Learn How to Photograph Fireworks the Easy Way
You don't have to spend a lot of money on camera gear. In fact, you can get great fireworks photos using inexpensive equipment as long as you have a few key elements.
- A camera with manual controls for Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed
- A tripod
- A cable release
You're going to photograph fireworks with a very small aperture, like f/16. That lets you have a longer exposure without overloading your sensor, so you can capture the bursts and explosions as they spread across the sky.
In this episode, we cover a number of factors to help you understand how to photograph fireworks. We'l discuss your gear, how to scout your location, give you advice for different styles of capturing your fireworks photos and finally how to use post processing to enhance your results.
Sample Photos of Fireworks to Illustrate Ideas Discussed on The Show
We're lucky that we can photograph fireworks any night of the year, so these examples will come from Walt Disney World. You can use the same tips in your fireworks photography anywhere.
We mentioned that fireworks in the sky without a point of reference are bland and full. Your fireworks photos should show something of the environment where you're photographing your shots. These examples use Main Street and Cinderella Castle to show the environment.
You don't always have to be close to the scene for your fireworks. Consider shooting from a distance to get a cityscape or a wider point of view of the fireworks.
We mostly recommended using a wide angle lens. That may cause some distortion, but you can also use that to your advantage. Get funky with a fisheye!
Since fireworks are combustible explosions, expect smoke. Some of your clearest shots will be at the beginning of the show. In some cases, you may be able to use the smoke in combination with lighting.
Remember that the Grand Finale is often overwhelming for your camera sensor. Sit back and enjoy the show with your own eyes, because your camera will see something like this example.
When you get home, use your post processing to draw out the colors and contrast in your fireworks photos.
You need solid support to hold your camera. Don't expect to use a table-top tripod or even something like a GorillaPod with flexible legs. They may not keep your camera stable for a long exposure. Here are some tripods from Amazon.com that we can recommend.3 Legged Thing EVO3 Punks Rick Carbon Fiber Tripod and Mohawk Ball Head Oben AC-1341 3-Section Aluminum Tripod with BA-111 Ball Head
Post Processing Software
Here are some recommended post processing software tools to help enhance your photos. These programs can help you organize and enhance your photos. You can increase contrast, sharpen images, bring detail out of shadows, increase saturation and vibrance in the fireworks streams and reduce noise in your photos.
These are all tools that I use and recommend. Some links are affiliate links, which doesn't add any cost to you. In fact, I have coupon codes for some to provide you with a discount.
Macphun Luminar – Check out with Coupon Code BEEM to save 10% (Mac computers only)
Macphun Noiseless CK – Check out with Coupon Code BEEM to save 10% (Mac computers only)
Topaz DeNoise – Check out with Coupon Code WBEEM to save 15%
ON1 Photo RAW – Check out with Coupon Code WBEEM16 to save 20%
Related Posts About Fireworks
Macphun Coupon Code
I mentioned at the start of the show that you can save 10% (or $10) on Macphun software using my coupon code. This is my affiliate code, which means that I make a small commission if you purchase from me, but it also means that you save money.
For Macphun products like Luminar and Aurora HDR, you save $10.
For other Macphun products, like the Creative Kit, you save 10%.
Just visit: https://williambeem.com/macphun
When you check out, use my Macphun coupon code: BEEM
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THE PHOTO FLUNKY SHOW: Episode 55
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Welcome to the Photo Flunky Show, Episode number fifty-six.
Today we’re going to be talking about how to photograph fireworks. New Year’s Eve is coming up and who knows? Maybe this will still be good for a replay when the Fourth of July comes around.
William: Thank you very much for joining us on the Photo Flunky Show. My name is William Beem.
Lee: Hey, my name is Lee Beem.
William: And we think we’ve got a wonderful show for you tonight. At least it’s something that a lot of people like to do. There are only, for most people I think in the USA, really only two occasions when you are really going out shooting fireworks and that’s either New Year’s Eve or Independence Day.
William: Internationally I know fireworks are going off. I don’t know how often they are going to go off.
Lee: I think that varies on what the celebrations are.
