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3Qs: Capturing the drama of July 4th’s explosive light show

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Celebrating Independence Day has become synonymous with watching fireworks light up the night sky. Here, professor of Art + Design Neal Rantoul, director of the photography program at Northeastern University, explains how to take frame-worthy photos of exploding Bengal fires and Roman candles.

Simply put, how do you take visually appealing photos of fireworks?
There are a several ways of attacking a fireworks shoot, but the two most traditional methods require you to mount the camera on a tripod to ensure that it remains steady and the photos turn out sharp.

The first option is to open the shutter for several seconds and then close the shutter when the fireworks die down. You will end up with a very colorful and abstract photo. The other, more technically sound method would be to select the manual setting on the camera, increase the shutter speed and click away. You will end up with a less dynamic, but colorful photo of fireworks seemingly frozen in time.

Most people take photos using their camera’s automatic settings, but for those using single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras, I recommending two things: set the focus to infinity and crank down the ISO to somewhere between 200 and 400. This way, the camera will pick up less ambient light and you will get a crisper, more transparent shot.

Photographers often say the best camera is the one you have with you. What tips can you offer those who want to take photos of fireworks with their iPhone?
I’ve seen some great photographs taken by the iPhone. To get started, try downloading a couple of photography applications, like Darkroom, which allows you to adjust a photograph’s lighting, or AutoStitch, which creates wide-angle, panoramic photos.

Photography is experimentation-based. I suggest scouting out your location and taking some photos of the area at night. The cameras on iPhones don’t zoom in too much, so the closer you can get to the fireworks, the better. When the real show begins, point and shoot and see what you get.

What advice do you have for budding photographers who plan to enjoy the fireworks on Boston’s Esplanade?
Take the opportunity to capture the life of the city. Bring your camera into the crowd of jugglers and people having picnics. I usually ride my bike to the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, near MIT, and take photos of the whole scene because it’s just so cool. It’s my favorite event in Boston.

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