Photographing Fireworks with a 90 Year Old Leica

*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 camera and held it up to the sky.  I unscrewed its little lens and tucked it safely in my bag.  I noticed a guy watching me but he didn’t speak, so I didn’t either.

I removed the bottom plate, sitting it in my bag with the lens, 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.  With no lens on the little black camera, I pointed it at the sky, looking through its viewfinder.  I pulled another lens out of my bag and screwed it onto the camera firmly.  I removed the small lens cap, dropped it in my pocket and topped off my outfit with the accessory viewfinder.

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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.”

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 he thought I was being ridiculous.  Either way, his mind seemed sufficiently blown.  “Okay, well good luck!”

“Thanks!  You too!”

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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 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.

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By now, it was too dark for me to be sure what I set my aperture to but I had enough latitude with the Tri-X that I wasn’t concerned.  I think that I was at about f9 because the Leica 90 Elmar 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.

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

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My shutter was already set to bulb from loading the camera and I kept it there.  When shooting fireworks, same as I did with my Fuji Instax Neo 90 a few years ago, 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?

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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!

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I processed the 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 that I quite enjoy.  There’s something old fashioned about them yet I feel that they are also sharp and contemporary.

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How do you think I did?  Have you photographed fireworks 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!

Thanks for reading and happy Independence Day!

Follow, Favorite, Like, Add, Insult, Contact Johnny Martyr 



22 thoughts on “Photographing Fireworks with a 90 Year Old Leica

  1. Johnny, I shoot fireworks with a simple kit as well. One lens, One body. Manual focus. Except my kit is completely digitalL I don’t have to disable any features. I don’t think this hasn’t anything to do with equipment. It’s the operator.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds cool – but sure photography has to do with equipment! It’s the equipment AND the “operator” not just one or the other that determines everything. Same person with different equipment yields different results. Hence part of my point here. What we use often guides how we shoot, does it not? If I’d used a tripod, my shots would have looked different. If I’d used your camera, my shots would have looked different. Right? I’m using a kit that doesn’t get used much for this purpose in 2020 so far as I know. So I think the results differ. Don’t they? And the choice of equipment and how it is used is that of the photographer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These look gorgeous! I’d never thought of using the Bulb mode but it looks like you’ve near-perfected it, so I’ll have to try this way someday! I’ve shot fireworks on Tri-X before with the Pentax Spotmatic and I think I exposed maybe f/1.8 at 1/15 but it was nearly 5 years ago and I’m no longer sure of the settings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Joe! 1.8 at 1/15th should have worked great. I think conventional advice is to stop down to middle apertures (to get highest optical performance) and drag the shutter accordingly, usually for several seconds. Because the Leica’s slow speeds would be hard to see, and because I had luck with my Instax in bulb mode previously, I decided to go that route. It’s also easy enough to count seconds if one is concerned with more accurate exposure, like if shooting slide, for example. Anyway, I just winged it and had fun.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! Those images are just amazing! I love what you did here; great little story and excellent resuts; definitely inspired me to have a go 🙂 … if I ever get out of the house again.
    It is a shame all those gear heads didn’t get to see what you accomplished with you basic set up.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice work Johnny, the photos are great. I can picture the looks of the faces of all the other photographers when you took the Leica out. Half ridicule and half awe. They probably thought you were either an idiot or some kind of zen photography wizard 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Johnny, this is some weird synchronization today. An hour ago, I was just reading on Dan James’s blog an article titled, “Let Your Photographs Show Your Photography Skills, Not Your Processing”.

    The reality is that there aren’t a lot of shots you can’t get if you know what you’re doing, which you clearly do. There’s a certain zen to pushing the technology out of the way and focusing on what you’re doing.

    There’s also a peace of mind knowing your battery isn’t going to die from running long exposures!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Cool shots Johnny! I really enjoy these as they aren’t the usual repetitive way fireworks are captured. Black and white accentuates the graphic nature of the images.

    Liked by 1 person

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