Fireworks and Bright Lights in the Night for the Fourth of July and Beyond by Jack Howard

Categories: Tips Feature Op Ed

The season for fireworks has officially begun and we'd like to share a blog post with you by Jack Howard on how to take great firework photographs.  Check out his tips and tricks and try them out this summer at the many upcoming firework displays (Howard has listed some of them below).  Compare your new photos with the shots you took last night.  We think you'll be pleasantly surprised!  

The fourth of July means many things, and for photographers, one of the most exciting and challenging aspects of this holiday is capturing amazing photos of fireworks. The bright lights in the night paint the sky with multi-colored flames in a way that can be spectacular to witness and capture with your camera. And while it may seem that fireworks–and articles about how to capture fireworks with your DSLR–only appear for a few nights in early July, there are actually tons of nights from coast to coast all summer long when the skies are illuminated with fireworks.

We’re going to explore the ways to ensure sharp shots of these colorful subjects, along with some other ideas for nocturnal bright-light photography, and we’ll also offer up some pointers for tracking down upcoming fireworks displays, for the Fourth, and all summer long!

[caption id="attachment_10378" align="aligncenter" width="604"] Post-game fireworks light up the night over TD Bank Stadium following a Somerset Patriots baseball game as a trailer hauling a small racecar stops to admire the display. Canon EOS 5D with Sigma 15mm F2.8 EX DG Fisheye, cropped to remove some dead space in the sky. BULB exposure mode, 3 seconds, F10, ISO 100. Tuned in Adobe Camera Raw 7.1[/caption]

The first thing you need is a stable tripod!

For sharp shots of fireworks, you’re going to want a tripod–a stable tripod with three strong legs to keep your camera and lens still during the long exposures. And be sure to choose a location with firm ground! Boardwalks for example, have a lot of flex and bounce, and in a longer exposure, this will lead to blurriness in the frames. If you’re setting up on sand, protect your tripod legs inside plastic bags, and hang a camera bag or other weight from the center column to keep it from shifting on the sand during exposures.

And also remember to be considerate of fellow fireworks watchers–don’t set up a big tripod rig in front of others who are just there to enjoy the show! And when possible, scout the location in advance and look for a good angle to add some foreground and background intrigue to the images. For example, it may be behind the main crowd on a big park lawn, it may be from across the water, or with amusement park rides or a landmark building framing the composition.

Choosing Lenses

Generally speaking, wider angles are going to work best for fireworks to capture all the action of both earth and sky from a relatively close distance. This means the wide setting on a wide-to-normal zoom or multi-zoom lens, or a dedicated wide angle prime or zoom lens such as the Sigma 15mm F2.8 EX DG Fisheye or the 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM I used for many of the shots to illustrate the fireworks above the ballpark in this article. If you are shooting fireworks from a significant distance away (more than a mile or so away from the display, a longer focal length may be desirable to keep the framing tight, but there’s probably going to be some atmospheric issues impacting the images in these cases–haze and heat distortion, for example. Zooms offer a lot of versatility in framing as it is sometimes tough to determine in advance just how high in the sky the rockets will shoot.

Take Control of Your Camera!

If you want to make good fireworks photos, you must take control of your camera! Turn off as many automatic settings as possible. All these helpful auto settings that are designed to help make a good exposure in virtually any situation will flat-out sink your hopes of making a strong, sharp shot of a firework in full bloom against a dark sky.

The quick list

-Automatic Flash should be turned off. -AUTO ISO should be turned off. Choose the slowest ISO setting offered on your DSLR. -Automatic Exposure Compensation (if present) should be turned off. -Autofocus should be turned off. -All auto-exposure modes (Auto, Program, Shutter- or Aperture-priority, etc) should be avoided in favor of Manual Exposure. -Focus your wide angle lens at infinity and stop down to around f/11 (as your starting point) for amazing depth of field. -If you’ve got a cable release, you should use it. -Consider using the Mirror Lock-Up function to keep mirror slap from shaking the camera. -Bulb mode gives great creative control. -Remove any UV or skylight filters -Be prepared to work up the photos in post-production to make them really pop!

