Cameta 101: Tips For Photographing Fireworks

As summer starts to take hold, there will be plenty of opportunities to take photos of fireworks. This is something that most cameras are capable of, although you will need some basic accessories and techniques. Here’s a quick rundown of what you need and what you should do to get great fireworks pictures.

For starters, if your camera has built-in scene modes (and most do), you have probably noticed the “fireworks” setting. While tempting, this mode can lead to frustration. For example, I have several family members who have pulled out their point-and-shoot cameras on July 4, switched them to fireworks mode, and proceeded to take awful images. The first thing they do is look at the screen and mutter something to the effect of, “well that mode definitely doesn’t work”. Then inevitably they will turn to me and complain, asking why it doesn’t work. Ah, but it does! You just need to know how to take advantage of it.

If you want to take nice pictures of fireworks, the first piece of equipment (aside from the camera, of course) you’ll need is a tripod. Fireworks modes set the camera to shoot at a relatively slow shutter speed, and if the camera is being held by hand, the photos will be predictably blurry, whether you are using a $200 compact camera or a $2000 high-end DSLR. Most people don’t want to carry around a bulky tripod, but fortunately, there are numerous compact tripods that can fit almost anywhere and keep your camera stable. The Joby GorillapodΒ or Fotopro UFO2 for instance, is a great choice for both point-and-shoot and smaller SLR cameras. These mini-sized, bendable tripods can be attached to nearly anything (like a lawn chair, cooler or tree branch), and positioned in almost any position for getting just the right shot. Of course, a larger tripod would likely give you better stability, so if you have the room the spare, by all means bring one along. Good compact choices include the ultra maneuverable Sunpak 6000PG and the very affordable Precision Design PD-50PVTR.

An example of a fireworks photo taken without a tripod

With your camera mounted securely on a tripod, I would recommend giving fireworks mode a try if you just want to aim and shoot with no other input needed. The slow shutter speed will produce beautiful, soft trails, and exposure should be controlled automatically. All you need to do aim toward the sky, listen for the sound of the shells being fired, press the shutter, and let the camera do the rest! You should figure out how long the default exposure is beforehand (most cameras expose for 15-30 seconds) so you can get the timing just right.

If you don’t have fireworks mode, or if you simply want to have more control over your photos, you’ll need to get acquainted with your camera’s manual controls. While working in manual mode can be intimidating to some people, don’t worry… this is one time that it won’t be all that complicated.

First, switch your camera to manual mode, and switch your lens to manual focus mode. If it’s still light enough, focus on something far in the distance, and leave your focus ring there. If it’s already dark, you can wait for the first few fireworks, and use them to dial in your focus, as well as to frame up the scene. You should keep your lens at its widest setting to avoid zoom creep, and to ensure that you will get everything in the shot. With the impressive resolution of modern digital cameras, you can always crop your photos later and still end up with very high-quality images.

Next, set your camera’s ISO to 100 to avoid graininess, and set your lens’ aperture somewhere on the higher end, so that more of the scene will be in sharp focus. I personally range from f/10 to f/22, but usually settle somewhere in the middle, like f/16. Then comes the most important part… setting your shutter speed. The longer you leave the shutter open, the more fireworks will appear in your image. You may want to start with 10 seconds or so, and increase the shutter speed as you go if you want more fireworks in the shot. Most cameras will limit you to a 30-second exposure, but I find that 30 seconds is sometimes too long, since the final image will be too crowded. With fireworks, just like many other aspects of life, you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

Now that you’re ready to shoot, it’s time to discuss a second very helpful accessory. I would highly recommend using a remote shutter release for a variety of reasons. First, because your shutter will be open for a long time, you want to avoid shaking the camera – even slightly – when you push the shutter button. With a remote and a steady tripod, your camera won’t even budge. Second, a remote is very handy for utilizing the “Bulb” shutter setting on your camera. With bulb mode, you can manually determine the shutter speed simply by pressing the shutter release button – once to open the shutter, once more to close it. With bulb mode and a remote shutter release, you can perfectly time your exposures (meaning you can end it whenever you want) and keep your camera super still at the same time. There are many types of remotes available, both wired and wireless, and most Wi-Fi or Bluetooth capable cameras even let you control the shutter with your smartphone.

As far as shooting goes, this is the point where you can just experiment and learn what suits your taste. I like to listen for the thumps of a group of newly-launched fireworks and hit the shutter shortly after that, and expose just long enough for the burst to disappear. If possible, I also try to wait until the air has cleared, so the photo isn’t smoky from previously exploded fireworks. This is just a personal preference, however, and you might like the quality of the light shining through clouds of smoke. That’s the beauty of photography… it’s up to you to determine what looks good!

Now that you have the basics of how to operate the camera, you should think about composition. Do you want nothing but darkness surrounding your fireworks, or do you want to frame the image with your surroundings? Again, I like to keep the lens zoomed out so that I not only have the entire sky in the frame, but I also have other interesting scenery that gets illuminated by the bursts of light. Flagpoles, people, trees, water… anything can look remarkable under showers of colorful sparks.

This fireworks photo sets a great scene with a group of onlookers

Finally, if you have the time and want to get a little more advanced, try playing around with the lens to produce interesting effects. For example, you can zoom in or out while the shutter is open, or defocus immediately after the shells explode for shots that are far from ordinary.

In the end, the key to successful fireworks photos is experimentation, so feel free to take plenty of shots and try new things while you have the opportunity. Just remember to take some time to enjoy the show! After all, you don’t want your only memories to be captured in photos. Leave that camera alone for a minute or two (or just inconspicuously press your remote here and there in bulb mode) and enjoy the celebration.

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