So, I am sure we have all seen it on the likes of Rock My Wedding & Love My Dress, in recent years we have viewed or participated in, a growing wedding trend in the form of the ‘sparkler exit’. First brought to our attention in 2013-14 by our friends across the pond, some form of sparkler shot at a wedding has almost become a ‘staple’ of the wedding to-do list today. Often I suggest such an event to my couples, but more recently I get emails from my future brides asking about how to approach such an event to “get the best pictures”. So much so, that I even have a PDF now to explain to my couples how to best organise, seek permission and prepare for shooting the named ‘sparkler exit’.
It occurred to me recently that I took to this sparkler thing much earlier than many people, and I normally shoot this, in some variation, at most weddings now. I LOVE IT! Much like confetti, it’s very energetic, fun and visually stunning, all-be-it for only 90 seconds. Plus it’s a great excuse to take control for a couple minutes, especially, if like me, you spend most the day in the shadows.
Frequently I share pictures of Sparkler Tunnels, (see my change in language there – a good reason to follow) and whether on Instagram or via a private Facebook chat I have answered many questions on how to best execute Sparkler Tunnels. Everything from f/stop & shutter speeds, to what sparklers to use, to how to negotiate with venues. So, I thought I would take the time today, sat in Madrid Airport (my office away from home), to collate all my thoughts and tips into once place. Whether you’re photographer looking to make the first attempt at a Sparkler Tunnel, an engaged couple seeking assistance, or even an experienced wedding photographer looking for some extra insight, hopefully, this article will help you along your sparkler journey.
A word of warning; you’ll find no information here about shutter dragging, long exposures or drawing love hearts in the sky. As many of you will know – NOT MY THING!
If you’re a couple looking for less writing and more pictures, you can find more of my Cornwall Wedding Photography, Surrey Wedding Photography and Destination Wedding Photography using these links. Enjoy. :)
Safety First. As it should be, you should start by thinking of the safety concerns. Whilst I appreciate that we are normally dealing with adults and not children, it’s important to remember that you are actually dealing with 50-100 intoxicated adults, and not everyone will see sense like you do, probably the only sober person at the wedding. Therefore I take it seriously, it is yours, and my, responsibility to make sure we take appropriate considerations as to the ‘where and when’ of shooting a Sparkler Tunnel and also consider the ‘who’ is involved. I promise we will come to the fun stuff below, but don’t skip over these safety points I ALWAYS consider…
Where. Is there anything or anyone nearby that you could harm? Most importantly I’m thinking about flammable materials, roofing of some wedding venues, especially barns, are high on my watch list. Next up, I’m thinking about what’s on the floor, are you in carpark? If so, are there any oil spills on the floor? or are you in a field, if so, are you too close to any dry hay or straw bales? – those lovely bales can quickly go up in flames! Tents and marquees are also very flammable! Consider your surroundings.
When. I believe that one of the common perceptions about a Sparkler Tunnel is that it needs to be at the end of the night, just as the couple leave the venue. I strongly discourage this, and this is exactly why I don’t use the phrase ‘sparkler exit’.
Let’s take a typical day in September, it gets dark at around 8-9pm, waiting until midnight, or beyond, means that by the time you get to shoot the Sparkler Tunnel, everyone is thoroughly hammered! This should be a safety concern, and as such, I would much prefer, and will not agree to it otherwise, that a Sparkler Tunnel is organised immediately after the first set of evening entertainment, or at dusk, whichever comes first. It’s safer and easier to control. Where possible, I will shoot a Sparkler Tunnel BEFORE the first dance.
Who. Of course, you’ll be needing the bride and groom, but who is going to hold all the sparklers around the tunnel? The guests, duh! Well yes, but how many of them? This is a point that took me dozens of attempts to get just right. My number is 80, 80 people as a maximum. With 80 people the tunnel is long enough to get enough pictures, it’s short enough to be able to communicate with everyone who is outside (you’ll need a loud voice), more importantly though, it’s enough people until it becomes ridiculous to manage and keep safe. Now, this number varies a little for me, it’s not cut and dry, BUT I think it is a great guideline.
In reality, it works, for me, like this…
40 wedding guests, okay let’s get everyone involved.
90 wedding guests, okay let’s get everyone involved.
120 wedding guests, I will suggest in advance to the couple that we only take about 60 people to make the tunnel, normally I suggest bridesmaids, ushers, parents, siblings and partners of all these people, plus a few extra people that are closest to the outside door, or whom are already outside.
150+ wedding guests, I will suggest taking around 80 people outside, including those mentioned above.
