Blowing things up is as American as Apple Pie. There is nothing us Americans love more than launching some fireworks, or maybe drinking a bear while someone else launches them. Thanks to the fact that they are bright (explosions = bright) photographing fireworks is pretty easy. Just about any camera can do it assuming it allows long exposures (>1s). Here are the basics for your 4th of July photographic fun.
Photographing Fireworks – On Location
Unless you happen to work for a fire department, the city’s planning office, or an even company orchestrating a fireworks display, you will likely be watching from a public area. Digital scouting goes a long way towards picking a shooting location, but it is hard to beat “boots on the ground”. If you haven’t been to a fireworks display before, try to visit the designated viewing areas, but also consider places you might be able to watch from that are not official public viewing locations.
I’m not suggesting trespassing, but there are often publicly access areas, such as parking garages, that may have a good view of the fireworks. And don’t feel like you have to be right under the fireworks. In the shot above, I was across the Potomac at the Iwa Jima memorial grounds. It is a common location to view the fireworks from, but provides a great view. And it is a hill side so everyone has an unobstructed view of the fireworks even when it is full.
By shooting from a long way away, I was able to shoot with a telephoto and bring the capital building (about a mile farther away) close to the explosions. This is what is referred to as “compressing” the space. It also got me away from the insane crowds (100,000s of people watch from the mall) and allowed me to shoot flat instead of tilted up towards the sky.
Bigger Isn’t Necessarily Better
When you pick your location, bigger isn’t always better. The Washington DC display is rightly one of the largest put on anywhere in the world. After all, it is the celebration of our Independence in our national capital. But, that size and noteworthiness makes it popular.
Consider small town or even private fireworks displays (i.e. put on by friends or family). My home town, Seguin, Tx, has been putting on a nice display on the city golf course since I was a kid. It is easy to get relatively close and because the crowds are much smaller, you can usually find a nice angle. The same rules about scouting apply though. While in DC we went to one of the smaller cities displays and it was fun to watch, but wasn’t very photogenic since it was in a high school football stadium.
About Exposure and Making Photos
You’ve got your locations all picked out. Just about any camera will work provided you can attach a simple wired remote and have manual mode with >1s exposures available. A sturdy tripod is a must.
Fireworks are pretty fast. Even large bursts last only a second or two. And the individual burning components are fast moving. That means that your shutter time does not change how bright the firework is in the picture only aperture and ISO.
Let me repeat that: Shutter time does NOT change how bright the firework appears, only aperture and ISO.
I refer to Aperture and ISO together as “sensitivity”. Objects moving through the frame (fireworks, stars, car headlights, etc) only depend on sensitivity, not shutter speed because they move over many pixels during the exposure. Longer shutter times results in more movement, not brighter objects.
By varying your shutter speed, you can control how bright the foreground and background sky are relative to the fireworks. Longer exposures will mean brighter foreground and background. Shorter will make everything except the fireworks darker.
Longer exposures will have the side effect of capturing more individual fireworks in a single frame so I tend to keep my exposures relatively short during the display (see compositing below). I want photos of individual bursts so I can control which bursts appear together myself.
Proper Firework Exposure
The proper setting will depend on how dark it is when the display starts. I generally use something around ISO400, f/5.6, 5s but depending on how close you are, and how big the explosions are you might need to vary the ISO and aperture to get the right exposure once the display starts.
When exposing fireworks, you want to make sure there is detail in the brightest center of the explosion and you don’t just end up with a white blob. The left hand exposure is equivalent to ISO1600, f/4 sensitivity (just ISO + Aperture). The right hand is ISO 800, f/11. The shutter speed was 15s in both cases because the location we were shooting in was very dark.
Framing and Focusing
It’s helpful if you setup for your shot before it is full dark, but not required. Luckily most displays happen right after sunset so you will likely be getting there during daylight to grab a spot.
Mount your camera on a sturdy tripod. Hook up your wired remote shutter release. Frame your scene. This involves some guesswork unless you have done your homework. Either way, be prepared to reframe once the display starts.
Once you have your scene framed, it’s time to focus. If you are shooting with a wide angle lens, focus is not super critical as long as it is set about the right distance away. If you are using a telephoto lens as I was in D.C., focus is much more critical. I usually pick a distant object and focus on it. In the case of the DC fireworks, I focused on the Lincoln memorial (the front building in the shot). In the case of the Seguin shot above, I used the pecan trees in the foreground since I wanted them to be sharp.
I always try auto-focus first. If it grabs focus, take a test shot, confirm it is sharp and then switch to manual focus and do not touch the focus ring again. If auto-focus will not grab focus, switch to manual focus and dial it in manually. Take test shots and review the images on the back of the camera for subject sharpness. Keep tweaking it until it is sharp!
Before the display starts, probably at sunset or during blue hour, take a few base plates. Pick your exposure to make the sky look the way you want as a background for your fireworks. You might not use these images, but they are almost free to take, so I always get a few. Once that is out of the way, its time to set the camera up for the actual display.
Taking the Shot
Without moving the camera, set your release mode to continuous mode. You will know you are in continuous mode when holding down the shutter button results in the camera taking lots of pictures in a row.
Switch to manual exposure mode and dial in your best guess settings. I’d personally start with ISO400, f/8, 5s but your situation might be different. Be prepared to adjust the ISO and aperture once the display starts. And remember, shutter speed controls the sky and foreground but NOT the fireworks. Adjust the brightness of the fireworks by changing aperture or ISO.
With the camera in manual, the right settings dialed in, and the camera set to continuous release mode, it’s time to wait. When the display starts, press and hold the button for a few shells. Then release and check the exposure and framing. Make any changes you need to. Then lock down the shutter button, usually by sliding a little cover forward. Then sit back and enjoy the show.
Sometimes it can be fun to put something or someone between you and the camera too. If you want more variety, draft an eager child to stare in wonder in front of your camera.
Assembling the Shot
Post processing firework shots can be straight forward. Adjust the exposure and other settings until things look good and export it. If you want to get more involved, here are a couple of ideas to look at:
- Combine individual frames from different shells using “lighten” blend mode. Pick bursts that look good together.
- Blend in a one of the foreground frames you took.
- Don’t be afraid to adjust each frame individually for the best look and then combine them.
- Fireworks are bright. Lighten blend mode is your friend!
Now go out and enjoy the 4th of July, and have some fun making pictures of it.