LEARN: How To: Fireworks Photography Guide
Fireworks photography guide
In This Guide
1. Intro
2. Required Items

Other Resources
Fireworks Photo Discussion
Exposure Guide
Fireworks Photo Gallery

Fireworks Photography Guide

by Sebastian Szyszka

1. Intro
Let's get the big secret out in the open - fireworks are simply one of the easiest, and arguably most boring, things one can photograph. Making a great fireworks photo is easy, and that means there's a glut of great shots out there. But that makes it that much harder to create something that stands out from the rest. And therein lies the challenge. In this guide we'll cover the technical side of taking fireworks photos that aren't a blurry, grainy mess.

This guide will explain the technical issues involved in fireworks photography and give you a solid foundation, which you can use to develop your own methods. A lot of variables will be unique to your situation, use this as a guide to get you started and make adjustments as needed.

2. Required Items
You will need the following:

  • Sturdy support
  • Camera with manual exposure controls
  • Shake-proof shutter-release

Sturdy support: When shooting at night a good support is mandatory. A rigid tripod is the most versatile tool, but in a pinch a stone ledge or a beanbag will do the job just fine. The goal is to have something that will resist vibration as much as possible. Some of the larger fireworks shows will shake the ground you're standing on, and a lesser support may actually make your camera vibrate more, and ruin your photos.

Camera with manual exposure controls: The camera can be any sort of camera - digital or film, compact or SLR - as long as it gives you the ability to control the aperture, the ISO, and the shutter speed. This helps maintain consistency from shot to shot (automatic modes/cameras are easily fooled in extreme lighting situations like these) and gives you the ability to choose how you want the images to look.

Shake-proof shutter-release: With shutter speeds lasting several seconds, you want as little camera shake as possible. A remote release minimizes vibrations during shutter actuation and also makes it possible to take pictures from a more comfortable position. A cable release is the most versatile due to its ability to work from any direction and orientation. IR remotes (if your camera can use them) have the benefit of absolutely no contact with the camera, but have to be used line-of-sight or the sensor will not pick up the signal. A third option is the camera's self-timer. This has two major drawbacks. One, it is difficult to time the start and end of the shutter release. And two, it forces you to use preset shutter timings, limiting your ability to control the way the bursts are recorded.

3. Exposure

Let's take a moment here to consider exactly we're doing when we take a fireworks photo . The main exposure is the fireworks burst. These are intensely bright and, more importantly, go directly through the lens to expose your film or sensor. The problem we face is we want to record the entire explosion (they tend to be rather slow) without letting each burst and trail totally overexpose and lose all color and detail. So here is what we want to do:

  • Control the time of the exposure to record the entire burst (time)

    while at the same time...

  • Holding all detail and color in fireworks burst (amount)

  • fireworks photo by Szyszka Sebastian

    The first item is easy, we simply select a shutter speed that lets us open the shutter when the burst starts and close it when we like the way it has filled the frame, or alternatively, has expired. This is the BULB mode. It opens the shutter when the button is depressed, and it closes the shutter when the button is released.

    The second part is slightly more complicated. During that long exposure (the bursts last several seconds on average) how do we keep the amount of light hitting the film/sensor to a manageable level? The answer is twofold. First, we close down the aperture. This limits the total amount of light coming in, allowing longer shutter times. At the same time, we make the ISO (sensitivity) as low as possible. That means the lowest ISO setting on a digital camera, or the slowest film you can find. Depending on your camera, that could be anywhere between ISO 50 and ISO 200. The ultimate goal is to balance the three main exposure variables, aperture, shutter and ISO - so that they produce fireworks photos with the effect you like best. Digital shooters, in particular, will benefit here as they can adjust exposure on the fly and get instant feedback via the camera's LCD display.

    4. Setup
    Ok, what now?
    Once the camera is mounted on the tripod several new questions come to mind:

    • What settings should you use?
    • Where do you focus? What focus mode should you use?
    • How do you meter the light?
    • How do you compose without knowing exactly where the fireworks will be?

    Let's cover these one at a time.

    Camera settings: The lowest ISO on my camera is 100, and through trial and error I found that I like to use an aperture of f/11. Why? Because that gives me the qualities I personally look for in the final image - bright streaks with a little bit of color in a nice clean, grain-free image. Your preferences and your equipment will vary, therefore, so will your images. The shutter, as already mentioned, is set to BULB. What if your camera doesn't have BULB? Set it for a speed that lasts several seconds and don't worry about it. BULB is best, but preset speeds won't keep you from making great pictures. If your images are too dark, open up the aperture. If they're too bright, stop it down.