William: Yeah, I guess it does. The exceptions are going to be at Disney Parks, which is where we live in Orlando. There are fireworks every day of the year so we’ve actually been practising this quite a lot and I’m hoping that we’ve got something to share with you that will make sense.
Lee: Yes. And I love shooting fireworks.
William: Fireworks are fun and the nice part about it is you don’t really have to have expensive, awesome gear in order to get fireworks photos that look really good.
Lee: You don’t and although not every time is going to be perfect, once you get the basics of the settings and how to set up for it, it’s really easy.
William: It really is so we want to kind of get into that, but before I do that, let me just take care of a little bit of business.
I want to let you know that show notes are going to be available at williambeem.com/episode56 including some of our fireworks shots. We want to give some examples of things we’ve been talking about. You can find a transcript of the show there for free and if you’d like to subscribe to the podcast we would really love to have you join us. So go to photoflunky.com. You’ll find a podcast player there that’s got a lot of episodes and also there are links there to subscribe to the show.
So whether you want to be on iTunes, or Google Play or something else, we’ve got a few different ways that you can get there. And finally there are links on the website at williambeem.com to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. And you know what? I need to add my YouTube channel. I’m starting to record a lot of videos for YouTube this week and next week.
Lee: Yes. If you guys download the transcript, the YouTube link is actually in there now as standard.
William: Alright. That sounds outstanding. And if you’ve got a request for something you want to know, leave me a comment. Let me know either in the contact form on the web page at williambeem.com/contact or comment at williambeem.com/episode56
I’d love to hear from you.
So why do you want to shoot fireworks? Honestly, fireworks are fun to watch, but when you capture them you have a chance to get something that’s even a little bit different than the show.
Lee: Yes it is because when you’re watching the show you see one set of bursts at a time. When you’ve got a long exposure, you get all these bursts almost overlayed during the course of the exposure so the sky is more colorful in the photo than what it will be in real life.
William: Yeah and there are times like at the end of most shows there’s going to be a grand finale with a lot of bursts going off. The problem is when they do that, it usually overwhelms the sensor. It’s extraordinarily bright.
William: So one of the smartest things you can do is actually kind of capture the experience with a long exposure and get multiple bursts on the same frame. And you come up with something unique because every photographer is going to time it differently.
Lee: That’s true. Yeah.
William: You’re going to end up with shots that no-one else is going to have. And the fact that the show will go on for a while, you’ve got more than one chance to get it right. You might be doing long exposures not throughout the length of the show as one exposure, but multiple chances of long exposures throughout the night.
Lee: That’s true. You can play around with it. Have a quick glimpse when it flashes up on the back of the screen and if you’re not happy, adjust accordingly.
William: As far as the gear you need, let’s start off with the basics. You need a camera with manual controls. It doesn’t have to be a DSLR. It can be mirrorless, it can be DSLR, it can be micro four thirds, it can be an all in one camera. So long as you have control over your exposure triangle.
If you’ve got your ISO, your aperture and your shutter speed; if you can control all of that the way you need to, then your camera is probably going to be fine. It doesn’t have to be a big expensive one.
Lee: That’s true. Yes.
William: We’ve seen people try to hand-hold their camera for photographs of fireworks and I’m going to tell you, don’t do that.
Lee: It just doesn’t work. You get these little squiggly things and the black sky and a bit of smoke and a bit of blur.
William: Yeah, it’s kind of like an art trip on acid.
William: Or an acid trip on art?
Lee: I don’t know. I think it works both ways!
William: So we’re going to definitely recommend that you get a tripod and I mean a tripod that hits the ground. Not a little – what do you call it? Gorillapod? Or one of these little things that you put on a table top? The reason I’m recommending that you get a sturdy tripod is because you want something in case there is a breeze, that will keep your camera stable. Because you are going to be doing long exposures, you know, three or four seconds; maybe even longer than that. And the longer the exposure is open and the shutter is up and you are taking in light, the greater chance you have of something introducing vibration.
Lee: That’s true.
William: And that’s just going to make for blurry photos.
Lee: Yes, so railings and surfaces like that are a little bit more risky, especially if you’re expecting a lot of people around. Generally when there’s a fireworks event …
William: Yes, we’ve got friends that will go out to Walt Disney World and try and set up on a trash can and they are taking their long exposure and then someone wants to throw something away.
