How to photograph sparklers

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How to photograph sparklers

Last nights couple that came in to view their wedding photographs asked me how I photographed the two of them and their sparkler “heart”. It really isn’t difficult when you know how but you do have to know how to work your camera in manual mode !

Equipment :

  • Camera that has a manual mode
  • Flash unit
  • Tripod
  • flash triggers (optional)
  • lighting stand for flash (optional)

The first thing to do (and I know this sounds daft) is to wait until it gets dark…. You will need an exposure of about 5-6 seconds for a sparkler heart and this will allow quite a bit of light in; unless it is reasonably dark the photo just won’t work. Also look out for light sources that will be in the background of your photo; sometimes you may want them there to set the scene but a test shot will show you how bright they will be.

You will need to have your camera on a tripod. I’m yet to meet the person that can hold a camera still enough for that length of time to make it work. A tripod holds the camera really firmly even when you press the shutter button. You may be able to get away with a wall but there is a chance that you’ll move the camera when you press the shutter button.

A photograph is made when enough light hits the camera sensor to “register” on it. There are three things that you can control on a camera to allow more light in or to cut it out…. First of all you have the Aperture. Very basically this is the size of the whole in the lens that allows the light through, the larger the hole the more light gets in. Next you have the length of time that the shutter is open for. The longer it is open the more light gets in. The third and final thing is how sensitive the sensor is (The ISO setting) the more sensitive the less light is needed.

For a sparkler photograph it is how we manipulate these that is important. We need to allow enough time for the people to draw the heart so we need quite a long shutter speed (6 seconds in my example photograph). The next dilemma is that sparklers are bright, very bright, so you are going to have a large amount of light trying to get in to the camera. This means that for a correct exposure for the light from the sparklers we need a less sensitive sensor (ISO 100 in my example) and a small hole for the light to go through (f13 in my example). This will help to counteract the fact that we need to leave the shutter open for a long time to allow the people to draw the heart.

Now, if we did this on it’s own we would have a nice sparkler heart but no people…. The people are never going to be as bright as the sparklers so they will be a bit of a blur if you see them at all (remember they are moving drawing the heart). So, the answer to this is to add some light in with a flash. I use the manual mode on my flash to set the level of light to illuminate the people. I tend to experiment a bit first to get it about the level that I need (I normally get Phill to stand there while I take the photos). You can either have the flash on the camera or off to one side triggered by a remote trigger. For the heart shot I use first curtain sync on the flash. What this means is that the flash will fire as the shutter opens effectively “freezing” the people in their start position, the shutter then stays open while they draw the heart but because they are not lit by any other light source the camera captures the sparkler trail rather than the people and the shutter closes when they get to the bottom of the heart.

This is not an exact science and you will need to experiment to find the settings that work best for you in the location you are working in. Why not buy a pack of sparklers and have a play !

Things to consider :

  • It needs to be dark
  • You need to know how to operate your camera and flash in manual mode
  • You will need to set the focus manually (it can be too dark for any autofocus to work properly)
  • Be prepared to get it wrong and experiment !

So, Hannah & Ciaran, this is a bit more of a detailed explanation than I gave last night 🙂 I hope you have some fun playing with sparklers !!

Upwaltham Barns Sparkler Wedding

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