hello everyone, it’s photographer Jennifer Valencia here with a tutorial on how to photograph trailing light from holiday sparklers and still have a person’s face show up clearly.
In the US, it’s easy to find sparklers for sale around July 4th and New Year’s Eve. You can also buy them on-line legally in many cities. As well as providing entertainment for the whole family, they can be the basis for some great pictures.
First, always be safe when you use sparklers. Make sure that there are responsible adults lighting and handing out sparklers, and that they are not given to toddlers or young kids. Hold them only by the handle. Have a hose and bucket of water ready nearby just in case, and never light the sparklers near dry grass, bushes, or trees. When the sparklers are done, lay them carefully in a pile on cement or in a ceramic flowerpot until they cool completely, and don’t handle them until they cool. Do not throw the sparklers at each other or into the trees. Don’t ever poke anyone with sparklers or hold them too close to the face or eyes. Do not joust with the sparklers or knock them out of someone’s hand. Don’t put them in your mouth. (You may be rolling your eyes, but my husband spent lots of time in Mexico as a child, and he says that he and his brothers did ALL OF THOSE THINGS with sparklers, and you don’t even want to know how they handled fireworks. *shudder*)
OK, now that the safety lecture is over, let’s talk about the fun part! Get out your camera and tripod at dusk and follow these instructions.
Getting Set Up For Backyard Sparkler Photography:
- Choose a wide lens if you have one.
- Put your camera on Manual mode.
- Select a relatively small aperture on your camera’s lens, like f/9 or f/11. This will help make the sparklers look like streaks, and less like blobs.
- Use a shutter speed of about 1.5 to 5 seconds. OR — put the camera on “Bulb”, where you press the shutter once to start the picture, and press it again to end the exposure.
- You will have to experiment with different shutter speeds; depending on your ambient light, how dark it is, and how bright the sparkler is, you may need more or less time for the exposure.
- If your time is 5+ seconds, your subject may find it hard to stand still and their face will be a bit blurry. But if your time is very short, like 1.5 seconds, you won’t get as much sparkler movement in the shot.
- Attach your external flash and point it forward. Start with reduced flash output if you are pretty close to your subject, like -2EV. After a few test shots, adjust it upward if needed to -1 or to full output.
- Be sure that the flash is set to REAR mode. This means the flash will go off just before the shutter closes. Check your manual to determine how to do this. (This is important, because you want to capture all of the sparkler motion, and then freeze motion of your subject at the END of the exposure.)
- Put the camera onto the tripod, or balance it carefully on an outdoor picnic table or bench. Just be sure that it will be stationary during the picture, and that it can’t be accidentally knocked to the ground. Preset the height of the tripod so that you can see the person and sparkler in the middle of the frame.
Now it’s time to have your sparkler holder get ready! You will need a helper to deliver sparklers to the subject.
Capturing Sparkler Motion and Retain a Sharp, Focused Face:
- Ask your sparkler-holder-person to stand still and get ready to sparkle. Remind them of how much time they have, whether it’s 1.5 seconds or 5 seconds. They will need to complete their motions in that amount of time. You can count down out loud to help them pace their movements.
- Ready yourself behind the camera. Make sure that you can see the person in the frame, and focus on their face. Use manual focus if you need to. Remind them to try and keep their face as still as possible during the shot even as they move their arms.
- Ask a helper to light the sparkler, hand it to the sparkler holder, and then get out of the way.
- Say, “Go!” and push the shutter.
- Now the sparkler-holder should wave the sparkler around in swirls or loops. They can make a heart, or spell out letters. They will have to write the letter backwards from their point of view to make it look normal for the photo.
- The person should keep their body as still as possible while waving their arm with the sparkler, and should avoid waving it in front of their face or eyes.
- The flash will fire at the end of the shot, just before the shutter closes. Even if they are moving, they should try to stop and be still just before this happens.
And now, examine the photo and make any necessary changes…and try again! You will need to adjust and redo the picture a few times until you find the right settings for your situation. If the picture is way too bright and washed out, maybe there was too much flash — try dialing it down -2/3 or -1 and try again. If the picture was too blurry, the person was moving too much, or the camera moved during the exposure. The flash will help freeze motion, but it won’t work if the person is wiggling around a lot or moving their head to look around the area. If the picture was too dark, try a longer exposure time or increase the flash output.
Writing With Light:
You can also have a helper write with light in the picture without having their body show up. Yes, it’s true! Like magic or like a vampire, you can actually WALK IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA while the shutter is open and still not show up on the picture. Example: My daughter stood still for the photo, just waving her sparkler. My husband ran near her with another lit sparkler and swirled it all around her, then ran out of the way before the flash fired. He did not show up in the picture, but the swirls he made did show up! (you can see her pleasure with this photo shoot written all over her face.)
To accomplish the light-writing, do this:
- Position the object or person to be “written on” or “written near” in the picture, and ensure they can be seen easily in the camera viewfinder. Focus on them manually if necessary. Auto-focus may not work in the dark.
- Use a small aperture and a long shutter speed, like 5 seconds or so. Turn the flash to REAR.
- Start the exposure and yell “GO!”
- Have the helper walk/run into the frame of the picture with a lit sparkler and wave it everywhere you want the light to show up.
- Ensure that the helper leaves the frame before the flash fires. If they are still there when the flash fires, they WILL be in the picture after all, because the flash will light up the area and capture all nearby objects.
I encourage you to give this a try! As long as you’re being safe with the sparklers, you can have fun with them. If you do this, please share your photos in the gallery and in the “Sparkler Photography” thread in the forum. I’m excited to see what you do.
For more sparkler inspiration, take a look at this amazing web site by Studio Tran. They have raised the art of sparkler capture to new heights – I love their work! With practice and skill, this too can be possible for all of us. Next time, I’ll try a prettier background (my backyard’s wall leaves much to be desired), and experiment with writing words and more shapes. And since sparklers are readily available this time of year, I won’t run out of ammunition!