[caption id="attachment_10380" align="aligncenter" width="378"] The fundamentals of making great fireworks photos remain the same today as back in the film days when I made this shot on Dec 31, 1999 with my trusty Sigma 17-35 F2.8-4.0 Ultrawide zoom on a Canon EOS A2 loaded with Kodak Vericolor ISO 100 film. I had originally set myself up on the boardwalk above the sand, but as more and more people showed up, there was serious bounce in the boards, so I moved to the sand instead. Looking at the stillness of the silhouetted people in the frame, you can tell these were a lot of rockets launched at the same time, with a relatively short (1-2 second) exposure.[/caption]

The why of the above

Auto Flash needs to be turned off because it will have no effect whatsoever on the exposure of the distant fireworks, and can potentially cause the camera to expose for the foreground subjects and not the fireworks, even in manual exposure mode. However, if you want to use fill-flash for foreground subjects, set your on-camera flash to second-curtain sync and dial back Flash Exposure Compensation at least -1 to – 1 ? stop for the most pleasing blend of foreground light and background fireworks. There might be some ghost-motion subject due to the long exposure, but the flash will freeze and sharpen up the edges during the pop quite nicely.

AUTO ISO is going to see all the darkness in the frame before the fireworks burst and climb as high as it can to try to make a shorter exposure in that blackness. Then when the fireworks do light up the sky, the exposure will be both overblown, and very noisy due to the higher ISOs. Set your camera to its lowest ISO for the cleanest results.

Automatic Exposure Compensation, if present and activated, is going to try to “save you” from the mistake of having the manual metering set “wrong,” by reading the exposure at the moment you push the shutter and helping you fix it. For example as a rocket is launching, but not yet burst, a camera may determine that this darkscape needs a 10-second exposure at F/11, but a half-second later when the firework blooms, followed by another and another in that same 10-second shutter opening, it’s going to be a way too hot an exposure. So be sure to turn this off!

Turn off Autofocus! If you have autofocus active, it is going to hunt, search, and miss so many shots. You can either set your focus to infinity or set to the hyperfocal distance for your focal length and aperture and you will have the background fireworks in focus each time you fire the shutter. And at an aperture between F/8 and F/16 you’ll have plenty of depth of field wiggle room.

Use Manual Exposure, Check your Histograms, and adjust accordingly! For starters, try setting your camera to one second at F/11 at the lowest ISO to capture a single firework in full burst and fire the shutter just as it pops. Then be sure to check your LCD and histogram and adjust your aperture and shutter speed as necessary. If the firework is too bright in the frame, stop down to F/14 or F/16. Too dim? Open up to F/8. And If you want to capture several bursts in a single frame, you can stop down a little bit, and keep the shutter open for much longer. You may also want to try to shield the lens with a dark hat between fireworks bursts during long exposures. Fireworks do vary in overall intensity, and some frames may be blown out, and some others underexposed. Be sure to shoot a lot in order to bring home some winners!

[caption id="attachment_10382" align="aligncenter" width="604"] I wanted to frame the ballpark with the fireworks in the sky above the stadium, and was surprised at how low in the sky they were-right behind the rows of power lines! So, I cropped to a panoramic ratio as there was tons of dead sky where I’d left space for the bursts. Live and learn! This was shot with the camera set for 1 second, F10, ISO 100. Tuned in Adobe Camera Raw.[/caption]

Consider a cable release and mirror lock-up. Most DSLRs have a mirror lock-up function for long exposures which can be switched on to eliminate camera shake from the mirror slapping up and down during capture. Once you’ve framed your scene, it’s easy enough to watch the fireworks and trigger the shutter without looking through the viewfinder, either from the on-camera shutter button, or via a cable release, which also limits any unintended camera movement during capture. But do get comfortable with mirror lock-up on your camera. And be aware that for many models, it is a two-touch process. The first shutter push locks the mirror, and the second opens the shutter.

And you should seriously consider BULB shooting mode. This is a special setting where the camera shutter is held open for as long as the shutter button is depressed. BULB mode capture is easier with a locking-button cable release. But is also possible using the on-camera shutter button–but be gentle to avoid camera shake at the start and finish of the shot when moving your hands and trigger finger! The beauty of BULB mode is that you can close the shutter when you choose, so if there’s a lot of low-intensity flares going on, you can hold the shutter open and have these “paint” the sky with their motion. But if there’s a couple of super-hot fireballs up next, you can just lift your finger and end the shot once these light up the sky without burning out to pure burnt whites in the center of the bursts. (And note that on some cameras, it is a special mode, and and others, it is a click past the longest programmable shutter speed–check your manual.)

