Photographing Fireworks Cheat Sheet
Published: June 29 2016
What better way is there to celebrate the 240th anniversary of the Continental Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence than to watch a spectacular aerial display of colorfully explosive (theoretically contained) pyrotechnics? Surely, there are already a bazillion pictures of fireworks popping off in the sky, but you don't feel like watching the actual show. You want to see it through your 3" LCD screen, shot by shot.
I kid, I kid. Taking pictures of fireworks is a lot of fun, but getting that perfect bouquet of exploding light isn't as easy as it looks. Equal in quantity to the amount of fireworks pictures are the amount of fireworks photography tutorials out there. I'm not going to reveal any groundbreaking tips that you won't find through a basic Google search, but if you somehow found yourself here, and are still scratching your head, fear not. Here is another one:
Get a darn tripod, and get a good spot. You're not going to get far by hand-holding the camera. If you can hold a camera during a second exposure without introducing motion blur, I'd like to shake your immaculately steady hand. Either way, if you want the typically pretty firework shot, you'll want something to keep it stable, like a darn tripod. I'm a fan of gorilla pods, because you can get very low with them; still not the most stable of options, but it's something. Pro-tip, and this usually accounts for everything: put down the corn dog and get there early. If you get there late, you're just asking for a crappy spot, shooting clouds of smoke in between trees and screaming children.
My advice is to go wide, anywhere from 35 downward. Think about it for a second, no, give it a couple more seconds...If you shoot with a 200 mm lens, you're going to get some abstract pictures for sure, but your friends on Facebook are probably going to think that you were on heavy medication over the break. Generally, you're going to want to shoot to crop when you frame up your potential masterpiece. Although my friend Content Aware Phil is great at filling in small gaps, he's still got a long way to go before he can fill a frame, because you thought the telephoto range was good for fireworks.
Probably should have gone a little wider...
Emphasis on the word CHOOSE...I don't want to hear "But, but, but my camera has a fireworks mode..." OK that's great. Go for it, and then tell me how it's no different from any other scene mode. This is America. Your figurative gran’pappy fought for the right to choose exposure settings, so you best do just that.
Here's a list of things to set manually:
- Focus - Switch off auto, as it will only be searching for nothing in the dark with its poor AF assist beam. Set it to infinity instead. Set it and forget it!
- ISO - You'll probably want a lower ISO around 100-200. This prevents highlights from blowing out too much, and allows longer exposures without getting too much gain and unattractive noise in the dark parts of the frame.
- Aperture - A good baseline is f/8, but since you want a longer exposure, and probably want some depth of field, don't limit yourself.
- Shutter Speed - Here's probably the most important thing you'll have to mess with. You can set the set shutter speed to around one second, give or take...of course, this all depends on the ISO and aperture you chose, the intensity of light coming off the fireworks, and the amount of light pollution around...you might need to tweak it a little. A great way to play around with shutter speeds is to use the ominous Bulb Mode. This just means that your exposure is as long as you hold the shutter down. The trick is pressing the shutter down before it goes off, and releasing it when the burst is at its peak. Holding the shutter down longer means more pretty trails, but can also mean catching smoke. While this is a fun way to experiment, pressing down on the shutter can introduce shake...If only there was a device that allowed you to trigger the shutter remotely...
A remote is the perfect way to avoid shaking the heck out of your camera while mashing your finger on the shutter. This can potentially keep you off the ground, and it might even allow you to enjoy the show during exposure. If you don't have one, a good way to prevent shake is to use a short timer to delay the camera taking the picture. This might slow down the process, but hey, it's better than nothing.
Obtaining the ideal fireworks shot that can double as a desktop background is great and all, but everyone out there is trying to do that...Why not attempt something a little different? While the camera is exposing, you can try to carefully zoom the lens in or out to create that dramatic zooming blur. You can do it fast for a quick ghosting or throughout the whole exposure to make it look like you're warping through space at ludicrous speed.
If you're looking for a way to make your fireworks stand out a little more subtly, you can try out focus blurring. Since you have your focus manually, just rotate the ring while it's exposing to create trippy color effects. It almost looks like you're looking through a kaleidoscope. Hopefully, it's the camera, and not the punch you drank.
There are also means of combining two or more images into one, either in camera or out. It's a lot easier to do it in post, but note that most DSLRs do have a multiple exposure setting, should you want to experiment. Combining images is a lot of fun, and is worth a whole tutorial in itself.
One last tip is to practice some sort of safety. Whether it be at your local town park or in your backyard, always use precaution, and be quick on those toes. No one wants to explain why they only have one eyebrow...
Hope y'all have a fun and safe Independence Day!