The Basics of Photographing Fireworks
Do you remember the first time you looked up at the sky and witnessed a spectacular fireworks show? Well now that you're a bit older, you can capture the lightshow with your camera. You'll be glad to know that it's not extremely tough to do this, providing that you do a couple of things correctly. Here are some tips on how to capture better photos of fireworks for the 4th of July or for any special occasion.
Note: Some of the photos in this posting were pulled from the B&H Photo Flickr Group. If you haven't submitted to it, show us what you've got!
Manual (or Fireworks Mode)
Your camera will have two modes that are important to photographing fireworks in the sky. Most readers of this site may use manual mode, but users with a point and shoot will probably go for the Fireworks mode on their camera. Many cameras have this—or it will be one of the night settings.
In manual mode, you're going to want to have:
- A telephoto lens or a zoom. You may need a wider perspective or a more narrow one based on your location, what your composition is, and how much you want to capture.
- A slow shutter speed (four to ten seconds)
- A narrow aperture (around F/11-22 depending on various conditions. This will ensure that everything is in focus and sharp even though you're most likely focusing out to infinity anyway.)
- Low ISO (100-400 should give you the best results.)
Additionally, because the light will constantly change, it's best to experiment with the settings by taking a photo and chimping the LCD screen to see what's working for you and what's not. The meter won't be able to help much in a situation like this especially because the fireworks only happen for a couple of precious seconds.
Punctuality (Get the Right Spot)
A good idea to ensure that you're going to get the best photos that you can is to get to your spot early. Here in NYC, when people want to view the fireworks, they usually picnic at a certain spot and set up there way ahead of time. This isn't a bad idea because your location will determine factors like your composition and framing.
Bring a Tripod
Perhaps the most important tool in your kit may be a tripod. The right tripod for you will be based on the size/weight of your camera. A decent entry-level tripod is the Oben AC-1410. Also be sure to consider the Benro Travel Angel 2690 if you need to hold a heavier camera system. For the pros, you may want to consider the Vanguard Alta+ 263AGH or the Manfrotto 055XPROB 3-Section Tripod (a very popular item.)
If you're using a Micro Four Thirds or mirrorless camera, take a look at the Vanguard Nivelo 204BK—which is a compact tripod designed specifically for mirrorless cameras.
Delay Timer (Or a Shutter Release)
To absolutely ensure that your camera doesn't suffer from camera shake and have a sharp image, be aware that image stabilization won't help you when you're shooting at shutter speeds that slow. Turn that feature off on your camera or lens and instead use the delay shutter shooting setting. Set your camera to take a photo about two seconds after you push the shutter and let it do the work.
Using the delay shutter setting will avoid you shaking the camera when pushing the shutter button.
As an alternative, consider a shutter release like that from Vello. Finally, the mirror lock-up mode on your DSLR can also help to ensure extra stability.
Your SD and CF cards are something to consider when taking the photos. Some cards enable faster write speeds than others, which means that your camera's processor will work less hard. If you're shooting in RAW, a larger memory card won't hurt unless you'll be very selective with your image capture and delete photos.
Take Breaks in Between Shots
It's a good idea to take breaks in between shots. When your camera takes a long exposure, it takes longer to process the image because the sensor is becoming hotter. Therefore, it needs to apply noise reduction and process the actual image itself—and then write it to your memory card. Giving the sensor and processor a break is the smart thing to do.
The most important thing that you can do is accept that you will not get every shot that you want and that your results will be unpredictable. Shooting fireworks is a game of trial and error—finding the best settings for you can be a fun brain-teasing exercise that can teach you a lot about exposure, composition, and predicting movement.
A big thank you goes to my good buddy PJ Jacobowitz for allowing me to use his images for this story.