Fireworks on Film: Photographing Fireworks with a 90-Year-Old Leica by Johnny Martyr

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Written by Johnny Martyr

*photos and text depict July 2019

There they were, a continuous, almost organized line of middle-aged men in various stages of unfolding tripods, mounting massive DSLR’s on them, carefully aiming long lenses at indeterminate points in the darkening late evening sky.

The LCD’s lit their faces with a soft glow as they took test shots and talked among one another while fiddling with various items from their giant bags of equipment.

I stepped into an empty area among the photographers and leaned towards the grey-haired gentleman beside me. 

“Is this spot taken?”

He murmured something, lifted his glasses over his head and stuck his eye on the viewfinder.

From my small Domke bag, I removed my tiny, old black film camera and held it up to the sky. I noticed a guy watching me but he didn’t speak, so I didn’t either.

Photographing Fireworks on Film
Photographing Fireworks on Film
Photographing Fireworks on Film
Photographing Fireworks on Film
Photographing Fireworks on Film by Johnny Martyr on Shoot It With Film
1930’s Lecia I/III

I removed the bottom plate, sitting it in my bag, then set my shutter to bulb mode. I threaded and loaded a roll of film, tested the advance, then reinstalled the bottom plate. 

The available light was just enough to observe the rewind knob rotate as I advanced the first frames of film. I didn’t bother setting the frame counter. Soon, I wouldn’t be able to read its numbers in the darkness anyway. 

By now, a few guys were watching me. One tapped my shoulder and asked, “What are you gonna do with THAT?!”

“Me? I’m going to shoot the fireworks.”

“How old is that thing anyway?”

“Well, it’s a 1930 Leica. But the lens is a bit newer, it’s a 1946 Leica 90mm. And I’m shooting on Kodak Tri-X.”

(You can read a more in-depth look at the 1930 Leica I/III here, and pick one up for yourself on eBay here.)

The man smiled at me as I spoke, but I couldn’t be sure if he thought this was as neat as I did or if he thought I was being ridiculous. Either way, his mind seemed sufficiently blown. 

“Okay, well good luck!”

“Thanks! You too!”

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Using a Simple Film Camera for Fireworks

As the fireworks began soaring into the sky, I watched the first several to get a feel for framing and pace.

Shooting with my 1930 Leica is meditative, simple and liberating. The sum of my equipment could barely fill two open hands and involved no electronics. Yet, it was arguably just as capable as any of the new, complex rigs around me.

In order to operate a modern camera to do something as simple a photograph fireworks, the shooter needs to switch off of all the expensive gizmo’s and do-dad’s that people here had put so much money and time into choosing and buying and learning to use. 

And what is left? A light tight box.

(Learn more about shooting with a rangefinder here, and an in-depth review of the Leica M6 here.)

Photographing Fireworks on Film by Johnny Martyr on Shoot It With Film

By now, it was too dark for me to be sure what I set my aperture to, but I had enough latitude with the Kodak Tri-X I wasn’t concerned. 

I think I was at about f9 because the Leica 90 Elmar (find on eBay) doesn’t have an f8. In fact, it doesn’t even have click stops! 

So I rotated the brass aperture ring to the smallest aperture, and, then, opened up a little bit to counter any diffraction. 

This lens is pretty sharp with it’s simple triplet, single coated optics. It exhibits some of that classic Leica glow around the highlights.

You can read more about the 90 Elmar here.

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I don’t know what all the auto focus motors were doing all night, but I set the 90 Elmar to infinity and never even looked through the rangefinder to check focus. 

I had a bright, brilliant view through my Voigtlander 90mm viewfinder. This is something I really enjoy about Barnack Leica’s, the complete separation of focusing from composing and any meter display. 

When you’ve got your settings locked in, all there is to do is watch your subject and FIRE!

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Choosing a Film

I chose Kodak Tri-X, a 400 ISO film, instead of a 100, because I had been shooting stream of consciousness photos earlier in the twilight with my 50mm f2 Summar (find on eBay) at this speed. 

