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.
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
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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!
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!