It's a growing trend in wedding photography these days to do photos with sparklers, and yes, you can blame Pinterest. Whether it's sparkler exits, or long exposure sparkler photos, your brides will expect you to know how to do these and will very likely ask you to do them on the spot! With this system, you'll be able to nail them every time!
Shooting sparkler photos for many of my clients has been one of the best marketing opportunities I've had in the past few years. These photos spread like wildfire, and your couples will absolutely love them if you do them right. I have developed a system that allows me to get great sparkler shots every time, and I hope it can do the same for you. Here are the main steps that will help you figure these shots out and allow you to explore your own creativity with them. If you want more, I have some other resources for you at the end of this article.
It is very important that these shots are done at the right time of night so that you can have your shutter open long enough to get creative with your sparklers. Yes, there are ways of getting these shots done with ND filters and using faster shutter speeds, but in general; the darker the better.
You can show yourself to be the expert by mentioning the idea to your clients and explaining when they must be done. This can sometimes even add extra time to your package if they really want you to stay long enough to do them. You don't want to be surprised by this at 6pm when it's still light out, so when at all possible, plan ahead.
Ambient light hitting your subjects is what causes blurry people in your image, so choosing the right location and pose for your couple is very important. When at all possible, have them standing in an area that does not have very much ambient light hitting them front the front.
It will likely be very dark when you are shooting these photos, and because of that, your camera will have a hard time focusing on them. The easiest solution for this is to have your subject hold up a phone, turned on, and facing towards the camera. Simply have your camera in auto-focus mode, focus on the phone, then switch it into manual focus mode and don't touch it anymore.
For long exposure sparkler shots, you'll want to have your shutter speed set to somewhere between 15-30 seconds (depending on what you're spelling or drawing with the sparkler). I usually start off with these settings:
30 sec / ISO 400 / f/5.6
This allows me to have the shutter open long enough to do creative things with the sparklers, and have time to pop the flash as well. The ISO gives me a good quality image so that in post I can pull up some of the shadow areas to make the image really pop without too much noise. An f-stop of 5.6 gives a nice looking depth of field to the image, and also is roughly around the proper brightness level, when combined with ISO 400, for the sparklers that I use.
There are many ways to add flash, and I find that there is one way that I get the best results: hand holding the flash and manually popping it while I am in the frame. I am not seen on the image because the flash is not lighting me up, and I'm in and out quickly. With the settings mentioned above, I often stand about 6-10 feet away from the couple with the flash power set to 1/8 as a starting point. After my first test shot I can quickly see what needs to change based on ambient light, sparkler brightness and flash power.
Your first shot may not be the perfect one, so you need to be able to figure out what needs to be done to correct the issues that present themselves. The most common problems I see in various photographers sparkler shots are these:
Ghosting - You are being lit by either the ambient light or the sparkler.
The fix - Hold the sparkler further away from yourself, don't wear light colored clothing, and move faster. Also, you can adjust your settings to get a darker exposure, while keeping in mind the brightness of the sparklers.
Out of Focus / Blurry couple - Your couple is either moving too much and is being lit by ambient light, or your camera is not in focus.
The fix - Give your couple a position they can easily hold without moving, move them into the shadows, hold your sparkler further away from them, and ensure you're focused at the right distance.
Can't see the subject well - No separation between the subject and the background, or they are being blocked by the sparklers.
The fix - Rim light them from behind with either another flash triggered at the same time as the main light, or rim light them with the sparklers. You can also change your position or their position to make for a stronger composition and better subject placement. Also, never let the sparkler go between the faces of the subject and the camera as they will appear to have their heads chopped off by it!
OTHER TYPES OF SPARKLER PHOTOS
There are many other ways to do sparkler photos, and each of them come with their own unique challenges and settings. Here are just a few ideas for you to think about when you're attempting your own sparkler photos.
Long Exposure with words - No flash
Long Exposure with words - With flash
Long Exposure with drawing
Long Exposure with groups
If you're interested in learning more about sparkler shots and how to really master them, I have recently released the recordings of my latest online workshop on Sparkler Shots. You will find these recordings and more events and resources at http://photographers.mattkennedy.ca