If you have ever been to a fireworks extravaganza such as the Eid Al Fitr celebration at Katara, the fireworks display performed on National Day here in Qatar, or any other festivity around the world then you know that fireworks have a special and beautiful magic of their own. A good show synchronised with music can be absolutely amazing!
The origin of fireworks
Many people associate fireworks with Independence Day, but their original use was in New Year’s celebrations. Do you know how fireworks were invented? Legend tells of a
Chinese cook who accidentally spilled saltpetre into a cooking fire, producing an interesting flame. Saltpetre, an ingredient in gunpowder, was occasionally used as a flavouring salt. The other gunpowder ingredients, charcoal and sulphur, were also common in early fires. Though the mixture burned with a pretty flame in a fire, it exploded if it was enclosed in a bamboo tube.
This serendipitous invention of gunpowder appears to have occurred about 2,000 years ago, with exploding firecrackers produced later during the Song dynasty (960–1279) by a Chinese monk named Li Tian, who lived near the city of Liu Yang in Hunan Province. These firecrackers were bamboo shoots filled with gunpowder. They were exploded at the commencement of the new year to scare away evil spirits. Much of the modern focus of fireworks is on light and colour, but loud noise (known as gung pow or bian pao) was desirable in a religious firework, since that was what frightened the spirits.
By the 15th century, fireworks were a traditional part of other celebrations, such as military victories and weddings. The Chinese story is well-known, though it’s possible fireworks were really invented in India or the Arabian Peninsula.
From firecrackers to rockets
In addition to exploding gunpowder for firecrackers, the Chinese used gunpowder combustion for propulsion. Hand-carved wooden rockets, shaped like dragons, shot rocket-powered arrows at the Mongol invaders in 1279. Explorers took knowledge of gunpowder, fireworks, and rockets back with them when they returned home. Arabians in the 7th century referred to rockets as Chinese arrows. Marco Polo is credited with bringing gunpowder to Europe in the 13th century. The crusaders helped spread the word as well.
Many fireworks are made in much the same way today as they were hundreds of years ago. However, some modifications have been made. Modern fireworks may include designer colours, like salmon, pink and aqua, that weren’t available in the past.
In 2004, Disneyland in California started launching fireworks using compressed air rather than gunpowder. Electronic timers were used to explode the shells. That was the first time the launch system was used commercially, allowing for increased accuracy in timing (so shows could be put to music) and reducing smoke and fumes from big displays.
Behind the fireworks in Qatar
Have you ever wondered at the magic behind fireworks? What do you imagine is launched into the sky to make beautiful a fireworks display? Before a display each of the shells is placed in a mortar tube by the pyrotechnicians and linked to a central control unit where the fireworks are synchronised and each of the shells’ explosion can be individually controlled and timed to the music.
Fireworks consist of a multitude of shells made of heavy paper casing. Each shell is separated by cardboard into compartments, where the base is filled with black powder and propels the firework into the sky. A larger compartment contains a mixture of chemicals that produce light and colour when heated. These components are called ‘stars’.
Impact on the environment
Innovations Unlimited ME (IUME), a Qatar-based event management company, is the only company in Doha that holds a full trading and firing license for pyrotechnics and fireworks in both Qatar and Bahrain. They always strive to minimise the environmental impact with any of their works and the same applies also for firework shows. IUME ensures that the products used, such as for paper and chemicals for the fireworks, are biodegradable and made from recycled materials.
A firework show can make any event unforgettable and truly spectacular, and if you live in Qatar and have been to any of the firework extravganzas you’ll have seen some wonderful displays.
The latest events involving fireworks were the Eid Al Adha and Eid Al Fitr fireworks at Katara and National Day on the Corniche in 2012. The former were each a multi day celebration. The Eid Al Fitr show was put on for the much-awaited celebration marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a gesture from Katara to the nationals and expatriate community of Qatar. A multitude of colours in different formations and shapes synchronised with captivating music dominated the skies symbolising the variety of cultures living in Qatar. The shows concept, which focussed on the colours of Shawwal, used a sequence of 10 movements that symbolise the 10th month of the lunar calendar and Eid Al Fitr.
Photographing fireworks: tips and tricks
- Arrive before the show begins to find an unobstructed view of where the fireworks display will appear.
- Assess what will be in the foreground and background of your shots. Make sure you’re in a place where people will not constantly walk in front of you. However for some shots, it’s perfectly acceptable to have people or scenery included in photos. The fireworks will illuminate those parts within the frame.
- Extraneous lighting can interfere with getting a properly exposed photo of fireworks. Stay as far away as possible from illuminated signs, street lamps and any areas with artificial lighting.
- Position your digital camera pointing toward where the fireworks will explode. Recompose when necessary.
- Take a few practice shots early in the show. Check focus and exposure on the LCD. Adjust settings if needed.
- Once the show begins, take lots of shots! The more shots you take, the better your chances of capturing some spectacular photos.
- Vary exposure when photographing fireworks: A longer exposure time of four seconds will capture two or three bursts. When the firework bursts appear more rapidly during the grand finale, use an exposure time of one or two seconds.
What to bring:
- A tripod or monopod to steady your camera and prevent camera shake. When using a tripod, you will also be able to shoot at a lower ISO to help avoid noise in images.
- A small to mid-sized flashlight to use when you need to adjust camera settings in the dark.
- Extra batteries and memory cards.
Getting your camera ready:
- Set your camera’s focal length to the equivalent of 50mm or wider. Using a wide focal length is generally more effective than zooming in when photographing fireworks because the aperture is faster at the wide end of the zoom. Later, when editing, you can crop to give the appearance of a close-up shot.
- Set the camera to its highest quality settings.
- Because autofocus can be slow when it’s dark, set your digital camera to infinity mode, or manually focus to infinity.
- To prevent blur due to camera shake, use a tripod or other steady support. Also use the self-timer or acamera remote to release the shutter.
- Turn off the flash (if you can’t turn it off, tape a piece of cardboard over it).
Other camera settings: If your digital camera’s settings cannot be changed, the automatic settings may keep the shutter open long enough for a proper exposure. Set your camera to ‘Fireworks’ mode which has factory optimised settings for capturing fireworks. If your camera doesn’t have a ‘Fireworks’ mode, use the ‘Landscape’ mode.
If your camera has manual settings:
- Set focus to infinity.
- Use an aperture of F5.6 or smaller (higher number). Using smaller apertures will help ensure that thefireworks trails are sharper, containing more detail.
- Set the shutter to bulb.
- Exposure: use between one and four seconds.
- If possible, use an ISO of 100.
Pick up Marhaba issue no 56 Spring/Summer 2013 or Marhaba issue no 57
Autumn 2013 from any hypermarket or bookstore in Qatar for only QR20.
Author: This article with written by Sara Mascarenhas from Marhaba’s editorial team in collaboration with Innovations Unlimited ME, which is a Qatar-based company of creative, dedicated and energetic people delivering innovative solutions in the fields of event management, lighting solutions and projections throughout the Middle East. In May 2012, IUME won the award for the ‘Best Special Event’ of the Middle East 2012 for the first ever daytime fireworks in Qatar in partnership with Fireworks by Grucci.