*Shooting Fireworks

balancing the scene's ambient lighting with a long exposure: ISO100-f/11-6seconds

For those of us in the US, it is getting close to the 4th of July holiday and a fun photo opp.  Capturing fireworks can present some fairly unique challenges, but with a game plan, it can be a lot easier than you think…

It’s only a matter of exposure.  Most of the time, for fireworks, a longer exposure is required to allow the light streams to fully streak through the image providing  a nice, brightly colored light painting within your frame.  (for my article on understanding manual exposure read here!)  The good thing about a long exposure in the near dark means just about any lens will do.  You don’t need a fast, expensive prime lens, (or pro-camera for that matter) to take advantage of this as you will more than likely need to stop down to f/8-f/11 or so (at ISO 100, or your camera’s lowest setting to minimize noise) which means, as long as your lens provides you with the angle of view you’re looking for, you’re golden.  Of course certain lenses provide different, or perhaps better rendering, but any camera and any lens will do.

Composition can be overlooked when focusing on capturing fireworks where many shots tend to look skyward ignoring what may lend a hand for scale and compositional interest.  Skyward shots can also make for beautiful blasts set against a dark background, but don’t ignore what is happening below them either.  Mix and match your shots (it will make for better and a more enjoyable sorting experience when you’re going through hundreds of shots the next day).   My best results have all been fairly long exposures which causes me to really think about how all other elements will be rendered when the exposure is made.  People or cars, water or smoke moving through the scene can lend a fun element.  Trying to get some atmosphere in the frame can also lend a story to the image as opposed to being just a cool shot of some colorful light.  Position yourself taking into account that if close enough to the fireworks, the bright blast will momentarily light any people, buildings or structures within close range.  If being shot over water, try to position yourself so that you can get some reflections which can add cool context and interest.  Whether you’re shooting with a film camera, dSLR, MILC, compact point and shoot (or even a pinhole), just get comfortable enough with manually adjusting your aperture and shutter speed and you should have much more control over your results (some cameras even have a “fireworks” preset none of which I’ve ever used, but hey, they’re there for a reason I’d guess).  Here are my tips to getting some fun shots this fourth, or at least some things to think about while taking advantage of the opportunity this holiday.

  • I plan my angle and general composition and then set my camera up on my tripod. (this has dictated where my family has watched fireworks from, for the last few years) ***Keep an eye on the wind (stay upwind if possible) as fireworks create a lot of smoke which may or may not be good for your shots and if upwind, the smoke will stay behind and away from your fireworks (or my preference is to keep it to the side to not muddy my background and I can remove the smoke in post if needed).
  • Set your camera to (M) Manual, I tend to take a metered reading for the scene and adjust my exposure until I have a long enough shutter speed to allow a firework to fully bloom, usually at least a couple seconds (click here if you want to read about understanding manual exposure).
  • I keep my ISO at 100, start off with a middle of the road aperture setting (f/5.6 – f/11) and see where the scene meters at, adjusting my aperture until I get my shutter speed to where I want it.  (Depending on the intensity of the twilight and the light in the scene ie: city lights, etc, my shutter speed might be anywhere from 1/15 to 6 or more seconds.)  Play around and adjust.
  • I find manual focus to work best.  Figure out where you should be focusing and chances are you are close to hitting your infinity point.  If set to f5.6 or a smaller aperture, you should have enough depth of field to disengage your AF and not worry about focusing between shots so the AF system doesn’t hunt in the dark.  It doesn’t hurt to check focus as critically as your LCD will allow when you have time to.
  • Before the fireworks start, I’ll take a few test shots to get a feel for the settings and how the scene looks keeping in mind that as it gets darker, my settings will need to be adjusted (by as many as a few full stops depending on how late the fireworks start and how much darker it may become).
  • After figuring out what I need exposure wise for whichever elements I have to expose for in my framed scene, I get my camera set on my tripod and like to engage mirror lockup and a 2 second self timer to eliminate as much hand shake possible keeping any static element sharp.
  • From here, just try to get a feel for the timing and take time to look at your LCD during playback to see what you’re getting.  (Keep in mind that your histogram will stack up on the left, but as long as you are not grossly underexposing any elements you want to see in the image,  it is fine to lose that info in the black sky.)

When looking skyward, watch the distortion (on wide angle lenses especially).

Try differing your shutter speed and aperture (by equal stops in opposite directions to maintain proper exposure) for different effects.  With most fireworks shows falling into the 15-30 minute range, you will have plenty of time, and shots to choose from.  Some fun techniques to play around with are manipulating both zoom and focus by adjusting each ring independently, or together, during the long exposures which can provide some cool results.  Even hand-holding a 2 second+ exposure can make for some fun, abstract results.  Here is a purely experimental (some might say ‘abstract’) frame I took last year:

playing with an intentionally out of focus firework

Others techniques for shooting fireworks may differ, and luckily there is no wrong way to take photographs as long as you’re happy with the results, so read up on a variety of approaches and use to personal taste.  This is how I’ve shot in the past and will use as my starting point in the future.  Hope that it helps.

Most of all, whether it be for the 4th of July, or any event or celebration, enjoy yourself and stay safe.  Happy shooting.


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