Outdoor lights as subjects rather than illumination need more careful exposure to preserve color shapes, while fireworks are a special case that calls for anticipation. Although these are fluorescent lights, the colors typical of fluorescent lighting, and the white balance rarely needs to be accurate. Most displays are high up-well above street level-and the easiest technique is usually to stand back, across the street or further, and use a telephoto lens. For one exposure, use the fluorescent white balance setting, just to be able to see what difference it makes. Apart from this, take a series of different exposures, starting with meter reading and increasing the exposure from that. If you are using a tripod, there will be no need to increase sensitivity, and in any case you will need to keep the shutter speed at 1/30 second or slower to compensate for the tendency of fluorescent lamps to pulsate.
Which exposure looks best is usually a matter of taste, and the range of what is acceptable is quite wide. When comparing the results later, you should notice that short exposures give more intense colors, reproduce the tubes as thin lines, and show nothing or very little of the surroundings. Longer exposures give a thicker appearance to the display, which appears paler in color also. If you use a tripod and so have perfectly matched frames, it might be interesting to take two different exposures and combine them in a single image in Photoshop, keeping the color saturation of the darker frame.
Firework displays, like lightning, make their own exposure. Light intensity apart, there is little point in trying to use a fast shutter speed; the effect of a bursting firework is created by the streaking of the lights, even to the eye. A short exposure simply shows less of the display. Conversely, provided that the sky is really black, leaving the shutter open will not cause overexposure, but instead add more displays to the image. Two things to be careful of are the clouds of smoke from the fireworks that sometimes drift across the view, and the lights of the building s if you include the setting in the shot. Both of these set limits to the overexposure.
For the best effect of the bursts, exposure times are usually between half a second and four seconds, but you can judge this for yourself by watching the initial displays and timing them from the moment the rockets reach their bursting height. There is no need to switch to a higher sensitivity: f4-f5.6 is a reasonable aperture with ISO 100-200. In any case, the exposure is not critical: try making a variety of exposures to determine this for yourself.
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