How To Photograph Fireworks
I decided with the 4th of July holiday upon us I would provide our readers with some great tips on how to photograph fireworks!
This is actually an article I published originally on our travel website Beers & Beans but it's a great article with step by step tips on how to take fantastic firework photos so I wanted to share it here as well.
So if you’re planning on watching the fireworks this year be sure to bring your camera!
Although shooting fireworks may seem complicated (burst of bright light in a pitch black environment) and intimidating, it really isn’t. In fact, it can be downright easy. And with some experimentation, you’ll be able to create some unique images that you will be dying to share with your friends & family!
Of course I should also mention that our summer hidden pocket scarves are the perfect place to stash your camera accessories - lens caps, filters, batteries, memory cards and more!
Above: Both photos were shot with an aperture of f/22 and at an ISO of 1250. The first photo has a shutter speed of 30 seconds, the second photo is 20 seconds.
Here are Speakeasy Travel Supply's simple tips for shooting fireworks:
1. Pick A Great Vantage Point
This is an often overlooked tip but it makes a huge difference in the creation of your images. If you want to get some truly great shots, try scouting out the area before hand. They’ll likely be a crowd on the big night so keep that in mind when you pick your location and if you can choose an elevated spot it will give you a definite advantage. On the night of the fireworks, be sure to get there early to lock in your position.
2. Tripod Up or Find A Stable Surface
I’ll admit I like to shoot sans tripod whenever possible. I hate carrying around a tripod if I don’t have to, and I prefer handheld shooting whenever possible BUT shooting fireworks is one situation where a tripod is a must have. You’ll be shooting in the dark capturing beautiful streams of light – trying to do this while hand holding your camera is a recipe for blur. And I’m not talking about the good kind of blur. By using multi-second shutter speeds, you’ll ruin the firework light trails with camera shake so be sure to use a tripod. Don’t have a tripod? You’re not out of luck! This is a great way to get creative and use any stable surface you have available to you – lawn chair, cooler, large rock, fence post or even the roof of your car (make sure the car is not running). Look around and see what you can use, just remember it has to be a solid, non-moving surface that can support the weight of your camera. Keep in mind the crowd around you but remember that sometimes using a tripod alternative can yield an entirely new perspective for your shots and that’s a good thing.
3. The Self Timer Is Your BEST Friend.
Because you’ll be using a slow shutter speed to achieve beautiful light trails, you need to keep in mind that any little motion felt by the camera is going to be recorded and ruin your image. Even with the aid of a tripod or other stable surface you’ll need to help your camera along a little further to ensure complete stability. A lot of people don’t know this but when you push the button to release the shutter you are causing a tiny amount of camera shake. It’s so minute that you may not realize it at the time but your camera most certainly will. The result will be photos that are always slightly blurry. Not to worry! There is a simple solution to this: YOUR SELF TIMER. Simply set the self timer on your camera and press the shutter. The delay of a few seconds will ensure that the shake from pressing the button with your hands is long gone when the camera works it magic. Alternately, if you have a remote trigger you can use that, but the self timer is a free solution that already comes with your camera and will do the same thing. This little step is an important one so be sure to remember it when you head out for the evening.
4. Manual, Manual, Manual – Exposure & Focus!
When I wrote the Ebook, Getting Out Of Auto, I created it as a resource for photographers that wanted to learn how to shoot in manual mode instead of shooting on auto. Shooting Fireworks is a perfect real life example on how shooting in manual will help you achieve shots you that would be impossible to create if you were using the Auto setting. In addition to manual exposure, manual focus will help you focus correctly on your subject while in a dark situation without tearing your hair out.
