Saturday, July 4, 2015

dSLR vs. Point and Shoot for Photographing Fireworks (With Pictures)

Do I need a dSLR to photograph fireworks? Can I use a pocket point and shoot camera (or even a phone) to photograph July 4th fireworks? Those are common questions that come up in early July every year in the United States as, for as many holidays as this country celebrates, Independence Day is the only one where fireworks are to be expected.

As for the answer to the above question, dSLR or pocket cam for fireworks, the idea that one needs a dSLR to get quality pictures of fireworks is a myth. Beyond that, things get more complicated.

First off, though, the point and shoot experience.

The pocket cam I used for shooting fireworks was the Olympus Stylus 550WP (review here). On paper, there is a lot going against the Stylus when one considers photographic common sense, some of these disadvantages include: a ½ second at minimum shutter speed, no manual focus, slow AF, no image stabilization, a slow lens (f3.5 on the wide end), and a tiny sensor (and hence crappy high ISO performance). Needless to say, things don't look good for the Stylus on paper but I was still determined to try and shoot the fireworks.

To my surprise, things went very, very well (all things considered, of course!).

Yes, the photos I took are, compared to properly shot firework photos, not overly spectacular. On the other hand, I was quite impressed. For only exposing for 1/2 second, the bursts were surprisingly full as recorded. To get optimal aesthetics, snap your picture just as the burst starts to go off. Depending on your minimum shutter speed, you may have to wait a little into the burst itself (like I had to do with my 1/2 second-capable camera). Second, the AF accuracy was not bad for focusing on the fly and in next to no light, though I suspect that the lights out in the field helped AF accuracy a lot. As for having no stabilization (or tripod for that matter!), I used my knee instead, which was still good enough to negate using the useless (for fireworks) self timer. Slow lens problem? The only way to cure it is with high ISO, which in itself produces noise. The good news: when shrinking the images for the web (or email), the shrinkage eliminates the visibility of any noise. For that matter, should you decide to print your pictures, the same thing will take place to an even greater effect.

So here's some advice for anyone wanting to take a cheap P&S camera (or phone) to a fireworks show. First, use a tripod if you have one. If not, brace against something, like your car's roof or yourself. Second, for focus (if manual focus isn't an option), try and focus on something like a distant light because fireworks themselves aren't a steady light source and will probably push the limited AF in the dark capability of a pocket cam to the limit. Don't expect 100% AF accuracy but remain realistic! Third, set the ISO high as in 800 (yes, noisy pictures, but you can downsize them later) to gather as much light as possible in the short exposure time your camera is capable of doing. Try and set ISO so that the camera is at its minimum shutter speed so as to maximize the amount of a burst's duration it will capture (example: if your camera maxes out at ½ second and setting at ISO 400 and 800 will result in this speed, go with the 800 to capture more light).

At the same time, I brought my Nikon D700 dSLR for a side-by-side comparison. I programmed the D700 to snap a 1 second exposure with a 2 second gap between shots for the duration of the show, manually set the lens to infinity, mounted it on a tripod, turned it on and forgot about it. Result: hundreds of pictures for the dSLR vs. a few dozen for the pocket cam. Shot for shot, the dSLR was better for one reason only: the always in focus pictures thanks to the infinity focus setting (in comparison, the pocket cam struggled to get focus in next to no light). However, when looking at the pictures, one thing became apparent: when the pocket cam nailed the focus, it became hard to tell what camera took what picture. This became just about impossible after downsizing the pictures to an identical resolution, thus negating the dSLR's immense noise advantage.

For some fun, try and guess which camera took the following pictures.

In the end, cheap pocket camera firework photography is possible even though the circumstances seem to go against all photographic common sense. The only reason I know is that I was crazy enough to try it. Yes, don't go expecting a perfect shot frame after frame with the pocket cam (if you can't set the focus manually) but, in the end, photography is all about capturing memories, which is something that a tiny pocket cam can do much more conveniently than a giant dSLR.

My advice: if you have both kinds of camera, take whichever one is more convenient for you, especially if your fireworks location requires a lot of walking through large crowds.

Oh yes, last but not least, the Stylus took all the right images and the D700 took all the ones on the left, showing that, at the pocket cam's best, it's hard to tell apart from a dSLR (especially when downsized).

So, whatever camera (or phone) you have and decide to use for your firework photography, Happy 4th of July!

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