Lee: Yeah. I mean imagine wanting to use the trash can where someone is taking a photo with it!
William: And you can’t argue with them. It’s a trash can! So bring your own tripod. Make sure you set it up and it doesn’t have to be the biggest tripod in the world. It just needs to be big enough and stable enough for whatever camera you are using.
Lee: That’s true and because fireworks are up, it almost doesn’t matter if it’s not that tall.
William: No, it really doesn’t. Now, we are going to recommend that you get some kind of a remote release and honestly, I prefer a shutter release cable.
Lee: Yes. I prefer the cable as well.
William: I mean, I know that you can do this with infra red remotes or you can even do it with a wireless remote, but there is a little something with a cable that I like better. One is some of the infra reds you were saying …
Lee: On the front of the camera? It’s kind of awkward to try and lean around. You actually risk bumping the camera yourself because you’re trying to straddle at least one of the legs of the tripod so it’s just a bit awkward.
William: The nice part is you don’t really want to have your eye up against the frame. I mean you’ve already selected your composition by the time the fireworks are going off so you know what your elements are going to be and you just want to watch the show and watch for the bursts and then you want to have the cable in your hand and you want to click a button and then release it. Or maybe you want to click it and lock it for a certain period of time and then move something on or off your lens to capture light or block light.
William: But the idea is remote ones don’t necessarily always let you shoot on bulb which, if you want to do like a 30 second or more exposure, you need to be in bulb mode on most cameras.
Lee: That’s true. And you don’t necessarily need that long. Ten seconds will give you a decent one. Depending on the show.
William: It depends on the show and it depends on how many different bursts you want to get in. Some of the bursts may go up and you say, you know what? That’s not what I want. So you don’t unblock your lens. You can kind of leave it open there for a couple of minutes, but if it’s blocked by the next thing we’re going to recommend … It’s kind of like … I use a black ballcap, but you can use a dark cloth or something that blocks light from coming into the lens. So that way it doesn’t matter how long your exposure is open because you’re not gathering light, you’re not generating noise and you are only opening up for the time when the bursts that you want are going off.
Lee: That’s true. Yes.
William: The nice part about the cable is that it gives you control without touching your camera and introducing vibration, whereas some of the remote releases will let you click the release and maybe there’s a timer that snaps on and off. Even when that timer snaps there’s a bit of a jerk when it stops.
Lee: You need to look at your setup, look at the camera and look at what’s available in terms of cable releases or remote releases; whatever your preference is. I guess you work with what you have and you buy what you can afford.
William: The nice thing about cable releases is they are less likely to have interference from someone else.
Lee: Well they don’t run on batteries either.
William: Yeah, it’s like there’s really not much that can go wrong with the cable. Whereas I’ve seen people that are working even with Pocket Wizard, someone is triggering somebody else’s wireless.
Lee: Oh damn! Oh no!
Lee: That’s so funny.
William: Yeah. You click the shutter and then someone else clicks theirs and it’s like, wait! That wasn’t what I wanted. It’s less likely these days, but you know what? Nobody is going to interfere with your cable. Sometimes old school really is best.
Alright, we are going to recommend that when you are shooting you want to shoot at a low ISO to avoid noise. This is not something where you want to crank your aperture wide open or you want to move your ISO way up. You want to have nice, clean images and you are going for the long exposure. So you are going to stop down.
Lee: You do, but it’s not just to avoid noise. The reason that I turn the ISO as low as my camera will take it is partly because of the exposure triangle. I want that exposure to be letting in as little light as possible so I can leave it open for longer.
William: And that’s why we are stopping down and you don’t need to have a big fast glass. I mean you can use it if you want to, but you are really going to be shooting at a very small aperture.
Lee: Yeah I think the widest I go is, once or twice I’ve done F11 with a very dark neutral density filter, but generally it’s F14 to F18 for my fireworks and I leave that open for about 45 seconds.