Permission – it’s not confetti. As I mentioned earlier, a really fun event at weddings is the ‘traditional’ confetti, no huge insight there. However, whilst I regularly implement ‘its better to seek forgiveness, than seek permission’ with confetti. The same does NOT go for sparklers, at least with me. The worst that can happen with confetti is that some poor sod has got a lot of sweeping up to do, or a neighbour complains about the mess.
Note; My couples all know that the only way to do confetti is with real petals, I do not advocate paper littering – even the biodegradable rubbish!
The ideal scenario is that the wedding reception is on private land belonging to the bride and groom or a family member, in which case, no problem. The next best thing is the reception is taking place in a field, a large garden, or next to a sandy beach. However, sometimes we get central city hotels. That’s not to say it’s not possible, although sometimes it just isn’t. It’s always worth speaking in advance with the venue or landowner to see what is possible, and what isn’t. From an insurance view, I know some venues simply won’t allow it! Whilst I won’t take such rubbish for the confetti argument, I totally understand this and won’t fight them (too much). ;)
Whilst I always ask my couples to check, it’s worth having the chat with any authority at the wedding venue (owner, planner, staff) to check. I have found a good starting point to this it to assume (yes, I preach the assumption phrase too, but stick with me…) that it is okay and my first questions goes something like this…
Me: “Do you have a metal bucket and some water I can borrow…”
Venue: “For sparklers?”
Me: “Yes, exactly, should be great fun with that lovely patch of open area we have around the side of the building.”
Venue: “Cool, let me see what we can find.”
Result! Show that you have thought it through and 8 or 9 times out of 10, it should be all good.
Be open minded, be considerate and speak with authority and you should be just fine.
Kids. Before moving on to the practical execution of a Sparkler Tunnel, I wanted to add one final thought on the permission/safety side of things. As a rule, and in order to know who is involved, I do give out the sparklers and lighters myself to everyone involved. I will normally take responsibility for the sparklers from the bride and groom in the early hours of the reception and make sure they are out of sight of anyone else (normally in my car). However, I invoke a retail store style, 25 and over policy – which is slightly funny in itself if you know my age at the time of writing. :) Anyway… I don’t give out any sparklers to children or teenagers, they are more than welcome to be involved, I am just very specific about giving them to their parents, whom can then pass them to the kids however and whenever they see fit.
Okay so enough of that safety stuff, but I hope you’ll appreciate it’s important to be responsible and proactive.
Dusk & Dark. One of the common mistakes I see from photographers who shoot Sparkler Tunnels is the lack of patience, yes keep in mind what I said earlier about not waiting too long, but the results shown in this post do require darkness, to some degree. If I could choose the exact time at each wedding I would pick about 10 minutes after sunset in the winter and 30 minutes after sunset in the summer, just when the last light is in the sky. Enough light so we can see what we are all doing in a dark field, but dark enough that the sparklers will overpower any last rays in the sky. Perfect, not always the case though.
The next best thing is when it’s pitch black, you’ll want a couple of torches or small lamps to help light the area for guests if it’s really dark, although more often than not, some light from decorations, or the building nearby, will light up the area to some degree. The trap, I believe many people walk into is to move too early, thus have pictures that are simply too flat. Personally, I believe that Sparkler Tunnels look their best when all you can see is the guests, sparklers and the bride and groom – I’m not interested in being distracted by anything else in the background of the frame.
The flash pitfall. Next up, the flash pit full should be obvious to most photographers, but in summary; in order to get all that ambient light from the sparklers you don’t want to be over powering the scene with flash. None of the pictures in this post have any flash or continuous lighting whatsoever. I always ask my couples to hold two sparklers each when they make their way down the tunnel, this light will help illuminate them and fill in any shadows on the faces of the couple. It also helps me with focusing. Flash kills raw emotion.
Control. I talked earlier about taking control before you execute the Sparkler Tunnel in the form of safety thoughts beforehand. Yet, taking control during and in the moments before and after is vital too. One of the keys to making this happen is all 80 people lighting their sparklers at the same time, knowing where to hold them, knowing how far apart to stand and where to put the hot embers after they have burnt out. Taking control, explaining to people what is about to happen is key. I have a well-rehearsed 20 to 30-second speech about how to light sparklers, when to light them, where to hold them and what to do with the embers afterwards. If it’s a small group of people I will likely stand on a chair and tell everyone together what’s about to happen. Although more often than not, I will go down the tunnel before the couple and explain 3 times at the start of the line, middle, and at the end of the tunnel about what’s about to happen. Remember, authority, someone has to know what’s going on.
