “bragging rights,” but it’s important to remember that only geeks care about stuff like that. Most people viewing your photos won’t care–they just want to see pretty photos. Remember not to let trying to push the exposure time interfere with getting the best shots!

9:37:07 p.m. – This one was 70 seconds, and it was this long mostly because there was a delay between two scenes here. These were bright and varied bursts, so this one would have been short had the two scenes been on top of one another. Were it not for the sake of a uniform comparison here, I would have cropped this to be a portrait shot, since the lines are mostly vertical and there’s a lot of dead space on the edges.

9:38:20 p.m. – Just before the grand finale, the Star Tours scene of “Remember… Dreams Come True” goes crazy lighting up the sky over Disneyland with lasers and all sorts of stuff. It’s more or less an alien attack on Disneyland. That gave a nice “natural” light to Partners, and made it easy to obtain a nice exposure of the foreground without exceeding one minute on the exposure here.

9:39:49 p.m. – This one is “only” 61 seconds long, but it’s the grand finale of “Remember… Dreams Come True,” (probably about 10 seconds of the shot), plus around 50 seconds of ambient light after the show. I was hoping that the lights would be turned back on Partners, but decided to abort my mission of waiting for these lights when people kept coming dangerously close to my tripod as they tried to exit the hub. I’d lose a great finale had someone bumped the tripod, and an illuminated Partners wouldn’t have been much of a gain, especially since it’s basically naturally illuminated by the bright sky.

With that, the show was over and it was time to review my haul.

You’ll notice there are only 10 photos from the entire show of “Remember… Dreams Come True.” I edited every photo I took during the show, nothing got trashed. The reason I only have 10 photos is because many of these 10 photos exceeded 1 minute in exposure time, meaning I shot fewer photos than I would have with shorter exposure times. This is intuitive, and it’s not my goal to point out the obvious, but this is something that’s frequently overlooked when using an ND filter: you’re going to walk away with fewer photos.

Fewer photos not only means you’ll have less photos (sorry, obvious), but it also means a smaller margin of error. In reviewing the prior two times I shot the fireworks at Disneyland, I average around 43 photos when not using a neutral density filter. If I screw up 1 photo out of 43, that’s only 2% that are garbage. If I screw up 1 out of 10, that’s 10% garbage. When you consider the fact that a neutral density filter also raises the difficulty of calculating proper exposure time in your head, this makes it even more likely that you’ll screw up shots when using an ND filter.

Interestingly, in practice, I’ve found that I actually end up with more keepers when using a neutral density filter to photograph fireworks. A lot of this is personal preference, but I feel that many times a photo of just a single burst set looks lacking–dare I say not bombastic enough–but trying to cram two burst sets into a single shot when not using an ND filter is a one way ticket to blown highlight city. I’m generally much happier with a good fireworks photo produced when using a neutral density filter than a good one without the neutral density filter. This might be personal taste, but that’s my take. Plus, the challenge is fun. Like I said at the outset, it’s high risk, high reward.

One thing that should not be understated is the difficulty of using a neutral density filter to photograph fireworks. It may seem easy after reading this article because I took 10 shots during one show, and they’re all (in my opinion–you might disagree!) keepers. Unless you are a photography god, there is absolutely no way you’ll see these kind of results your first time photographing fireworks with an ND filter. My first time, I think I walked away with one good shot, and lots of frustration as I kept changing settings during the show, and enjoyed essentially none of the fireworks. I’ve since photographed fireworks dozens of times with various neutral density filters, and I’m also very familiar with the cues and burst intensity of almost every Disney fireworks show in the US. (That is probably the lamest thing about which anyone has ever bragged.) HalloWishes is a great show for a neutral density filter (the top photo in this article is from HalloWishes with an ND filter, as are the photos above and below this text), but if you’re doing Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party for the first time, I highly recommend photographing it “normally” so you can enjoy the awesomeness that is that fireworks show, instead of putting all of your attention and energy towards testing, adjusting, and getting frustrated.

HalloWishes fireworks at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party might be the best fireworks of the year. What do you think? Some of my favorite HalloWishes photos:

Photographing fireworks with neutral density filters isn’t for everyone or all circumstances, but if you want a new challenge or the sky ablaze with fireworks, I think using a neutral density filter is a great idea. For all of the shots in this article, I used the Hoya 10-stop neutral density filter. I also carry a “CHEAP-O” ND filter that was really cheap (shocking!) and offers great versatility without image degradation or too much color shift…when it comes to fireworks (here’s a sample shot with it). Before you look into any ND filter, I strongly recommend reading that guide to them I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

If you’re interested in improving your photography, check out a few of my top photography blog posts:

Photography Buying Guide: Everything from Underwater Cameras to Software
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel

For Walt Disney World trip planning tips and comprehensive advice, make sure to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide and related articles.

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Your Thoughts…

Have you tried using a neutral density filter when photographing Disney fireworks? Any tips to add? If you haven’t tried using an ND filter, do you think you will after reading this? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts in the comments!

29 Responses to “Neutral Density Filter for Photographing Disney Fireworks”
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