Fireworks were first documented in 7th century China as a technique to ward off evil spirits because of the loud sounds they create (Wikipedia-Fireworks). Fourteen centuries later, fireworks have become synonymous with Independence Day celebration all across the United States.
While beautiful to watch, they are just as fun to photograph. And with the correct camera settings, capturing the pyrotechnic displays may be easier than you think! Below are my tips and tricks for photographing these colorful sky-bombs.
This tutorial is geared towards DSLR cameras, but many of these tips/settings can be used with a point-and-shoot camera with the ability to shoot in manual mode.
Camera: Whatever camera your shooting with. If you’re using a point-and-shoot, you’ll want to get familiar with using the manual setting. Many point-and-shots also have “firework” presets. If you’re camera has one of these, I would assume this setting would be perfect if you have a tripod to set your camera on.
Lenses: Wide to mid focal-length zoom lenses
Tripod: This is a necessity! You will be shooting with long-shutter speeds and any hand-held shake or vibration in the camera will cause the fireworks to become terribly “wiggly”
Remote trigger: Having a remote to trigger the shutter, or a cable release, makes the process much easier and is recommended. Not only is it more comfortable to trigger the shutter, you won’t be imparting any movement into your camera and ensure sharp images. If a remote or cable release isn’t a possibility, use your camera’s timer. You can still use the shutter button, but the extra few seconds will cause the vibrations to cease before the shutter opens.
1. Manual Mode: Shoot in manual mode and in RAW format if you have the capabilities to process them. Otherwise JPEG will suffice.
2. Shutter speed: Generally I shoot 8-10 second long exposures. That said, feel free to experiment with even longer speeds to capture more “bombs bursting in air” in one frame. The 8+ second long shutter speed ensures you capture “full” fireworks (from initial launch until the firework fades). In darker and rural areas, longer shutter speeds will be needed if there is any hope of capturing foreground detail.
3. Aperture: Typically I shoot between f/8-f/14. I treat these shots like landscapes, using a closed down aperture to ensure a deep depth of field and preserve sharpness. NOTE: Because I want to keep the shutter speed sufficiently slow, I usually only adjust the aperture when trying to dial in the correct exposure on my shots. If you are shooting at 8 seconds and the scene is too dark, open up your aperture a stop or two. Conversely, if you’re shooting an 8 second exposure and the scene is too bright, close down the aperture a stop or two.
4. ISO: Keep it low – usually under 200. Long exposures inherently add noise and I prefer to start off with the least amount of noise possible.
5. Focus: Manually set your focus to infinity. Manual focus ensures your shutter releases instantly every time without having to re-focus. If you’re using a point-and-shoot, you should be able to choose an infinity focus setting in your camera’s focus menu.
Shutter speed: 8-10 seconds
ISO: Low, < 200
Focus: Manually focus to infinity -or- auto-focus on distant object, switch to manual
A few extra tips…
1. If you’re at a professional fireworks show, there is no doubt there will be plenty of opportunities to get photos of fireworks. Set-up early, and if possible, try to stay away from the densest parts of the crowd. If you need to stay a little farther back, that’s OK. You can probably make up the difference by slightly zooming in if needed. Once you see the first burst, start clicking away at the shutter. However…
2. Don’t just wait to see the firework before you release the shutter, listen for it. Despite all the booms, cracks, and fizzles you hear while watching fireworks, you can also usually hear the unmistakable “thud” of the mortars launching from their tubes. In general, the louder the thud, the higher the mortar will go, and the bigger the firework will be. So fire the shutter is when you hear a thud – especially the louder ones! To my knowledge, most fireworks don’t climb for more than 3-4 seconds. If you launch at the thud, you should be able to capture any trailing exhaust, as well as the full “bloom” of the firework with an 8-10 second exposure.
*This is especially true If you’re trying to capture amateur fireworks as I usually do. The amateur fireworks won’t be on a strict timing schedule so you may end up with a ton of firework-less shots if you’re snapping away without listening for the “thud”.
Good luck and happy shooting this upcoming Independence Day!