As the July 4th holiday draws near, I figured this would be a good time to talk about photographing the great displays that go on in almost every town around this great country. Whenever I go to a fireworks show, I notice that almost everyone there has a camera with them to catch the moment, but then I notice that almost everyone there has no idea how to actually take a picture of what they are seeing. It’s usually people with point and shoot cameras just holding them up and snapping a picture – usually with the flash on, and it just makes me cringe to think about what those photos are going to look like when they go through them at home. Read on and I’ll try to set you on a path to taking firework photos that you actually want to show off to people.
First of all…. tripod, tripod, TRIPOD!!! I can’t stress this enough. If you are going to take pictures of firework displays, bring your tripod. If you don’t have one, go and buy one. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive gas charged rig with 18 articulation points. Just go to Wal-Mart and buy a tripod to put your camera on. No matter how hard you try, you cannot hold the camera still enough to take pictures of fireworks without making a blurry mess of them.
The camera itself is really not as important as you think. Of course, all of these things are going to be easier to do with a DSLR (and some of the tips in this article are specifically for DSLR users) but with the proper setup, you can still get some great fireworks shots with any point and shoot camera that has a manual mode for choosing your own settings.
Another good idea for you DSLR owners trying firework shots is to try using a cable release or wireless remote control to trigger the shutter. This keeps you from having to touch your camera and, therefore, eliminates any camera shake from taking place.
Once you have your tripod in order, it’s time to think about the “guts” of the shot. You are essentially photographing a very dark sky/landscape scene that has a burst of extremely bright light for a period of a few seconds. It’s going to be dark before the shot, and the camera will not be able to autofocus, so you need set your focus to manual and the infinity mark. The fireworks are going to be far enough away (hopefully) that focus will not be an issue, so you treat this just like a far away landscape with the infinity setting.
Most any photographer who knows a thing or two about f stops, knows how important a “fast” lens is in low light situations or shooting at night. The wider you can open that aperature, the more light you can get into your camera. Well, this is one of those times that you can throw that knowledge out the window. You do not want a wide aperture for shooting fireworks. The light coming off of them is too intense for having your aperture open down to f/1.4 or f/2. In reality, you want your aperture to be closed down quite a bit. Anywhere from f/8 to about f/16 is not uncommon. The reasoning behind this is that you have to leave your shutter open for such a long exposure that if your aperture is wide open too, you’re going to overexpose the shot. Fireworks that look like big white balls in the sky are not cool!
Let me show you what I mean…
This photo was taken over the Mississippi River at Natchez. It was shot using an aperture of f/8 and a shutter speed of 10 seconds.
Now lets look at a photo taken in exactly the same way, but instead of f/8, it was shot at a wider aperture of f/5.6.
This photo was also shot with a 10 second shutter speed, but see what a difference the aperture size made? There is so much more light let into the camera that the color of the fireworks becomes washed out and they are starting to appear white. The light reflecting off the bridge and water is also much more apparent than in the first photo.
Now, lets talk about shutter speed. If your camera has a bulb setting, that’s what you want to put it in. What bulb mode does for you is it leaves the shutter open for as long as you hold down the button. This means that you can open the shutter the moment you see the firework being shot, and leave it open until it explodes and disappears from the sky. You want an exposure of at least a few seconds to capture all the movement and “plume” of the firework exploding. If you were to shoot a fast shutter speed, you would end up with colored dots in the sky instead of the shape that we associate with being a firework, simply because you would be capturing only a fraction of the movement during the explosion. Again, bulb is best, but if you don’t have that option, try starting with a shutter anywhere from 2 to 6 seconds at an aperture of f/8. Trip the shutter when you see the firework being shot from the ground and see what you come up with. You can adjust your exposure and aperture based on what you are seeing in the results.
The composition of your firework shots is going to be a highly personal thing. I like to shoot fireworks from a distance and incorporate them into a landscape scene, just like I did in the photos above. Some people find that zooming in to only catch the firework itself, or even a part of it to be more dramatic. It’s completely up to the person pressing the shutter button to decide. The best tip I can give you, is to arrive early. Find out where the fireworks will be shot from, and plan your shot from there. There are many different landscape scenes and views that you can scout out if you give yourself plenty of time to ride around and check them all out in the daylight. Find a location, and take a few different test shots to see what you’ll be dealing with in the dark.
Another thing to consider in your composition is the smoke from the fireworks. If at all possible, you want to be up wind from them so that the smoke is blowing away from you. If the wind is blowing the smoke towards you, you’re going to end up getting a bunch of hazy shots through the smoke…. Like this:
Always try to take the smoke factor into account ahead of time.
A FEW MORE TIPS:
Always shoot in the lowest ISO setting you have. This will minimize noise in your photo and help you to get the sharpest pictures possible. You want to manage the light with your shutter an aperture in this case, so just crank down the ISO and forget about it.
No. Don’t do it. Don’t be that camera noob that is flashing up at the fireworks in the sky. It makes you look silly and it does nothing for your shot (except to help make it worse).
If your camera is equipped with IS, you should always turn it off when using a tripod. The IS system tries to compensate for movement in the lens, and when there is none, it can possibly induce movement and cause blurring.