    Focus: Typically, the bursts will be at a distance way past the infinity focus points of a lens. So set your camera to manual focus and focus your lens at infinity. If your image has buildings, trees, or some other interesting foreground element (these tend to help give the image scale) then you might want to make sure they're in focus. That depends on what you want out of the final photo. The streaks themselves are difficult to get "sharp" as they are just the glow of burning chemicals - there is nothing there to be really be sharp. So focus, though important, is not critical. Either way, once you get your focus set the way you want, leave it. Switch off your auto focus and don't worry about it for the rest of the night.

    How do you meter the light: How do you meter the light? You don't. If you were the first person to shoot fireworks you might get some equipment to figure an exposure and then dial it in. Or you might shoot at every possible setting and find the one that works best. Luckily, someone's already done it and provided us with a place to start. You can use the same settings that I use: your camera's lowest ISO, shutter on BULB, and your aperture at f/11.

    Feel free to experiment and find what works best for you.

    Framing: Since you don't know where the fireworks will go off, your framing won't be perfect right off the bat. Watch the first few bursts through your viewfinder and reframe as needed. Resist the urge to frame tightly, play it safe and shoot slightly loose. The bursts will be all over the place, give yourself some room or you'll be constantly reframing and missing unexpected bursts that are out of frame. You can always crop later.

    5. Triggering
    So you have the camera at the lowest ISO, your aperture is set at about f/11, your shutter is set for BULB, and you've got the remote or cable release in your hand. How exactly do you time it so the shutter opens right when a burst goes off?

    Easy: you cheat.

    The easiest way to time your shot is to open the shutter as soon as the fireworks are launched. As soon as you hear the sound of ignition and the rocket takes off, press the shutter release. This accomplishes two things. One, it guarantees that you'll get the entire burst. Two, it allows any additional elements, like buildings or trees, to burn in and brighten up.

    How do you know when to close the shutter? That's up to you. You can wait for the burst to totally die out, but that has potential shortcomings. For one, other bursts may go off while the shutter is still open, ruining your composition. Or worse, they'll go off in the same spot as an earlier one, overexposing that area. Play it safe at first and build on on what you learn from frame to frame.

    That's pretty much all you need to know to get started taking fireworks photos. Like I mentioned several times, you will be faced with constantly changing subjects. Stay on your toes, stick to the basics, and build from one frame to the next. And don't be afraid to experiment.

    6. Recap

    • Sturdy support
    • Shake-free release
    • Manual settings
    • Lowest ISO
    • BULB or several second shutter speeds
    • Loose framing
    • Infinity focus
    • Something in the frame to add scale/anchor the shot
    • Open shutter when mortar first leaves ground
    • Close shutter after several bursts
    • Don't be afraid to reframe

    fireworks photo by Szyszka Sebastian

    fireworks photo by Szyszka Sebastian

    7. FAQ
    Q: Should I use mirror lockup?
    A: Depends. Some cameras require several button presses to initiate it, potentially throwing off timing of the shot. For fireworks photography the benefits are marginal, so don't go out of your way to enable it. Try it, see if it slows you down.

    Q: What film should I use?
    A: Slide film will look beautiful. But it's unforgiving when it comes to exposure, so bracket religiously. Print film will be more forgiving, but I still recommend bracketing. Use ISO 100 or 200 film. You could also try Fujichrome Velvia for its rich colors and ISO 50 sensitivity. It will allow you to use even slower shutter speeds without losing highlight detail.

    Q: I shoot digital, what format should I use? RAW or JPG?
    A: I would suggest RAW to give you more exposure latitude. However, some cameras are too slow when shooting RAW. If your camera is fast enough in RAW mode, use it. High quality JPEG images are very good now though. So if you find RAW is holding you back, don't hesitate to switch.

    Q: What white balance should I use on my digital?
    A: Daylight will give great colors. Avoid Auto White Balance as it will change from frame to frame as it tries to correct the light from the bursts. If you shoot RAW, leave your camera set to Auto White Balance because you can change it later, if you want. Find a setting you like and stick with it.

          - end -

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