There's nothing I'd like more than to show off a few nifty Photoshop tricks to knock down all that's bad in Nikon D1 long exposure photos. But there's little point. That's because the D1 does a creditable job of minimizing long-exposure noise buildup, even with the shutter open for as long as 10 seconds. If you're shooting Independence Day celebrations in the U.S. tomorrow night with a D1, fear not. As long as you follow a few simple guidelines, expect to make fireworks photos that will reproduce well in your newspaper.
Nikon D1, ISO 200, 6 sec. at f11
Six steps to good D1 fireworks photos
The goal is to keep the shutter open just long enough to record one or more frame-filling fireworks bursts, at an aperture setting that keeps the brightness of those bursts and other objects (office buildings, the Statue of Liberty, etc.) in check. Do that, in conjunction with the recommendations outlined below, and good photos will pour onto your CompactFlash card.
- Minimize noise by setting the ISO to 200 and keeping the exposure times as short as comfortably possible. The D1, like all digital cameras, is prone to dark-current generated noise. It's caused by keeping the CCD active for extended periods, as is necessary for fireworks photography. It looks similar to high-ISO noise. That is, expect to see subtle light/dark bands, as well as white or brightly-coloured speckles or short lines, called luminance pitting, across dark areas of the frame in long exposure photos. Shooting at ISO 200 will prevent these two types of noise from being exaggerated. And keep the exposure times under about 10 seconds. The luminance pitting that can dominate a high-ISO frame will remain subdued in long exposure photos up until about 8 seconds, and is still under control at about 10 seconds. By 15 seconds, however, they may overtake dark background areas in particular, potentially ruining the frame. Expect to see slight banding in practically all long exposure frames, but the pattern will be subtle enough that it's unlikely that it will appear in print. The noise threshold shifts depending on heat and humidity: the colder and drier the night, the cleaner your fireworks photos will be. The exposure times I'm quoting are based on room temperature and average humidity. If you will be shooting tomorrow night's celebrations in hot, humid conditions, you may find that your long exposure ceiling is closer to 5-6 seconds before luminance pitting becomes an unwelcome factor. This is only a rough guess based on some D1 skyline photos sent to me by a photographer in San Antonio, Texas, that were shot on a particularly warm, wet summer evening.
- Make a proper exposure. The brightest bursts will need somewhere between f11 and f22 to be properly exposed at ISO 200, and between f16 and f22 if you intend to drag out the exposure time to record multiple bursts in one frame. When the fireworks program begins, use the image on the LCD screen, and the blinking highlights feature, to tell you if your exposure is about right. And see Step 6 for information on fixing the exposure after the fact.
- Set white balance to Flash, Sunny or Cloudy. I shot some of Saturday night's Canada Day fireworks with off-camera SB-28DX flash pointed at the crowd. I wanted the portion of the frame struck by the flash to look properly balanced. As a result, I settled on the Flash white balance setting for most photos. In frames in which I didn't shoot with flash, however, I found that the fireworks burst, and the warmth thrown across the crowd, appeared near-identical on the Flash, Sunny and Cloudy settings, with the Shade setting overemphasizing the warmth.
- Set Tone Compensation to Low (Custom Setting 24-2). This is the best and only way in the camera to hang onto maximum highlight and shadow detail, and there is typically plenty of both in fireworks photos. If you forget and leave Tone Compensation on Auto, expect the D1 to pick Low for you anyway in properly-exposed frames.
- Shoot with the lens cap on and eyepiece shutter closed. A couple of minutes before the program begins, shoot a series frames at the same ISO and exposure times that you intend to go with during the show. Make sure the camera is light tight when you do this: attaching the lens cap and closing the viewfinder's eyepiece shutter should be sufficient. If you expect to try 4, 8, 10 and 15 second exposures during the fireworks show, then shoot lens cap photos at 4, 8, 10 and 15 seconds. By doing so you will have a near-duplicate of the noise pattern that will appear in the fireworks photos. Then, in Photoshop, the noise from the lens cap frame can be used to subtract the noise from the corresponding fireworks frame. Note that it is unlikely that you'll have to perform this technique, if your fireworks shooting experience is comparable to mine tomorrow night. But if the temperature and humidity are high, or you gamble on 10+ second exposure times, the lens cap frames may save your photos. I repeat, however, that most users will not need to do this. Still, you may wish to shoot the lens cap frames, just in case. Be sure to shoot the lens cap series at the same tone compensation and sharpening settings, and in the same format (JPEG Fine, etc.), as you plan to shoot the actual fireworks photos. Then, if you find that noise is a problem, follow the noise subtraction instructions in the Kodak camera fireworks tutorial to knock it down. You might also have the Band Aide noise reduction plug-in loaded into Photoshop, but I suspect that you won't need it either.
