For pure and immediate photographic gratification, it doesn’t get much better than fireworks. People who think they can never capture these bursts of light can do so perfectly if they follow a few simple steps. Yes, some preparation is mandatory. If you want to photograph fireworks, there will inevitably be some fumbling around in the dark. Regardless of the quality of your pictures, however, you’re going to learn something new about photography, and that’s always a good thing. Let's start with the basics. Fireworks are bright and they evolve over time—usually only a few seconds. This means that you want your shutter to be open for a relatively long time—probably 2 to 4 seconds. In the world of photography, that’s a long, long time.
Yes, you’re shooting in the dark, but the fireworks are really bright. So don’t be fooled into thinking you need a high ISO number. Long shutter speeds and bright subject matter add up to a low ISO number. ISO 100 or 200 will work just fine.
When you are using shutter speeds that long it’s possible to have annoying camera motion show up in your pictures even if you’re using a tripod. It’s from you pushing the button. Some people recommend using the self-timer built into the camera as a method for releasing the shutter without having to touch the camera. In other words, if you push the shutter button, the shutter is released seconds later. My self-timer has two settings— 10 seconds and 2 seconds. 10 seconds is way too long. It’s too hard to predict what’s going to be happening in the sky 10 seconds from now. 2 seconds is almost ideal, however. When you hear the explosion on the ground of the fireworks being launched pushing the button then may result in perfect timing. Experiment, experiment, experiment.
Many cameras have a special setting called “fireworks”. It automatically uses what it thinks is the best shutter speed and f-stop combination. If you are going to use it, check your manual to see how to set it. This may, in fact, be all some of you need. I can guarantee, however, that the most serious fireworks photographers out there are doing this all manually. Maybe that’s why they call it Independence Day. Perhaps this is the year you will finally be free of the shackles and tyranny of auto-exposure, free to live the photographic life that is the birthright of all men and women.
Your Three Legged Friend
A long shutter speed means that if you want to take tack sharp pictures, you’re going to need a tripod. If you don’t use one, you’ll end up with mushy, out of focus images that impressionist painters would have loved. But I’m willing to bet that you will enjoy the crisp tripod versions much more. If you don’t have a tripod, there are ways to cheat, but it’s an uphill battle as using a tripod in the dark is not without its problems. People have a tendency to trip over the legs in the dark. So keeping the tripod very low is a good idea—the footprint of it is significantly smaller. If you can, having the camera about 3 feet off the ground so that you can operate it while sitting on the ground seems to work best. Every situation is different, but if you get to the site a bit early, you should be able to get yourself situated properly. (You won’t regret bringing a blanket to sit on.)
If you don’t have a tripod, use a one-second exposure and hold the camera is still as you possibly can. Sit on the ground and make a tripod out of your arms by resting your elbows on your knees and bracing the camera against your head. This technique is less than perfect— okay, far from perfect— but you will get some pictures that will be fun to look at, for sure. If you have a lawn chair, you can often sit on the ground and rest your camera on the arm of a chair and hold it remarkably still. Remarkably still, yes, but less-than-perfect. There is no competing with a tripod at a fireworks display.
Practice Makes Perfect
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to get your ducks in a row before it gets dark. At home, set your camera to manual exposure and manual focus. Get comfortable with adjusting your shutter speed and f-stop. Once you get settled in the dark, you may need to make some adjustments, so the time spent getting comfortable with settings in the light will go a long way.
- Set your shutter speed to 2 seconds (this is not to be confused with one-half second).
- Put your f-stop on f11.
- Organize the contents of your camera bag so you can find everything in the dark.
Experimentation is important at the beginning of the fireworks show and you are likely going to have to make some adjustments— it’s why you brought the flashlight. Let’s say your pictures are too bright. Close the f-stop down. If you’re at F8 go to F11 and so on. Make your adjustments with the f-stop first. Don’t change your shutter speed. 2 to 4 seconds should do everything you want to do.
Infinity in photography simply means very far away, and I’m hoping that you are very far away from the fireworks. While watching the display, try focusing on a distant streetlight. F8 should give you enough depth-of-field to cover any focusing glitches. Cinematographers have been known to tape down their lens focusing ring so they don’t accidentally re-focus in the heat of battle (try masking tape—it’s easy to remove). Tape isn’t a bad idea. After all, there are plenty of ways to fumble when you’re using a camera in the dark.
Let there be Light
Bring a light source. It’s going to come in handy. Your smartphone will work. If you use a flashlight, it’s not a bad idea to put a small piece of cloth over it so it won’t interrupt visibility for other fireworks waters. In other words, you want a small, subtle light—just enough to check the settings on your camera.
- If you’re confident with shooting raw images, this is a great time to do it. Shooting raw helps cover any exposure errors and the pictures will be much more flexible in your editing program later.
- There are two broad categories of fireworks photos. First, there’s explosions in the sky. Then, there are explosions in the sky with something else in the picture. American flags, buildings, reflections in water, silhouettes of people, etc., - these can all add a bit of flair to your photos, but they also require planning. And planning for these photographs is everything. If you have a specific picture in mind, you just may need to get their extra early to practice.
- If you do decide to shoot some type of overall scene, you may have an opportunity to use the light of exploding fireworks to compose your picture. It can actually get fairly bright on the ground when fireworks are going off and you can take advantage of that.
Don’t forget that every fireworks display in the world saves the very best for last. It’s almost as if everything you photograph up to that point is rehearsal for the big finale. The 30 second black cardboard technique is perfect for the big finale.
Successfully photographing fireworks is an incredible confidence builder for any photographer and a key milestone for anyone looking to show off their camera skills and capture memories. So, go grab your camera and be prepared to capture memories this holiday and be sure to share those moments with friends and family as well as generations to come.
Happy 4th of July to all!