William: Yeah, I’m kind of right there at F16 because I know that I want to let in a little bit of light at a time and I’m going to be … if I’m doing multiple exposures on the same frame, just moving that hat on and off the lens, it’s kind of like when the bursts go up, it’s going to build up to a point and I’m kind of calculating in my head as to how many seconds makes an exposure for whatever the rest of the environment is going to be.
Lee: Yes. And here’s another thing. When you are focusing – this is actually quite important – if you’ve got auto focus and manual focus on your camera [and lens] to use the auto focus you preferably have some kind of subject there as a foreground for your fireworks shots.
Focus in on that, lock the focus in and switch it to manual because otherwise in the low light, the camera starts hunting and then it doesn’t always trigger the shutter release when you hit it; when you press the button.
William: I agree with that. You definitely want to be on manual focus because as soon as it starts hunting, particularly if you’ve got a silent auto focus and you don’t hear it hunting, wait until you get back and say why is this all blurry?
Lee: But focus it first because usually what happens is wherever you are, the lights get dimmed before the fireworks start. So do it while it’s still light. Also and I’ve made this mistake, get your shutter release cable into the correct place before the lights go down because I’ve also come unstuck with that and been trying to sit with a light from a phone to see where it went in.
William: You know that’s another thing. If you have a little door on your viewfinder glass to keep light from leaking in back there, make sure you close off your viewfinder. Because light can leak into your sensor from the viewfinder while the shutter is open.
Lee: Is that what it’s for?
William: That’s what it’s for.
Lee: Oh! I threw it back in the box. I didn’t know what it was for. I thought it came with the packaging like a protective thing.
William: No, on my camera it’s built into the camera. I just slide this little thing and it blocks off the viewfinder. So you want to block that off so you don’t get additional light.
Lee: This just attaches. I just remember throwing that in the box and thinking, what the hell?
William: Well, there you go!
And finally we are going to kind of recommend going with a wide angle lens because usually you are trying to get an environment inside of your fireworks. If you’ve ever seen photographs of just fireworks in the sky, they are boring as hell.
Lee: That’s true. Unless of course you’re shooting from way off somewhere and you’ve got a big, like maybe a bridge or a big landmark building that’s there that you want to get as a feature. If you are far away you could probably adjust, but generally if you are sitting in the common viewing area, you are going to want to go wide.
William: There are times I think, in some cities, where a long lens makes sense. If you really want to compress together the buildings and you want the fireworks kind of right in there.
New York City or Chicago would be a place like that where you’ve got those wonderful tall buildings and you’ve got access to a rooftop someplace and you just want to kind of crunch it all in. Maybe even Las Vegas, might be a nice place. But if you’ve got a skyline.
For most of us, I would say a wide angle is really what you want to look at.
William: Let’s kind of get into the next one which is scouting your location. Where do you want to be?
That depends upon your location itself. Sometimes I think photographs of fireworks look really nice if you are actually further away from them and you can shoot maybe overlooking the city or the skyline that you’re at and seeing the fireworks going above them. I’ve done that a few times.
If you’re going to be closer into the environment, then I think you’re going to be looking for elements that are going to be in your foreground and background. So think about the rest of your photography. It’s usually going to be that you want to have a foreground, a middle and a background.
So your fireworks might be your background or in some cases they might be your middle. They are probably not going to be your foreground.
Lee: Well, no. Hopefully not.
William: If you are that close I hope you are wearing protective clothing.
William: It’s still the same photography rules that apply. It’s not just about the fireworks. It’s about the fireworks at a particular place. So find some element that says “I’m here.”
San Francisco photographers like to shoot over the Golden Gate Bridge. Or maybe the Trans America building or something like that.
Lee: A landmark. A little bit of homework with something like this goes a long way. It doesn’t take a long time to do research or maybe it does – depending on how specific you are about what you want, but look at shows that have been put on in that location over previous years. Have a look at some examples of photos. Try and figure out where the person was standing and then decide based on that.
William: And look at YouTube videos. This is something that Lee has brought up a number of times, but it really is good, even before you go do your location, look for videos of fireworks at that location. And they may shoot from multiple angles, but then you’ve got a couple of different ideas and you may even say, you know what? I don’t want to shoot from where they shot on the video, but I see a spot where I would like to be.
