July 4th is approaching quickly, and many Americans will be heading out with their cameras to capture the colors that will light up the night sky. If you have never shot this event before, you should get up to speed before going out so that you are not fumbling around with settings while everyone else is enjoying the show. Photography Tutorials has you covered though — this article will run through techniques for photographing fireworks.
Gear for Photographing Fireworks
There are two important items I suggest you have in order to photograph fireworks (besides a camera of course):
- A tripod
- A cable release
A tripod is useful because you will using long exposures to get the light trails of the fireworks. It will be important to keep the camera as steady as possible, which is where the tripod comes into play. If you do not have a tripod and cannot afford a good one, I do not however suggest you go buy a cheap tripod for this one-time use. A cheap tripod is likely to collapse under the weight of your camera and potentially break your equipment.
A cable release helps you trigger the shutter without touching the camera. This eliminates blur in the long exposure. You can get away with using the timer, but that introduces a lot of extra work in anticipating when to set off the camera. I think using a cable release just makes these types of shots much easier.
Pick Your Vantage Point Early
Where you choose to stand plays a huge part in any photography. Choose carefully where you plan to photograph from and make sure you get there early enough to beat any crowds that may show up.
One of my favorite ways to research photography ahead of time is with Flickr. I will input keywords related to my location and check out what other people have produced there before. I will also explore the Flickr World Map to find geotagged photos at the location.
Focal Lengths for Photographing Fireworks
This is really up to you, your style, and what types of images you are looking to get. A wide angle or normal lens will allow you to get much more of the surrounding environment in the shot — useful if the fireworks will be against and interesting backdrop such as a city skyline.
Telephoto lenses can get you some really interesting, different shots. Getting in for a tight framing can allow you to get just a single burst, or perhaps a small part of a display that would work as an abstract. The hard part about using telephoto lenses to photograph fireworks is that you need to anticipate where the fireworks will burst, and a telephoto lens leaves much less room for error in this department.
Framing Up Your Shots
Your fireworks photography strategy starts with predicting where the shot will be. With your camera mounted on the tripod, compose your shot ahead of time and then wait for the fireworks to enter the frame. This requires pre-visualization (and some guesswork), which is a good thing. Your skills as a photographer will grow when you are able to anticipate and see your photos before triggering the shutter.
Turn it off. It’s not needed.
Focusing on Fireworks
Just like we are anticipating where the fireworks will appear in the frame, I suggest you focus ahead of time in order to prevent your lens from hunting around and missing the shot. Switch to manual focus mode and turn the focus ring to infinity. Take a few test shots to make sure the scene is in focus — use the zoom in/out controls to check the smaller details for sharpness on your camera’s LCD.
Trigger Your Long Exposure
My preferred mode for photographing fireworks is Bulb mode. In bulb mode, the camera will expose for as long as the shutter button is head down. With the cable release in-hand, I will hold down the button when the fireworks enter the photo and let it go a second or two after they have burst. This enables me to expose just long enough to get the light trails, and use slightly different exposure times for each shot without having to fiddle with shutter speeds.
Bulb mode requires you to manually set the aperture and ISO. Choosing a relatively smaller aperture will make sure most of the scene is in focus, and give some leeway if your focus is a little off. Go with the lowest ISO setting you can manage in order to keep noise and grain to a minimum.
If you have never practiced this method before, it may take a few frames before you get used to bulb mode. If you get so many fireworks trails that your photo is just a mess of bright light then you are exposing for too long. Try waiting until the fireworks get a little farther into the frame before triggering the exposure, and/or let go sooner after the burst.
Change things up
With your camera mounted on the tripod, you might be tempted to leave it be and click away. Try changing up your framing every once in a while to get some variety in your shots. This will increase your rate of “keepers”.
Also make sure you review your photos in order to make sure your settings are producing the results you want, and if not, adjust accordingly. If your photos come out too dark with this Bulb method, either open up your aperture or choose a higher ISO setting. And if they’re overexposed, choose a narrower aperture and/or lower ISO setting.