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Fourth of July Special: Paint Your Photos with Sparklers!

We have some funny traditions here in the U.S., especially when it comes to the Fourth of July.

A typical Fourth goes like this:

1) Wake up. Go to beach or pool and acquire sunburn.

2) Eat an oblong food (i.e. hot dog, corn, popsicle, beer, etc).

3) Set things on fire and watch them explode.

Obviously, the best and most anticipated part of the day is #3!

But after the fireworks show, we’re left in an anticlimactic daze. Not to fret: we found the perfect solution…painting your photos with sparklers!

You don’t have to live in the U.S. to play with sparklers this weekend! All you need are friends, a camera, and a pack of sparklers for an evening full of oh-so sparkly play!

How to Paint Your Photos with Sparklers

p.s. Want more? Check out our 11 Tips for Great Fireworks Photos!

p.p.s. Save the date! We’re having a lil’ photography movie night in SF on Thursday. Watch this space for details!

The Lowdown

Sparklers are like mini firecrackers of nostalgia!

Growing up, the sole reason we looked forward to the Fourth was for the moment we’d get to wave our sparkler in the air.

In this tutorial, we’ll be teaching you how to put your many years of sparkler waving into use by making incredible light-painting photographs.

Simply wait ’til nightfall, and pick a dark spot!


What You’ll Need

  • DSLR camera or point-and-shoot camera
  • 20-30 Sparklers
  • Lighter or matches
  • Tripod
  • Flashlight
  • Friends (1 or more)
  • Off-camera flash (optional)

Step One: Find a dark location and set up your tripod

Find a dark, outdoor location. This will keep outside lights, like streetlights, from showing up in your photo. It will also make sure the sparklers are the main focus of your image.

Attach your camera to your tripod. This is for stability and to prevent blurry images since you’ll be taking long exposures.

If you don’t have a tripod, no problemo! A stable surface like a table or chair will help keep your camera still.

Step Two: Choose whether to use flash or not

You have two options when photographing sparklers.

1. If you want to create an image of only the light of the sparklers, then you will not use any flash.

2. If you want your friend to be clearly visible in the photo with the light of the sparklers, you will need to use flash. Follow the directions in the steps below for whichever you have chosen.

Lastly, you’ll need to decide what your friend will be drawing with the sparkler. Have your friend practice what they will be doing with the sparkler before they light it.

Step Three: Adjust your camera settings

First, change your white balance from Auto to Cloudy or Shade to give your sparkler an orange tinge.

You can also experiment with other white balance settings until you’re happy with the color of your sparkler.

If left on auto white balance, the sparkler will look white. Another option for colorful photos are color sparklers!

If you are using a point-and-shoot, set your camera to “night-scene.”  While on night-scene, you won’t have to make any f-stop or shutter adjustments.

However, if your point-and-shoot has a “manual” option that allows you to set f-stop and shutter speed, set it to manual instead of and follow the instructions for the f-stop and shutter speeds below.

For DSLRs, set the camera to “manual.”  Adjust your f-stop to 5.6 and your ISO to 100.  Your shutter speed can vary between 8 and 25 seconds.

For a non-flash photo, a shutter speed of about 25 seconds will capture the sparkler’s light, as well as illuminate your friend a little bit.

Step Four: Set your flash settings (optional)

If you are planning to use flash, you’ll want to keep your shutter speed shorter at about 8 seconds.

If you are using the built-in flash on your camera, set it to “rear flash.” This means your flash will pop at the end of the exposure instead of the beginning.

Let your friend know to be ready at the end of 8 seconds, so that they can hit their pose!

If you are using an off-camera flash you won’t need to set “rear flash” because you’ll be manually firing it. Again, give your friend a heads up when you do!

Step Five: Focus the camera on your subject

Because your auto-focus won’t be able to focus in the dark, you will need to shine a flashlight onto your subject.

This shows your camera where your subject is, and it will be able to focus on them accurately. Most cameras auto-focus when you press halfway down on the shutter button.

Once you’ve auto-focused, switch it to manual focus (without moving your camera’s position), so that your camera doesn’t try to refocus after you’ve turned the flashlight off.

Step Six: Click your shutter and light-paint!

At last! Give your friend a second or two to light the sparkler.

Then, click your shutter and watch the sparkly light painting ensue!

If you are using the optional external flash for this photo, simply warn your friend when you decide to fire and fire it once.

Make sure you fire the flash within the time of the exposure. For example, if your exposure was 8 seconds long, let the flash go off within those 8 seconds.

Step Seven: Make adjustments and experiment

If the photo is too bright or full of motion blurs, you’ll want to try a faster shutter speed.

And, if your sparklers aren’t bright enough, you can open up the shutter and fine tune how much light you want in your photo by slowing down the shutter speed.

Once you’ve perfected the exposure, you’re ready to go crazy with the sparklers!

Experiment, experiment, experiment! And of course, have lots of fun!

Take It Further

There are so many ways to improve your techniques and experiment with new ones:

  • Play with your settings from f-stop to ISO. Making mistakes is what makes digital photography beautiful!
  • Adjusting your settings to let less light in is better for capturing the sparks, while adjusting your settings to let more light in shows more of the streaming and movement of the sparklers.
  • Attach a sparkler to a string and swing the sparkler in circles. It will create this crazy, exploding tunnel effect!
  • Self-taught sparkler pro, Duane Schoon, sometimes tapes sparklers to glow-sticks, lighting each one at a time. This way he doesn’t have to grab a new sparkler every time he wants to shoot a photo.
  • Drawing slowly creates a thicker sparkler line, while quicker drawing creates a thinner one.
  • Writing letters in the air will result in backwards words, but this can be resolved by simply flipping the image horizontally in post-edtiting.
  • With a flashlight, have another friend shine light onto your subject for a neat angelic glow!
  • If your goal is to not have any people appear in your photo (light only!), recommend that they wear black or dark clothing.
  • Time your exposures so that you know when to pop your flash. It also comes in handy for knowing when to warn your friends to pose!
  • Inspiration from fellow sparkler-bearers: making objects look epic, creating dramatic scenes with legos and sparklers, create imaginary objects by outlining their shape (here’s another one!), combining diffused flash with dramatic sparks, writing messages,  and angel wings!

Photo Credits: dareangel_2000 for the guitar photo, Riva bottle photo, Duane Schoone Step 7 photo, Jeff Mawer for photo above!

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