Sparkler photos are sooo fun! Sparkler Writing, in particular, is becoming more and more popular, so I jumped on the bandwagon. But it can be tougher than you think to get the amazing shots you want–especially if you’re squeamish like me and jump every time a spark lands on you. I toughed it out and took a few at a wedding shower recently, and thought I’d put together a few tips on how to get some sparkler shots you love, that will have everyone ooo-ing, ahhh-ing, & asking “How did you do that”?
Here’s a rundown of what is happening, followed by a list of what you need to make it happen.
What we’re doing here is a Long Exposure, with a flash at the end. Basically the shutter is staying open for a looong time (long enough for me to write, paint, or draw with the sparklers). The flash is set to “REAR CURTAIN” meaning the flash is firing at the end of the long exposure, freezing the action right before the shutter closes. And TA-DOW, you’ve got your sparkler pic. Expect some outtakes though, because if you’re not practiced, or if you have horrible penmanship like I do, sparkler writing can be a little trickier than it seems. But don’t let that slow you down, sometimes the outtakes can be awesome too!
Here’s what you’ll need to give it a go:
1. SPARKLERS : But not just any sparklers! I got mine at sparklers online. They have 20-inch and 36-inch sparklers, either of which will work. They burn for a couple of minutes, and if you’re quick you can even use the same sparkler for more than one picture. Anything smaller than 20 inches and you’re wasting your time–they just won’t burn long enough.
2. Camera with Manual mode + Flash
4. Lighter (for the sparklers)
5. Flashlight (I used an app on my iPhone)
6. Assistant–you don’t have to have an assistant, but since you’ll be in the dark and working with sparklers an extra set of hands sure does help.
You can also have your subjects do a little drawing of their own, which is what’s happening in the photo above. Their movements cause some motion blur, but the end effect can still be worthwhile.
Here’s how it will go down:
CAMERA SET UP: You’ll want to stake out your spot for the pictures and make sure you have everything in a convenient spot nearby. Get your camera on a tripod, and set it to Manual mode (aperture: f/14 or f/16, exposure: bulb is a good place to start). If you’re camera doesn’t have bulb mode, do a few test shots with the longest exposure you have and adjust the aperture until you get the exposure you want.
TIP: higher apertures will give a more defined sparkler, with lots of texture and sparks. wider apertures (or lower f-stops) will result in more of a blurred line. Experiment to see what you like best.
FLASH SET UP: Maybe the most important part, and guess what? My flash set up is not ideal for this, since I don’t do a lot of flash photography. So I make due with what I have. In my opinion, the BEST set up would be 2 synchronized flashes, on stands, on either side of your subject, at rear curtain mode and each on 1/2 power. But alas, I just don’t have that amazing set up, so on the very few occasions I do sparkler shots here’s how I roll: One flash.
If you’re using one, on camera flash like me, put the flash in REAR CURTAIN SYNCH mode at full power. Again, there is room here to experiment with your flash power, and it will also depend on how you set up your shot, how dark it is, if you have any light in the background, etc.
SHOT SET UP: Make sure you have a game plan for what you’re going to do with the sparkler (write, draw, swirl etc). If you’re writing words, make sure you have room in your frame for whatever you want to write.
MODEL SET UP: Here’s where the flashlight comes in handy. It’s dark out, so your camera probably won’t be able to focus. I shined a light on my subjects to get the camera to focus on their faces. Have them pick a pose that’s easy to hold–any movement they make will blur in the image, so have them get comfortable– not the best time for the Karate Kid pose, keep it simple.
USE YOUR ASSISTANT: if your helper can use the camera, have them press and hold the shutter while you get down with the sparklers. If they can’t, then you’ll have to work the camera while you direct them on how to paint with the sparklers. I had helpers for the writing because number one, I kept adjusting my camera settings and flash settings (this was my very first attempt at writing words with the sparklers, so there were a couple of kinks to work out) and number two, my writing was awful! So props to Lauren who did the perfect lettering seen here.
LIGHT IT UP: Once everything is in place and ready, your assistant will press the shutter and THEN (after they press the shutter), you’ll go into the shot, light a sparkler and start drawing, while your models try to stay super still. Draw, squiggle, paint, go crazy, and then GET OUT of the shot, at which point your assistant will release the shutter button, the flash will fire and the shutter closes. BAM! PICTURE TAKEN!
If you’re not using the bulb setting and you’re using a set number of seconds, just be out of the frame before the flash fires. So if you’re using a 15 second exposure you’ve gotta work fast to light the sparklers, draw, and run out in time.
TIPS & TRICKS:
To make it look like your subject has written a word you need to use 2 sparklers: have them hold a sparkler, start the exposure, run into the frame and light it, and then light a second sparkler off of theirs and write with it. VIOLA! It looks like their sparkler did all the work 😉
If you walk in to the shot with a lit sparkler after the shutter has been pressed, there will be a sparkler line leading into the frame. Not the end of the world (especially if you have photoshop) but it can take away from the intended effect.
If you stand in between the camera and the sparkler, there will be gaps in the light trail (cuz you’ll be blocking it!)
Draw slow for a thicker sparkler line, more quickly for a thinner line.
No Flash? No problem–you just won’t be able to see your model. You’ll have a black background and only see the light trails, which can be cool. Well, NOT cool if you’re taking wedding/couple/engagement shots which are supposed to be starring the happy couple, but if you just want to practice your sparkler writing you can do that without a flash.