2018 Sumida River Fireworks from Haneda

Summer fireworks displays are just about as Japan as it gets.

This year, the biggest one is the Sumida River Fireworks Display, that happen in two locations along the Sumida river, near the Sky Tree. Being the biggest of the year, it’s also going to be the craziest. You have to get there in the morning and stake out your spot early, and then you’re stuck for hours afterward as the crowds filter back into the train stations and melt into the greater Tokyo area. I’ve done it. It’s not fun. This time, I had a strategy, and when I was changing trains at Mita station, watching the crowds of yukata and tripods getting on the trains and going North, I was happy that I was going South. The typhoon that had delayed the fireworks one day had also knocked all the air pollution out of the air, and it was a pretty good bet that we could see something going down from the Haneda airport domestic terminal viewing area. And we were right. You can see a couple of test fireworks to the right of the twin apartment buildings at center, as an ANA 787 comes in to land. The second site was just at the left edge of the frame, to the right of that last taller skyscraper in the corner there.

Bring a long, expensive lens.

Two things happen every day: An ANA 737 lands at Haneda, and I wish I had more money for camera lenses. I love my 300mm f/4, but all of the photos in this post have been cropped in, and I was constantly shooting at a higher ISO than I wanted. There was Ben Torode with me, with his Minolta 300mm f/2.8, but next to us was a Canon shooter with a lens I didn’t recognize, but certainly a zoom longer than 300mm, but probably giving up a bunch in the max aperture range. Either way, shooting the fireworks from Haneda is an expensive proposition. You’re going to need a heavy lens, and also a good tripod to hold it steady.

Be Prepared to Fake It a Bit.

Life is never perfect. Airplanes landing don’t usually synch up with pretty fireworks, and probably require different shutter speeds. It’s common practice for fireworks photographers to lock down their tripod for the duration of the display, and then pick and choose from their exposures, creating a composition of the best fireworks into one photo. The ANA  737 earlier was a single photo, but this Hawaiian Air 777 is actually 4 exposures, three fireworks exposures and the airplane. All relatively chronologically close to each other, but still, not a single photo. Airplanes are moving and need a shorter shutter speed, while fireworks really look best with longer shutter speeds.

Don’t Worry About the Planes When it Gets Dark.

There’s a certain threshold after which you are not going to be able to freeze the motion of the airplanes. It’s ok. Let them go. Focus on the fireworks and see what you can get. Don’t worry about what you can’t get because your camera isn’t good enough. Stop, refocus, and look at what you can get because of the camera that do you have.

Maintain Situational Awareness.

As the fireworks continue, the photos are going to be harder and harder to get right, because the smoke in the air from the fireworks will obscure everything. Don’t give up. There are post production tricks. But as we were looking North, a big, low moon was rising in the South, and we had our eye on it as airplanes just missed intersecting with it on takeoff. As the fireworks ended, I turned around to try and shoot it, but the wind had shifted already, and the planes were taking off in opposite direction. I got one 777 on it’s takeoff through my fireworks shot, but no one on our airport roof managed to get that beautiful plane silhouette in front of moon shot. It was close.

Next year, I’m sure the summer fireworks displays in Tokyo will be just as huge as every year. If you’ve never done it, getting into that huge crowd and watching the fireworks is worth it. Once. If you’ve done that, it’s time to find a nice quiet spot with a good vantage point, and good friends.