How to capture shapes and designs with sparklers

Have you ever heard of the term “shutter speed”?  All shutter speed means is the length of time the camera’s shutter stays open. The shutter speed determines the amount of light that is let into your camera’s sensor (or onto the film, if you’re old school) and it can also help you capture movement.  Shutter speeds range from 1/2000 of a second to 30 seconds (or more!).  If you have your camera shutter speed set to 1/250 of a second, your camera’s shutter will stay open for one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a second (or four milliseconds).  If the shutter speed is set to 10, it will stay open for ten seconds.

I took a photography course this summer, and my instructor gave me two pieces of advice concerning shutter speed.  First, always select the fastest shutter speed possible.  If you’re outside on a bright day, this can possibly be 1/1000 of a second.  Taking a picture at a fast shutter speed will give you a clear and crisp picture, because the shutter is open and shut so quickly, there is no chance of any movement showing up in the picture.   If you’re photographing inside, there is very little chance it will be bright enough to use that fast of a shutter speed.  More than likely, you’ll be lucky to capture a well exposed photo using a 1/125 shutter speed.

The second piece of advice was to never shoot below 1/60 shutter speed without a tripod.  The longer the shutter is open, the more time the camera’s sensor is exposed to the object or scene you are capturing.  The tiniest movements will show up blurred on your photograph.  Even if you have steady hands, they are more than likely moving enough to blur your photograph when shooting at slow shutter speeds.

So now that we have acknowledged those two basic rules, let’s break ’em!

Jackie fireworks

How to set your shutter speed:

First, set your White Balance and ISO to Auto (if you don’t know how to do this, chances are it’s probably already on auto). Each DSLR camera can vary, but most camera’s shutter speed settings are indicated with an “S”, “SV” or “TV”, but refer to your owner’s manual if you’re having trouble.  To select the mode, turn the mode dial to “S” “SV” or “TV”.

Canon-Rebel-t2i1In the SV or TV mode, aperture will adjust automatically, and your White Balance and ISO are already set to auto,  so the only thing to adjust is Shutter Speed.  By moving the main command dial, you will be in control of adjusting Shutter Speed! Go ahead and move the dial, and see how your shutter speed adjusts with it.   Take a few pictures and test it out.  You’ll get the hang of it quickly!

How to capture movement:

Okay, on to the original point of this post: how to make shapes using sparklers. It is actually pretty simple.   I think it works best in the evening, when it’s dark outside.

  • Set your shutter speed to 1 – 10 seconds.  I took all of these images at 2-3 seconds, but play around and see what works for you
  • Have someone holding a sparkler (or a flashlight if you don’t have one).  As soon as you click the camera, have them start moving, quickly, outlining a shape with their sparkler.  From the time the shutter opens until it closes, you will capture all of the movement.

I chose not to use a tripod (because I was being lazy), so you can see how even stationary objects in the photo (like the fence) are blurred.  That is from the movement in my hands.  Naturally moving objects will be blurred, regardless of tripod use, because the objects are actually moving (the girl in the photo, for instance).   I think with fireworks, the blur is fine, since they are not the focal point of the photograph.  But it is totally your preference!

Emily fireworks

So that’s it! It really is incredibly simple, once you’ve played around with shutter speed for a few photos. Just remember, use short shutter speeds (1/1000) if you want to capture a clear, crisp photo. If you’re wanting to see movement, go with a longer shutter speed (1/4).

8 fireworks



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