Fireworks are always a thrill to watch, they are also fun to photograph. This article presents some tips to consider when you prepare and when you take pictures of fireworks.
Getting ready early is important. Fireworks are presented when it is dark and that makes some of the steps a little more difficult. Planning ahead is crucial.
- Camera with batteries charged and sufficient storage space available.
- Remote trigger or “cable release” – This is not a mandatory item but a very helpful one. It will make your work much easier and also avoid camera shake when pressing the release.
- Lens – depends on location, how far you will be from the display – a zoom lens is probably your best option.
- Flashlight with fresh batteries – Don’t forget a flashlight. It will help when you need to make adjustments, and will be most useful to light your path after the presentation.
- Tripod – Fireworks requires time exposure and a tripod is essential for that.
- Gaffer tape or Band-Aid – to prevent focus ring from being accidentally moved.
Check your camera setting well ahead of time, before you set out for the evening. That avoids any last moment pressure.
- Image format – shoot RAW
- White balance – leave it on AUTO it doesn’t matter if you shoot RAW
- Flash off
- Noise reduction – off
Very likely you will want to take photos of the happenings before the fireworks, so you will make the final settings just before the show in the sky begins. It will be dark by then. That’s why you bring a flashlight.
My own option is to be at the back of the crowd. That way you have a more interesting foreground – the crowd. It also gets you out of the way and reduces the risk of somebody bumping into your tripod. The fireworks will subtend a smaller part of the sky and fit easier into your frame.
Another consideration: Up front the fireworks may be almost overhead, and might well be out of reach of your widest lens setting. Being in back is also safer. I still have a old blanket with burn holes from wayward fireworks pieces that fell on me when I was way too close.
- Image stabilization – off – not needed when using a tripod.
- Camera Mode – Manual
- ISO 100 – The fireworks are bright fire, low ISO will be just fine.
- Auto-ISO OFF – some cameras also have an auto-ISO on/off option. Be sure that auto-ISO is set to off.
- Shutter speed to Bulb. if you don’t have a Bulb setting, set the shutter for several seconds.
- Aperture – f/8 – see if that gives you color in the first exposure, don’t overexpose unless you want all white fireworks.
- Framing – focal length setting – you won’t know how high the fireworks will go, start with wide angle setting, adjust as show goes on.
- Focus mode – set to manual. More on focusing momentarily.
These setting should get you going. You will want to make some adjustments as the show proceeds. More on that shortly.
But first you need to focus. It will be dark, the fireworks haven’t started yet, so there is nothing to focus on. My recommendation is manual focus so the camera won’t hunt to find something.
Most modern lenses allow the focus setting to go beyond the infinity mark. That allows the auto-focus system to work well, but it is a pain for manual focus, especially in the dark.
You can set the focus distance manually, but it is tricky in the dark.
Remember about depth of field and the hyper-focal distance. That is the distance, unique for each aperture and focal length setting, that will give you maximum depth of field. Everything from half that distance to infinity will be adequately sharp. Setting the lens anywhere in the range from the hyper-focal distance to infinity will work well for fireworks. When using a full-frame camera with the lens at 50mm focal length and the aperture at f/8 the hyper-focal distance is about 34 feet. Most lenses do not have markings past 10 feet or so. Set the lens just short of the infinity, ꝏ, mark. Then use a bit of gaffer tape to prevent the focus ring from being moved off that setting. I haven’t always done that to my great regret. It is very easy to shoot a whole series with the focus misadjusted. Use that tape!
Start the shoot
With these settings made, the camera on the tripod and aimed toward the expected fireworks area, take the first shot when the show starts. Inspect the results. Look at the image. Is it sharp? Did you get the focus right or do you need to make an adjustment? Is there color in the light trails? If they are all white, the image is overexposed. Try a smaller aperture, maybe f/11 or f/16.
Fireworks are made of small burning pellets shot into the sky. They will burn at a color depending on the chemical formulation. They will be blasted apart and fall toward the earth, so they are in constant motion giving you the light trails. Sometimes they move towards you and the apparent motion is less. For a given sensor pixel the exposure depends on how long a burning pellet was in view and how many others crossed. Exposure will vary. Don’t worry, just make sure that most of the trails show color. If they are overexposed they will be white.
Also check the coverage in the frame. Adjust the zoom as needed, but keep in mind that some rockets will go high, others less so. Some will explode into a wide blossom or shape. Make sure you get the field reasonably right.
For my illustrations here I went back to photos I took back in 2013. The fireworks display was behind the city hall in Duluth, Georgia. There were lights on the building and there is an illuminated clock. I chose this set of photos because it shows foreground. Having context for the fireworks can make your photos more interesting. The exposure time will define how light or dark the foreground is. In the photo above the building is well rendered, but the fireworks trails ( and the clock) are overexposed. Remember, the fireworks are the important part. Expose for them.
In this next shot the aperture was closed to f/16. The exposure time was at 15 seconds. The fireworks look much better. The building is darker as you would expect, but it is the show in the sky we are after!
Of course you can zoom in. And at f/22 the colors were even better.
Fireworks shows always end with a finale burst. This is when the sky is filled continuously with wonderful explosions. They overlap, there may be a lot of smoke. Photos of the finale are often the least appealing. Just a mass of light.
You may want to stop way down for the finale.
You may find that many photos show just one rocket and it would be more impressive to have the frame full of fireworks. In another post I show how to combine and overlap several exposures for making the fireworks show just as you like it.
Don’t forget to enjoy the show!