Remove any UV or skylight filters! These front-of-lens filters certainly have their place, but for fireworks and other situations when you’ve got really bright objects against a lot of darkness, there’s a big possibility of adding ghost and flare artifacts to your images.

Got all that? Now it’s showtime!

Once the fireworks start, take a couple of test shots, and adjust accordingly. You may want to go to a longer time exposure to get a few more bursts in the frame, and if your frames are too light and too dark, you’ll want to adjust your aperture to fix the exposures. But do remember to review your on-camera histograms from time to time, especially as the show heats up and bigger, brighter displays are fired. And for the finale, when it’s a world of bursts, you’ll probably want to to both stop down a bit and go with shorter shutter speeds.

[caption id="attachment_10383" align="aligncenter" width="604"] When you are shooting in BULB mode, you can shut the frame as soon as a hot flare lights up the frame. You can tell that the shutter was open for several seconds prior to the burst by the obvious subject movement of the person on the sand and the shadows of railings of the boardwalk and overall ambient light in the frame from sources other than the fireworks.[/caption]

And you might want experiment with longer exposures to capture more bursts in a frame, or with shorter shutter speeds to make a series of frames to be animated in any of a dozen slideshow and video programs.

The most important thing to remember is to enjoy the experience, practice, learn how to set the camera to give you the best odds of nailing winning shots, and fire away again and again, adjust as necessary and fire again!

Fireworks Beyond the Fourth!

The Fourth of July is a hot night for fireworks, for sure, but in reality, there are tons of chances to make fireworks photos all summer long. Theme Parks, Beachfront and Boardwalks, Minor League Baseball, County Fairs are just a few of the spots you’ll likely find a chance to shoot fireworks this summer. Do a little searching online and you’ll find amazing spots to make firework shots!

For example, in Wildwood NJ, there are Fireworks over Morey Piers each and every Friday. And in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ, Jenkinson’s light up the night every single Thursday all summer long. And up in Coney Island, there are fireworks every friday night along with a whole fireworks week at the Cyclone’s ballpark.  And the Somerset Patriots, in Bridgewater NJ, where many of the shots for this blog were made, have frequent fireworks nights. Are you getting the big picture? Small-time baseball stadiums are a great source of fireworks! And with hundreds of teams across North America, that’s a lot of chances for capturing fireworks after a ballgame!

Montreal, Quebec, hosts the International Fireworks Festival on Saturdays throughout the summer, and there’s Fireworks every Friday on Hawaii at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Themed Festivals, State Fairs and Church Carnivals almost always have a fireworks night, and there’s hundreds upon hundreds of local milestones and celebrations marked with Fireworks. Search the web, check out tourism and travel sites, local entertainment guides, and you’ll likely find some cool fireworks displays to shoot!

More Nights and Lights Ideas

The same basic tips for fireworks photography also work well for many other nocturnal photo projects. For example, use the same basic settings and you can turn fast-moving car head- and tail lights into ribbons of color along the roadway, or capture the light-tracing arcs of amusement park rides in motion. And of course, distant lightning is always a spectacular subject, although it does come with a degree of risk. And either alone, or in conjunction with other lights in the night, you can always take an active role and paint the darkness with LED flashlights and other light-up gadgets for cool, creative effects.

[caption id="attachment_10384" align="aligncenter" width="604"] While I was waiting for the ballgame to wind down and the fireworks show to start, I pulled out my pocket LED flashlight, set the camera to a 20-second exposure, and tried to write “PLAY” onto the scene about fifty times. This is one of the ones that worked! A lot of my frames didn’t work, but that’s how you learn and experiment, and practice, and play with techniques to perfect them! Canon EOS 5D with Sigma 15mm F2.8 EX DG Fisheye. 20 second exposure at F20, ISO 100. Tuned in Adobe Camera RAW.[/caption]

The most important thing to remember when practicing and experimenting with new photographic techniques is to keep learning, keep experimenting, and keep discovering. You may have some winning frames, and you may have a bunch of flops, but you can learn from those flops and refine your techniques and settings, and get stronger each time you head out into the night to capture bright lights.

Feel free to drop me a line at my Photoworld email.