Happy 4th of July! In celebration of today, I’ve prepared a list of Tips and Tricks for when you go out to shoot photographs tonight. In general, when shooting fireworks, you’ll either wind up with immensely rewarding photos or frustration that makes you wish you’d left your camera at home and just enjoyed the show. The outcome has everything to do with the preparation and knowledge you take to the event. Before you go, arm yourself with a few tips and tricks that will prepare you to capture fireworks in all their brilliant glory.
Stabilize Your Camera
Foremost, when photographing fireworks, stability is key. Like butterflies and lightening strikes, fireworks are fickle subjects. An absolutely stable shooting platform is a must. Whether you use a full fledged tripod or you clamp the camera onto a solid fence with a mount, the camera must be steady. Leaning against a tree or trying to grip the camera on the top of a post just won’t cut it. You can further increase the stability of your tripod by hanging weight from the cross brace. Without a stable platform to shoot from you are nearly guaranteed blurry photos.
Right behind stabilizing the camera with a tripod or mount is keeping your hands off the camera while shooting. The most common way to go hands-free is a shutter release cable. Many modern digital cameras have the ability to get triggered by an infrared remote. If you have neither, check the manual of your camera to see if you set a shutter delay. Setting a delay on the shutter will achieve the same vibration-reducing effect as a remote release, but unfortunately it gives you less control over the timing of the exposure since you have to predict the best time to shoot by a few seconds. A cable or remote release like the Aputure Digital Timer Remote is ideal.
Frame your Shot
One of the most difficult parts of photographing fireworks is working out where to aim your camera. The challenge you’ll face in doing this is that you generally need to aim your camera before the fireworks that you’ll be photographing goes off – anticipation is key. Here are a few points on getting your framing right.
- Scope out the location early – Planning is important with fireworks and getting to the location early in order to get a good, unobstructed position is important. Think about what is in the foreground and background of your shots and make sure you won’t have people’s heads bobbing up into your shots (also consider what impact you’ll have on others around you also). Take note of where fireworks are being set up and what parts of the sky they are likely to be shot into – you might also want to try to ask some of those setting up the display for a little information on what they are planning. Also consider what focal lengths you might want to use and choose appropriate lenses at this time (rather than in the middle of the show).
- Watch your Horizons – One thing that you should always consider when lining up fireworks shots is whether your camera is even or straight in it’s framing. This is especially important if you’re going to shooting with a wide focal length and will get other background elements in your shots (ie a cityscape). Keeping horizons straight is something we covered previously on this site and is important in fireworks shots also. As you get your camera on your tripod make sure it’s level right from the time you set up.
- Vertical or Horizontal? – There are two main ways of framing shots in all types of photography, vertically (portrait) or horizontally (landscape). Both can work in fireworks photography but I personally find a vertical perspective is better – particularly as there is a lot of vertical motion in fireworks. Horizontal shots can work if you’re going for more of a landscape shot with a wider focal length of if you’re wanting to capture multiple bursts of fireworks in the one shot – but I don’t tend to go there that often.
- Remember your framing – I find that when I photograph fireworks that I spend less time looking in my viewfinder and more looking at the sky directly. As a result it’s important to remember what framing you have and to watch that segment of the sky. Doing this will also help you to anticipate the right time for a shot as you’ll see the light trails of unexploded rockets shooting into the sky.
Pick The Right Focal Length
One of the hardest parts of photographing fireworks is having your camera trained on the right part of the sky at the right time. This is especially difficult if you’re shooting with a longer focal length and are trying to take more tightly cropped shots. I generally shoot at a wider focal length than a tight one but during a show will try a few tighter shots (I usually use a zoom lens to give me this option) to see if I can get lucky with them. Of course zoomed in shots like the one to the left can be quite effective also. They enable you to really fill the frame with great color. Keep in mind however that cropping of your wider angle fireworks shots can always be done later to get a similar impact in your photography.
Choose the Right Aperture
A common question around photographing fireworks displays is what aperture to use. Many people think you need a fast lens to get them but in reality it’s quite the opposite as the light that the fireworks emit is quite bright. I find that apertures in the mid to small range tend to work reasonably well and would usually shoot somewhere between f/8 to f/16.
Think about Shutter Speed
Probably more important to get right than aperture is shutter speed. Fireworks move and as a result the best photographs of them capture this movement meaning you need a nice long exposure. The technique that I developed when I first photographed fireworks was to shoot in ‘bulb’ mode. This is a mode that allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter (preferably using a remote shutter release of some type). Using this technique you hit the shutter as the firework is about to explode and hold it down until it’s finished exploding (generally a few seconds).
You can also experiment with set shutter speeds to see what impact it will have but I find that unless you’re holding the shutter open for very long exposures that the bulb technique works pretty well.
Don’t keep your shutter open too long. The temptation is to think that because it’s dark that you can leave it open as long as you like. The problem with this is that fireworks are bright and it doesn’t take too much to over expose them, especially if your shutter is open for multiple bursts in the one area of the sky. By all means experiment with multiple burst shots – but most people end up finding that the simpler one burst shots can be best.
Control your ISO
Shooting at a low ISO is preferable to ensure the cleanest shots possible. Stick to ISO 100 and you should be fine.
Location, Location, Location
Firework displays draw large crowds, so it isn’t always possible to secure a perfect location to shoot from. Arriving early and scoping out the scene is well worth your time. You want to have as clean and unobstructed a view of the skyline as possible. Make sure to reference the skyline through the viewfinder of the camera to make sure you and the camera are seeing things the same way. Shooting from much higher or lower than the rest of the people watching the show can yield interesting results. If possible select a location that is upwind of the fireworks display. Fireworks generate enormous amounts of smoke and if you’re upwind your pictures will have a hazy quality like you were taking them through a fogged up window. The picture at left highlights the effect smoke can have on fireworks photography. Photo by ahisgett.
Don’t Flash The Fireworks
Turn off your flash. If you can’t turn off the flash, black it out with electrical tape. If you’ve ever seen photographs taken from the 78th row at a rock concert with the flash left on, you know exactly how poorly low light long distance flash exposures turn out. If your camera doesn’t have a manual mode that allows you to turn off the flash, try out Landscape mode which almost universally turns off the flash to avoid washing out the foreground in landscape photography. The only exception to the no flash rule is when you want to expose the foreground to highlight objects or people. In the photo above, the young women in the corner are properly exposed because of a flash. Without the flash they would have been dark blurs against the background.
Focus On Infinity
Pre-focus the camera. Don’t let an overzealous auto-focusing system ruin good shots; the brightness of the fireworks and the haze of the smoke confuses many auto focus systems. Set the focus manually on the infinity setting to guarantee that the fireworks bursting on the skyline will be in focus. The only time the focus-to-infinity trick wouldn’t work is if you were close enough to the fireworks explosion to have bigger problems to worry about than blurry pictures! If your camera doesn’t allow manual focus, set it to landscape mode which will have the same effect.
Handy Odds And Ends
Have a small light handy for checking and altering settings on the camera and tripod without having to fumble in the dark. A small red LED key chain flashlight is perfect for this task. Red light is less disruptive to your night vision than white light.
Once you’ve covered the basics of using a tripod, setting your exposure, and so forth the next best thing you can do to ensure capturing that magic moment is to shoot tons and tons of pictures. Make sure your memory cards are cleaned off and ready to go. Remember not to get too carried away early in the event, the grand finale of every fireworks show always yields large and colorful displays.
With the following tips under your belt, snapping some frame worthy fireworks photos should be no problem at all. If you have more tips to help your fellow readers make the most of their fireworks photography, share them in the comments below.