Lee: And you possibly want to pick your lens based on the type of show that’s put on because they vary so widely. I mean fireworks are like confetti. It can go anywhere.
William: It really can. The other part we are going to recommend is be prepared to wait. You want to get to your spot early enough that you can set up before it gets too dark.
You want to take some test shots. So you want to make sure that you’ve got your foreground element or whatever your environment is that you’re photographing. You want to do some long exposure test shots and get a feel for how long it’s going to take and what your aperture and shutter speed is going to be.
Also sometimes you may want to take a shot of your foreground element or environment before the fireworks start because if you want to go into Photoshop later and kind of layer them in and then just put the bursts over that, you need to have a tripod and a stable environment and that way you can just say, OK I know that I’ve got photographs that are in exactly the same composition and I can just layer them in Photoshop and kind of brush in what I want or what I don’t want.
Lee: Yes the great thing about a tripod. I mean that’s all too clever for me. I don’t do that, but I’ve watched you do some and it’s beautiful.
William: It gives you options.
William: If you take a photograph of your environment before the fireworks go off and you’re comfortable with Photoshop it gives you options to kind of create fireworks and move them around where you want. So maybe you don’t get exactly what was there.
Lee: Well maybe you don’t get exactly what you want in one shot. But over a series of shots you’ve taken, you may be able to put it together.
William: Well here’s part of the reason why. When you get into shooting fireworks, these are explosions. Explosions make smoke. And the smoke may blur or obscure part of what you want to see. It can also enhance what you want.
Particulate matter in the air can be very interesting, especially when some of the fireworks start glowing through the smoke.
William: You want that perfect, pristine fireworks shot over a city? Sometimes that might be a composite image.
Lee: That’s true.
William: It’s not that you have to do it, but it gives you options if you’ve taken a photograph of the environment or landscape before the first shot goes off.
William: We mentioned the grand finale. And this is one of those things that I think, by the time the grand finale comes around, you just kind of want to stop taking photographs and watch and enjoy it because it overwhelms the sensor in most cases
Lee: I tend to try and shut it out before it gets there. And you can normally feel the build-up. If there is music or even the fireworks almost lead you into it. You get a feel for when it’s coming and that’s probably the time to stop the exposure. You can take a chance but at least you know that if you lose it you haven’t wrecked the previous shot.
William: After the fireworks are over you’ve packed up and you go home. You’re not complete yet.
Now you need to do a little bit of post processing to really make your photograph stand out.
William: What I like to do is very simple. I’ll usually go into Lightroom or some raw processor. I am going to … first thing I’m going to do is I’m going to make sure I’ve got some contrast. I want my sky to be dark, I want my blacks to be there and I want the fireworks to stand out more.
So you add some contrast; you’re definitely making your fireworks stand out.
The other thing you want to do is you want to sharpen your photos and you want to add some vibrance or some saturation to make the colors in those fireworks really stand out. It’s one thing to see just some kind of off white lights streaking up, which is what it might look like out of the camera.
But once you amp up the saturation of the color or vibrance or whatever sliders you’ve got, that kind of really makes it “Ooh!!
There are some greens and reds and blues in there. You start to experience something that maybe you saw, maybe you didn’t. But when you’re looking at a static photograph you want that to kind of pop out at whoever is going to be looking at it.
Lee: Yes you do. You want those vibrant colors. And in Lightroom – this is going to vary depending on what post processing software you use, but I definitely prefer the vibrance to the saturation. I almost never touch the saturation slider. Usually it’s to drop the saturation a bit.
William: If I use saturation in Lightroom I’m probably going to do it on an adjustment brush. So I’m only going to do it over the fireworks themselves.
Because if your environment … you don’t want to see like electric colors coming out of everything. It doesn’t look right.
Lee: That’s true.
William: So I wouldn’t recommend necessarily doing global adjustments to everything when really what you’re trying to do is enhance the fireworks shots themselves.
Lee: That’s true.
William: So do your global for the environment and then do your adjustment brush changes for the fireworks themselves.