Long Sparklers & Lighters. Before you even turn up at the wedding, in fact, weeks or even months before, the couple need to know what to buy to make this happen. You can’t expect them to know what you know. Therefore, I’ll discuss the possibilities of having a Sparkler Tunnel at their wedding and if it’s an option, here is a summarised version of what I will advise…
“You’ll need about XYZ number of sparklers, two per person involved. Be sure to buy the 40cm versions, as the 25cm versions are far too short, they burn for about 30 seconds, where as the 40cm ones burn for about 70 seconds. You can buy them on Amazon, about £25 for 120 of them. I can send you a link to the ones you need if you like. Just be sure to buy warm burning ones, not the blue ones! The other thing you will need is ABC number of lighters, one per person (one-between-two at a minimum).
Make it narrow. Back to the wedding day itself, be sure to make the tunnel narrow, about 2 meters wide, maybe slightly narrower if feasible, considering dress size and the like. I will ask all the guests to hold the sparklers up nice a high, “like a guard of honour”, and then ask the couple to walk down SLOWLY through the middle when I give them the nod. Keeping the tunnel narrow allows light from the sparklers to illuminate the couple nicely and also keeps the action and fun squeezed into a tight space, just how I like it.
The Numbers. The most common question I get asked from other photographers about my sparkler pictures is whether I use flash, to which I have already answered above. When I respond ‘no’, the following question is normally always ‘how do I manage’ without. It’s honestly easy, it’s mostly about knowing that once 100+ sparklers are lit at the same time, your dark scene is about to get very bright. The tips above about the bride and groom having sparklers, informing all the guests when to light the sparklers and keeping it narrow, will all help more than any camera settings I can give you. Yet, as I have named this article the ‘The Complete Guide to Shooting Sparkler Tunnels’ then I should probably make it, well, complete!
I am assuming, (I should stop this, but its key) that the camera you are using is a pro DSLR, I’m thinking a D750, D4, 5DIII, or other equivalent, this is because of the high ISO required. Furthermore, you’ll need a fast prime, a 24-70 f/4 staple is not going to cut it, you may also struggle at times with a f/2.8 lens too. Most of the images in this post and my default settings for sparklers are as follows;
Mode: Aperture Priority
Exposure Bias: – 2 & 1/3 stops
I have on occasion used f/1.4 or f/1.8, but as long as there are enough sparklers and the tunnel is narrow enough, I normally find f/2.2 gives me a nice amount of wiggle room for focusing as the couple walk towards me, whilst I walk backwards at the same time. On my Nikon D750’s I have found 10,000 ISO is the sweet spot, but if you’re more comfortable either way then adjust accordingly. As a result, my shutter speed normally works out somewhere between 1/125 to 1/400, a nice buffer on an 85mm in low light WITH a moving camera AND a moving subject.
Most of my sparkler pictures are shot on the Nikon 85mm f/1.4, I simply love the compression. Occasionally, I will get close to a guest with a sparkler to add some foreground out of focus sparks in too (at your own risk!). I have also shot the process several times on a 35mm, and tend to do this when working with a videographer so we can walk back side-by-side without getting in each others frames.
What about at 200mm? I find that at 200mm the pictures look too far removed, it’s as though I’m too far away, which I probably am (in my opinion). The nice thing with an 85mm is that you get the compression but are still close enough to communicate. Perfect.
Final Thoughts. Once I have finished, normally we will be able to walk down the tunnel twice, then I will shout very loudly “Thank-you everyone” and normally that works as a good moment for everyone to mess about for the last few seconds whilst the sparklers are still burning. Once extinguished, I’ll stand somewhere where people have to walk past with the bucket of water/sand and ask everyone to put the embers in. (DO NOT HOLD THE BUCKET)
After everyone has left, I’ll use a torch to look around and make sure all the embers have been picked up, I always find a couple! I would much rather get them picked up (or get your assistant to do it for you) and have the venue think it was a good experience, rather than, in the morning, finding sparklers they have to pick up all over the place.
And with that, I think you’re fully prepared for some sparkler fun!
Be aware. In 3 years and probably 60 separate Sparkler Tunnels I have only had two incidents. Once when a groom’s hand got burnt by a guest holding his sparkler too close, another where a guest’s sparkler went through the brides dress, again for holding the sparkler far too close to them. I have put both of these accidents down to the fact that the guests involved were far too drunk, and, in part, my fault for allowing it to happen so late in the day. In hindsight, I should have said ‘no’. So if in doubt, my advice would be to do just that, and if the couple insists, then be a lot less involved and make sure it’s them pursuing the idea and not you, voice your concerns and then you have done your bit.
Ultimately it’s really good fun! You can achieve some cracking pictures. And everyone will love you for it.
Sparklers bring out the kids in all of us, especially after a couple glasses of bubbles! :)
If you did indeed find this useful then I would be delighted to share some more content with you soon…
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Words & Photos by Barney Walters