Why use manual focus instead of auto focus? Digital cameras have a notoriously hard time focusing in dark situations and if set in auto focus the camera simply won’t take a photo if the lens can’t focus. Even the best cameras can struggle finding a point of focus when shooting in dark conditions and this struggle will cause a delay in shooting which ultimately will lead to you missing the shot and getting irritated. Instead of getting frustrated simply switch the auto focus feature to manual focus, look through the viewfinder while focusing with your lens and pick the perfect point of focus for your shot. I sometimes prefer to manually focus in other situations as well because it is so simple and easy and it allows me shoot quickly without any camera focusing delays. Keep in mind that if you move your camera or want to focus on something else in the scene you will need to refocus for each shot because your camera won’t do it for you.
Why use manual exposure? Manual exposure is going to enable you to slow your shutter speed (create great light streams), fiddle with your ISO (keep noise in check) and use a greater depth of field (help achieve a sharp photo). See the points below for tips on manual settings that will help you photograph fireworks.
The Technical Details
Keep in mind that your shutter speed, aperture & ISO settings will be affected by the situation you are shooting in. If you are in an area that has a large firework budget and has several fireworks going off at the same time you will have more light to work with than someone else who is shooting a smaller firework display. Use these tips as starting suggestions and then play around with your settings until you find what works best for you.
6. Shutter Speed
Fireworks are some of the best subjects to shoot if you want to see how slowing down your shutter speed will create a different look in your image. I like abstract images and I think that fireworks look best when the shutter speed is slowed down enough so that it can record the trails of light as they fade away. You can play with the shutter speed to create different results and I recommend starting around 4 seconds and then going all the way to 30 seconds. Try out different settings and see which one you like best. If your camera has a B (Bulb) setting you can even try using that to capture several different sets of firework displays.
Depending on your choice of shutter speed you will want to compensate for the exposure with your aperture. Love the look of the 4 second shutter speed but need more light? Be sure to open up the aperture on your lens to let more light into the camera. Remember ‘opening up’ means that you’ll need to choose a smaller aperture number on your lens – for example, f/5.6 is going to let in more light than f/16. The smaller the f-stop the larger the aperture (aka lens opening). However, there is one other thing to keep in mind when setting your aperture – your depth of field. A larger opening lets in more light however, it also creates a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field simply means that not everything in your scene will be sharp. It does not affect your focusing ability it simply affects the range of sharpness in the image from the foreground to the background. Depending on your shooting style this may or may not be that important to you but it’s worth noting and keeping in the back of your mind as you shoot. Because fireworks are large and spread out you’ll want a decent depth of field to keep them sharp. Try out aperture f/8 or f/11 as great all purpose settings to begin with. Start with one and either decrease or increase your aperture to balance the light coming into your lens and camera with the light coming through with your shutter.
ISO is the last setting on your camera that will help you control light but it also controls the noise in your photo as well so try to keep your ISO as low as possible. Start at around 400 ISO and then raise it (to get more light) or lower it depending on your needs. Keep in mind that a higher ISO generates more noise so try to keep it as low as you can.
Above: For a more in-depth look at how Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO & Depth of Field work be sure to check out my ebook, Getting Out Of Auto, which has clear, easy to understand descriptions of each setting.
9. Turn Off Your Flash
If you are using your manual settings, then your flash shouldn’t automatically fire; however, if it does be sure you shut it off. The built in flash on your camera won’t do any good while trying to get a good shot of fireworks. The atmosphere is too dark and the fireworks are too large and far away to be illuminated by a flash. If you use the built in flash, all you’ll end up with is a bright white foreground and a very boring background.
10. Consider Your Composition
When setting up your shots remember to consider your composition. Be sure to pay attention to the horizon line and keep it in the top third or the bottom third of your frame instead of dead center. If possible include landscape or figural elements in your shot to add interest and to give a sense of place.
11. Experiment And Have Fun!
Photography is meant to be enjoyed so try not to get too caught up in the technical details and just have fun with it. Play with the settings on your camera until you achieve a look you like and then shoot away.
Photo taken at f/22, ISO 1000 and a 30 second shutter speed.
Feel free to print this article out or stash it on your phone then you can follow each step while out watching the fireworks and snag perfect photos of your night!