With July 4th in the USA and Canada Day on July 1st fast approaching I thought this would be a good time to write a short post on photographing fireworks.
If you have never taken photos of fireworks, it might sound like a daunting task, it’s not. Or if you have taken photos of fireworks but they didn’t turn out so well and you are tired of your photos coming out blurry and/or grainy the following tips might help you to take better photos.
First of all you need to take the right gear. If you want clean crisp images the first piece of gear that is the most important, after your camera, is a tripod. A tripod is a must when you are shooting at night. When shooting at night your shutter will be open for several seconds and you don’t want any shaking, wobbling etc., so make sure your tripod is sturdy enough for the weather and terrain.
If you can, try not to extend your tripod legs all the way out, try to keep everything close to the ground this will help to reduce camera shake.
The other critical piece of gear for long exposures is a cable release or shutter remote. Pressing the shutter button can result in camera shake and can mess up a great shot. Alternatively you can try using your cameras self-timer, but really for the cost of a remote it is well worth buying one.
Scout your location early. Planning is important when shooting fireworks. You will want an unobstructed view with no heads bobbing in the way. Think about what you want in the foreground and the background and what parts of the sky the fireworks are being shot into.
Preferably, to make the night sky as dark as possible you will want to be shooting towards the east. The reason being is that if you are shooting towards the west, with the longer exposure times, the setting sun (even if the sun has already set) can blow out your sky and wash out the color and brightness of the fireworks. If it is not 100% dark or if you have no choice but to shoot west and the sun has just set then you may want to consider using a neutral density filter.
How close you are to the fireworks will also determine what lens you will want bring. If you are very close or you want to include a cityscape in your image you will want a wider angle lens to get the full effect. If you are farther away or you want a more cropped look to your fireworks shot then a telephoto lens may be your best option.
If you are planning to incorporate background elements then watch your horizons make sure that they are straight and level.
Last but not least think about your framing, will you shoot vertical or horizontal? Most of the time I would recommend a vertical perspective as the motion of the fireworks are vertical but if you want to include a cityscape like Trey Radcliff’s photo of the Lake Austin fireworks (below) then a horizontal perspective will work better.
You will want to try to frame your photo before shooting. Try to figure out where the action is going to be, point your camera there and leave it, you do not want to try looking through the viewfinder for every shot as this will result in camera shake.
If you have never used your camera in Manual Mode, now is the time to dig out your manual so that you can change the settings that you will need to get great shots.
First set your camera to Manual Mode.
Turn off the flash.
If you are using a remote release or cable release then you will need to set your camera’s shutter speed to “bulb”. Bulb, usually abbreviated B, and will allow you to use the remote to control the shutter speed and allow for long exposure times.
Your exposures times will normally be between 0.5 seconds up to 4 or 5 seconds. If it is really dark, try to open the shutter as soon as you see or hear the whoosh of the firework shell and close the shutter after the explosion has dissipated.
Turn off auto ISO and set your ISO to 100-200. This will help reduce noise.
Also, if your camera has it, turn off long exposure noise reduction (NR). If you do not turn this off you may miss most of the fireworks. Long exposure noise reduction will double the time it takes to process the image. How it works is, the camera will make a second identical exposure with the shutter closed, so a 8 second exposure will take 16 seconds plus the time it take to write to your memory card. If some of your shots take 30 seconds or longer then it will take well over a minute for your camera to finish the shot. This delay will frustrate you.
Try turning off Image Stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR). It may sound counter intuitive but whenever you are using a tripod turn off IS/VR. Image stabilization is meant to reduce vibration (shaking of your hands) but if you camera does not sense any vibration it will create it, turn it off and you will get sharper images.
You will have to experiment with your aperture setting. A mid to small aperture will work best, f/8 to f/20 (remember the bigger the number the smaller the aperture). For my first shots I would use f/11 and then adjust accordingly. The darker the night and the brighter the pyrotechnics the smaller the aperture. If you check out the GlobalFest France, Great Britain, and USA posts you can see firework photos I took with F14-F20
Turn off auto focus (AF), it will have a very hard time finding the right focus point and you will either miss shots or they will come out blurry. Instead use manual focus and set it to infinity (once in manual focus turn the tip of your camera to focus on the furthest point).
Make sure your cameras battery is fully charged and it wouldn’t hurt to take an extra battery, long exposures will eat up your battery power.
Shoot early in the fireworks display, towards the end of the display there will be lots of smoke and that can take away from your photos.
The last thing you can try once you get your settings down is to get multiple firework bursts in one exposure. To do this use some black foam or a black felt hat/cap. Trigger your exposure with a remote, start the exposure with the cap in front of your lens, every time a burst happens move the hat/cap out of the way and then move it back after the burst, after a couple or three bursts close your shutter.
That’s it, have fun, shooting fireworks takes a lot of trial and error, so don’t be afraid to change up your settings. I have tried to give you a starting point now go out there and shoot.