Photographing Fireworks Tutorial
In the United States this coming weekend marks the celebration of Independence Day on the 4th of July. This immediately brings one thing to mind: BBQ! OK, so two things: BBQ! And, Fireworks!
Is there anything better than to be sitting on a lawn chair with a hotdog in one hand, a beer in another, watching a magnificent fireworks display? Yes there is: To be photographing the fireworks! In this tutorial I’ll tell you everything you need to know in order to take great shots of fireworks. But first, put down the hotdog and beer; you’ll find it a lot easier to handle the camera.
- DSLR or SLR camera: While it is technically possible to shoot fireworks on a P&S, it is easier with a (D)SLR, and the results should look better too. In any case, most of the instructions will be the same, so if all you have is a P&S, use it, and report back with some pics!
- Tripod: You’ll be shooting long exposures, so a tripod is a must. In lieu of it, you could prop the camera on any surface that will keep it stable and pointing at the fireworks.
- Cable Release: This is optional, but I find it a lot easier to fire the camera with a cable release. And why not an infrared remote? Because with a cable release you have the ability to shoot in bulb mode, which I will discuss further down. In any case, whenever using a camera on a tripod, some way of triggering the shutter remotely is always preferable as it reduces camera shake. Note that bulb mode can be used by pressing the shutter release button, but like I just said, it’s not as stable as using a cable release.
- Zoom Lens: I recommend a zoom lens, and not a prime, because I’ve found fireworks vary in size, and it’s a lot quicker to zoom in and out than to change lenses. Also, because you’re likely going to be shooting at f/5.6-8, a zoom will have good enough image quality. What focal length zoom you use depends on how close to the fireworks you are going to be. When in doubt, shoot wide—you can always crop later.
Setting Up the Camera
A, B, C; easy as 1, 2, 3:
- Just prop the camera on top of the tripod (stone, wall, fence…) and point it in the general direction of where you expect the fireworks to appear. Connect the remote cable release if you have it. Focus the camera on a building the same distance away as the fireworks will be.
- Very important: Remove any filters you may have screwed onto your lens! If you don’t, you will get ghost images of the fireworks. If you’re worried about the front of your lens, use a lens hood. In fact, using a lens hood is probably a good idea anyway as it will keep out stray light that might creep into your lens from the sides. If you are out in a street with bright street lamps, a hood is a safe bet.
- Set the shooting mode to B, for Bulb, if you have a cable release. If you don’t, set the mode to M, for Manual.
You are now ready to shoot. But first…
Choosing the Correct Settings
You’re either going to shoot in Manual mode (if you don’t have a cable remote) or in Bulb mode (if you do), which means you will be setting the aperture, shutter speed and ISO yourself, with no help from the camera. Some P&S’s and prosumer superzoom cameras have a ‘fireworks’ setting, but if you’re reading this tutorial it’s because you want to learn how to shoot on your own, right? Now let’s see how each of the 3 shooting parameters will affect your photos.
- Shutter speed: This is important, as it will determine how long the fireworks trails are. Earlier I recommended using a cable remote in order to shoot in bulb mode. The advantage here is that you open the shutter when you want, and close it when the rocket has exploded and produced the pattern you want to photograph. Because different fireworks with different patterns go off at different speeds, you will find yourself leaving the shutter open for varying times during the show. I also find that with a cable release I can just stand there enjoying the show without having to worry about the camera. I’m looking at the sky all the time while the release is in my hand. If not shooting in bulb mode, you’ll have to try out different speeds until you find the one you prefer. This can anywhere from 0.5s to 2s, or maybe even more if you want many trails in a single frame.
- Aperture: How wide you open your lens will determine how bright the streaks are. Unlike with regular photos, the shutter speed has (practically) no bearing on the brightness of the fireworks. You’ll find that you can easily shoot f/5.6-8, so there’s little need for an expensive, fast lens. Something to bear in mind is this: The closer you are to the fireworks, the more depth of field you will need, so you might have to close down the lens. I find shooting from far away is much easier. Having said that, there is little need for the firework streamers to be tack sharp, as it’s the shapes and colours that you are ultimately after. If you know how far away from the fireworks you’ll be, use this online calculator to figure out your ideal aperture.
- ISO: As with the aperture, it will control how bright you images are. The aim is to keep it as low as possible, so after having set the aperture to the value that gives you the required depth of field, set the ISO to the value that gives you bright fireworks, but as little noise as possible in the sky.
Try to have everything set up ahead of time, but know that the first few fireworks to go off will likely be losses as you’ll be figuring out exactly what focal length you need and how long to leave the shutter open for. That’s OK, don’t panic. These shows generally last 15 minutes or more, and patterns get repeated, so spending 1-2 minutes tinkering around until you find the right settings is no big deal.
So far I have only addressed the technical aspects of shooting fireworks. As for the artistic aspects, I will leave them mostly to you and your imagination. Try to pick a nice spot with an interesting foreground; if you can include a famous landmark in the frame, you get extra Flickr points. Shooting fireworks from across a lake or river is always a crowd pleaser as the reflections add impact to the image. While all this might seem boring and overdone, a photo of a firework burst, alone in the middle of the sky, is even more boring. Fireworks are easier to photograph than this slightly long tutorial might lead you to believe, and they’re fun too. After the first 1-2 minutes of frenzy you’ll find there’s nothing to it, and when you download the pictures to the computer you’ll see how simple it was to create stunning images.
- Set up camera and tripod. Connect cable release if available.
- Attach appropriate lens to camera and take any filter off the lens.
- Set shooting mode to B or M.
- Set appropriate aperture, or f/5.6 if you don’t know what it is.
- Set ISO to 100.
- Focus your camera on a landmark at about the same distance as where the fireworks will be.
- When the fireworks start, make the first shot about 2s long and check the focus is correct (adjust by hand if necessary; do not try to autofous on the fireworks!).
- Once the focus is correct, test shutter speeds of 1.5s, 1s and 0.5s. Find the one you like.
- Now it’s time to set the image quality:
- If the fireworks are not bright enough, increase the ISO.
- If the fireworks are bright enough but the surroundings are not, increase the ISO (but make sure the fireworks retain colour).
- If the fireworks are bright enough but the surroundings are too bright, a) close down the aperture 1 stop while making sure the fireworks don’t dim too much, or b) shorten the shutter speed.
- If both fireworks and surroundings are too bright, close down the aperture 1 stop.
- If both fireworks and surroundings are too dim, a) increase the ISO, or b) if you are far away enough, you might be able to open up the aperture and still retain enough depth of field.
I’ve tried to be clear and not forget any step or detail, but if you find something missing or have any questions, use the comments section below and I will answer before the evening of July 4th.
Article Photos – Technical Info
Shot on a 10.4MP DSLR with a Sigma APO 70-300mm f/4-5.6 at ISO 125. Further details:
#1: f/6.3, 0.6s
#2: f/6.3, 1.5s
#3: f/6.3, 1.1s
#4: f/7.1, 1.1s
#5: f/7.1, 1.8s
All photos: ©Miserere.