- Select the RAW or JPEG Fine file format.
RAW is the best overall choice, because it will give you the greatest flexibility over the resulting colour, and allow you to fix the kind of exposure mistakes that are easy to make when shooting fireworks. But RAW will also slow you down the most when processing the pictures, as Nikon's .NEF file format has to be converted into something Photoshop can understand. In fact, before you set the camera to record RAW .NEF files, be sure that your workflow and computer platform makes this format workable.
There are three programs that can do the conversion, each with its own strengths and weaknesses: Bibble/MacBibble, QImage Pro and Nikon Capture. Of the three, Bibble/MacBibble is the best at fixing exposure errors, as it has a function in its Options dialog for that purpose. And it delivers pretty good colour too. But MacBibble v0.5 is largely unusable for photos that are dominated by dark areas. It contains a bug that causes dark areas to fill with white speckles, plus dark frame edges may be filled with a strange coloured pattern. This is 90% fixed in Bibble v1.08, the Windows counterpart to MacBibble. Windows users, therefore, should definitely consider shooting on RAW, using Bibble to fix exposure mistakes and tune the colour before processing the file out into a Photoshop-compatible TIFF or JPEG. If you haven't used Bibble before, however, be sure to become familiar with its operation before pressing it into service on deadline. Note that even with Bibble v1.08 you will still see some strange speckles and patterns on frame edges, but in most cases they will be easily cropped out. Bibble v1.08 is available for download in a fully-functioning trial version, and is US$75 to register.
The US$30 QImage Pro will deliver good colour too, but its exposure fixing abilities are limited. This too is a Windows-only program, and is available as a two week, fully-functioning demo. Nikon's own US$500 Capture application does not include the ability to fix exposure errors, is quite pokey in operation, but the fireworks colour it extracts from .NEF files is really good. It's really the only practical option for Mac users, short of running Bibble and QImage Pro from within Virtual PC, which is definitely not going to fly on deadline. The main image at the top of this page was shot on RAW and processed through Nikon Capture v1.1.2. Ultimately, each one of these programs has limitations that make them less than ideal for processing .NEF fireworks photos on deadline. But Windows users with some time to spare should definitely consider going RAW.
For Mac users especially, JPEG is probably going to be the only practical file format. The D1 sports three levels of JPEG compression: Fine, Normal and Basic. It's important to shoot on JPEG Fine only. Both Normal and Basic will reduce the saturation and colour variation in colourful fireworks bursts, as well as make the edges of the burst lines more jagged. The D1 will record great saturation, and its ability to smoothly capture high-contrast subject matter like fireworks bursts is unparalleled in a digital SLR. Don't chip away at the D1's strengths here by selecting an overaggressive JPEG compression setting. TIFF-RGB is another option, but the actual quality differences between it and JPEG Fine will be negligible.
Don't forget the usual fireworks accessories: a steady tripod, a remote release like Nikon's MC-20 and bug spray.
High-resolution versions of three fireworks photos are available for download. They should give you an idea of what to expect from the D1 when you point it at the sky July 4th.
6 seconds at f11, RAW format - This is a small portion of a frame shot at ISO 200, tone compensation set to Low, sharpening turned off and white balance set to Flash. View the photo at 100% in Photoshop and you'll see how smoothly and colourfully the D1 has recorded this burst. It's not perfect: the red bursts show some jaggedness. But in print this frame would look fine. Download d1_fireworks_1.jpg (304K)
6 seconds at f11, JPEG Fine - This frame was shot at ISO 200, tone compensation set to Low, sharpening set to Normal and white balance set to Flash. The sharpening has perhaps overemphasized the bursts, but this is a minor quibble, as this frame looks great rolling off my Epson Stylus 1270. Download d1_fireworks_2.jpg (476K)
10 seconds at f16, JPEG Fine - This frame was shot at ISO 200, tone compensation set to Low, sharpening turned off and white balance set to Flash. Noise is starting to become a factor, though it's still remarkably in check. Try viewing this photo at 100%, then apply Photoshop's Unsharp mask filter at an Amount of 300%, Radius of 1.0 and a Threshold of 2. These are the settings I apply to quickly determine if a digital photo contains hidden defects that will appear when newsprint-level sharpening is applied. You will see that in the Red channel in particular, a white pixel pattern is present in all dark areas of the photo. Download d1_fireworks_3.jpg (520K)