Happy Independence Day! You’ve got a terrific opportunity to make some fun portraits with fireworks. Kids love sparklers, and when you show them what you can do with sparklers, flash and a couple of seconds, they will get excited and start creating incredible pictures with you. And if you don’t have sparklers handy, try using a flashlight instead like I did below. Here’s what you need to do to get started.
Second curtain/rear sync flash
You need to go into your camera’s flash settings and switch the flash from First Curtain or Front Sync to Second Curtain or Rear Sync. Fortunately, your camera’s manual is available as a PDF if you search online, so you can quickly search and find the instructions on how to change this setting.
Right now, your camera is set up so that the flash fires as soon as the shutter opens. When you change it, the flash will fire right before the shutter closes. This only makes a difference when you use a very long shutter speed, which we will be doing for this project. My camera is always left on Second Curtain Sync.
You need to give kids enough time to write their names or draw pictures with their lights. Depending on where you are in your time zone and latitude, the sky may not be dark until very late. You could boost the darkness by doing this in front of your open garage door, or in the shade of your house — be fire wise, but try to find a dark background so that the lights will show up well.
Switch your camera to manual mode, set the shutter speed to something like four seconds, the ISO as low as possible and the aperture to f/8. You can change the shutter speed to adjust how long your subjects will have to draw. By the way, four seconds on your camera’s display looks like 4″, not .4 and not 4. If your subjects have the right amount of time to write, but the picture is too bright or too dark, you can change the aperture to adjust the overall brightness of the picture.
You can make this picture using the pop-up flash on your camera, an on-camera speedlight or even using a speedlight off of your camera to the side, as I did in the following picture. Wherever you put it, the flash will illuminate your subject for a very short time at the end of the picture and freeze your subject where they are. You’ll probably need to adjust the power of your flash, which can be done before you even get a kid in front of your camera — use the timer and use yourself as the test subject to make sure the picture is bright enough.
Keep in mind that if you are using a small aperture, the flash will use more power. Again, if you can do this in a dark spot, you’ll be able to use a little wider aperture and your flash batteries will last longer.
**A quick note for Canon shooters: you won’t be able to use Second Curtain Sync with off-camera flash, but you can get creative and bounce your flash off walls and reflectors. For more info about using your flash, see our classes at ThinkTapLearn.com.
Tripod and more
This works best on a tripod, but it’ll work without one. If you can do it on a tripod, then you can do things repeatably without worrying about if you moved the camera or not. While this is fun with sparklers, it works equally well with flashlights (or even a cell phone light) and you won’t have to manage the space with kids waving burning metal sticks around.
And don’t think you need to only use this technique on the Fourth of July. While that’s a great time, if you go buy sparklers on the fifth of July, you’ll get a terrific price and still be able to have a fun time with kids making these pictures. Even better if you save some until September when the sun is setting earlier and you don’t have to stay up so late to practice.
Making long exposure portraits and writing with light is a ton of fun, no matter if your kids are young or old. Please remember that sparklers are hot and burning and shooting off sparks — don’t poke out any eyes, don’t let them too close to your gear and don’t start any wildfires. I can’t wait to see what kind of pictures you create, and you can bet I’ll be making these with my kids, my nieces and nephews — and the neighbors’ kids, too. Have a fun and joyous Fourth of July!