And also because I thought the contrast that Tri-X delivers would be killer for fireworks on film. In this regard, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the film delivered in spades!

Photographing Fireworks on Film by Johnny Martyr on Shoot It With Film

Exposure Settings

My shutter was already set to bulb from loading the camera, and I kept it there. 

When shooting fireworks, the idea is to open the shutter while the firework is in ascent to give you an image of its trail, and not to close the shutter until after it’s exploded fully. 

Exposure time does not have to be exact with print film. Shutter speed becomes more of a matter of what you want in the image. 

Sometimes I’d open the shutter after the ascent, during the explosions. Sometimes I’d open the shutter during the falling cinders. 

I would guess most of my shutter times were between 5 and 10 seconds, but who’s counting?

Photographing Fireworks on Film by Johnny Martyr on Shoot It With Film

Is a Tripod Necessary?

And I didn’t use a tripod. I wanted to move freely. And, also, I was curious to see how the small, light weight Leica without a flipping mirror would handle without formal camera support. 

As I released the shutter, I held my breath and tried to hold the camera tight against my face/head and arms as rigid as possible, but I guess that wasn’t enough. 

Notice the wiggly trails? That is the camera shake. Those lines would have been faithful to their paths had I just used a tripod. 

I guess I was pressing my luck by using a short telephoto, bulb shutter, and no sticks, but, you know, there’s no rules. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wiggly lines in firework photos. It’s just a different result than what is conventionally desired. 

And I’m happy with these, though I may bring my Leica tabletop tripod next year!

Photographing Fireworks on Film by Johnny Martyr on Shoot It With Film

Developing the Film

I processed the Kodak Tri-X in HC110b, as I usually do, and when I pulled the negatives from my Patterson tank, they were bursting with tone and depth! 

Once digitized on my flatbed, I had plenty of room to play with levels in Photoshop. 

I brought my black point in pretty generously and then burned highlights until surrounding midtones were also near black. 

Not only did this bring out a lot of detail in the highlights, but it gave the scans a crispy punch that they were lacking before burning.

In black and white, rather than ubiquitous color, these fireworks images take on a bit of an abstract quality I quite enjoy. There’s something old fashioned about them yet I feel that they are also sharp and contemporary.

Photographing Fireworks on Film by Johnny Martyr on Shoot It With Film

How do you think I did? Have you photographed fireworks on film with an unlikely camera? Maybe you don’t consider a 1930 Leica unlikely. 

Or did you try something different with a modern one? Maybe you prefer, sharp, color, conventional fireworks images? 

Let me know in the comments and feel free to share your examples!

Thank you so much, Johnny! You can find more of Johnny’s work on his websiteblog, and Instagram.

Leave any questions photographing fireworks on film below in the comments, and if you liked this post, be sure to click the share buttons below!

Check out more tutorials for how to shoot film here!

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Blog Comments

Beautiful photos Johnny, I love the result the b&w brings to fireworks. I would not have thought to use b&w. And I love that you achieved this with a 90 year old camera. Thanks for sharing the photos, great job!

Thanks so much, Donna. Hope you had a happy Forth!

i have a 1956 leica III and i’m wondering what the photos look like without photoshop? is there anywhere i can see the unenhanced images? do you have any night/low light tips for leicas?

Hi Louise, thanks for your interest. Sounds like you have a beautiful camera! Like many artists, I do not share unfinished work but I’ll tell you, there is just as much “editing” going on in how one shoots, processes and scans their film as there is in Photoshop! There won’t be any secrets revealed by looking at my unedited files or bare negatives.

How your images come out will depend on what film, lens and developer that you use, how you expose and how you process and scan/print the images. I tried to provide what relevant insight one might need to take photos the same as I have here. If you have a more specific question, please let me know and I’m happy to help!

The main thing I’d say is that the Leica is just the vehicle, an awesome one but similar images can be taken on any camera using the same technique I described. Any compact, fully manual camera, with or without a focusing system is great to use for fireworks.

Please reach out if you take any fireworks images with your 1956 Leica, I’d love to see what you come up with!

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