And with that, I think you probably have everything you need to get some really good fireworks. It takes a little bit of practice. You kind of get your timing. I usually like to go for a three to four seconds, maybe six seconds tops for my bursts going up because this is a long exposure. The fireworks – you don’t just wait until they burst and then take the picture.
You want to see them travel from the ground up.
William: If they are going to be the kind that light up there. Or even when they burst in the air and they take a little bit of time to spread out. So you need to make sure that you kind of get into a rhythm of timing it.
Three or four seconds is usually my sweet spot. And that may be three or four seconds for one frame or it could be that I’ve got my exposure left open and I just take the cover off of my lens – in my case a black hat – and just take it off and count one, two three, four – and as soon as it’s done I’m putting it back on because the next burst may or may not be something I want to capture.
Lee: OK. See I haven’t … I’ve used the black hat once or twice. Actually it wasn’t mine. I don’t wear hats and I never remember to pack one. It’s a great tool to use. My exposures tend to be … my shutter tends to be open for thirty to forty five seconds. That seems to be my sweet spot.
William: Now there are a couple of things to keep in mind. We mentioned smoke. And smoke depends on if there’s a breeze or not. It could be blowing in some direction or if there is no breeze it could just get stagnant there. It kind of depends on how you time it.
When the fireworks go off and it bursts, and it lights up that smoke like maybe if it’s got a color to it, that could be interesting or it could just ruin everything else.
Lee: Yes, maybe put more emphasis on trying to shoot early on if smoke is likely to be an issue.
William: Smoke is going to be an issue so expect smoke. It’s going to build up as it goes so your first shots are the ones that you really want to kind of try and capture before the smoke builds up.
And if you’ve got a breeze there may be a pause or a lull in the show and maybe you can go ahead and get some more shots without all the smoke in there.
The other part is sometimes these things on holidays get really crowded in the popular areas. Try to set up your tripod so nobody is going to bump into it.
Lee: Yes. Legs through railings work quite well if you’re able to do that; against a wall, like a solid wall …
William: In our case we like to go to Walt Disney World and there is just a ton of tourists around there watching the shows every night. People don’t mean to bump into you but it can happen. So just try to pick a spot and not be in the thick of things if you can.
William: And finally, one other thing that we want to talk about that some photographers like to use is a neutral density filter. You just mentioned that a little while ago.
Lee: Yes, I almost exclusively shoot fireworks with one.
William: Be careful what neutral density filter you use because you’ve got a story where you failed on some shots.
Lee: I got burned. I figured I wasn’t going to spend a hundred bucks on a neutral density filter. That was just insane. It was the first time I was shooting fireworks. I got a cheap one. I don’t recall – it was maybe $25 – $30?
I thought there was dirt on my camera. I kept cleaning the lens. It turned out it was the filter. So I lost all the photos I had taken and ended up buying a more expensive one. Not top of the range, but I went and got a good quality one and spent some cash on it.
I couldn’t even begin to describe the difference.
William: And some neutral density filters or some of the cheaper ones can put a color cast on your photos.
Lee: Yes and flare. There was like a weird flare and like a smoky look. It was like when you get a dirty lens and you wipe it and you get smears. It was strange.
William: So my suggestion is if you are going to use a neutral density filter, test it first. Don’t make your fireworks your first time using a given neutral density filter. You want to know that you can trust it before you go out to a one time event.
Lee: Yes and you don’t have to buy the most expensive neutral density filter, but get something that’s got good reviews and I can pretty much guarantee you if you are looking at the bottom of the line, no name stuff on amazon or eBay, you’re likely to get burned with something like this.
William: I usually go with Tiffen or Lee filters; something that I recognize and I’ve purchased and used before.
William: Hopefully that gives you enough information. If this is your first time shooting fireworks, if you have questions, let us know and if you’ve got some shots that you really enjoyed, give us a link in the comments at williambeem.com/episode56.
Thank you for listening to the Photo Flunky show. As usual, show notes are going to be available atwilliambeem.com/episode56.
And you can find a free transcript of the show there.
You can subscribe to the Photo Flunky Show at iTunes, Google Play Music, Blubrry, Stitcher Radio. Links are available at photoflunky.com
Thank you so much. We look forward to seeing you again next week.