Most of us enjoy watching fireworks. They are a beautiful and exhilarating spectacle, and as with most beautiful things we want to capture them on photo and video to preserve their glory and share it with others. But for many people who do not venture beyond Auto mode in photography shooting fireworks can be a real challenge, since that’s one of the few instances where knowledge of a full manual mode is required. Thankfully, shooting fireworks is not an overly complicated process to learn and we will break it down step by step in this tutorial.
Nowadays, virtually anything can take a picture. I will not be surprised if my toaster is capable of taking images of me every morning and automatically posting them online, while backing up to cloud. Anyway, my point is that most people have a phone camera for those “random moments” photos, a point and shoot for party shots and perhaps a DSLR for “finally getting your images looking professional.” Since you are reading this tutorial, I will assume that you have a camera with manual options, but even if you just have a phone you can still shoot fireworks with the help of apps that offer extensive camera settings. Like Camera+ for iOS, Camera FV-5 for Android or CameraPro for Windows Phone
First thing you will need to do is fully charge you camera’s batteries. You will be using long exposures and perhaps checking most shots on LCD screen and those things can drain your batteries very quickly. If you have additional batteries charge them and bring them with you. Secondly, I highly recommend some accessories: a tripod and a shutter remote. Don’t worry if you can’t get these accessories since you can still technically take some nice fireworks shots without them, but these accessories will make the process a whole lot easier.
Since fireworks are mostly rare and beautiful occurrences, they usually attract large crowds, so make sure you arrive way ahead of scheduled show to get a good spot and have enough time to setup. When I say a good spot I don’t necessarily mean a spot close to the fireworks. What you should be looking for is a place where you can get the optimal framing for your shot. Getting architectural details or interesting crowds together with the fireworks can make your images stand out from millions of other shots. Also note that fireworks are essentially pretty explosions that also create smoke so it’s usually a good idea to stay a safe distance away and make sure that the wind doesn’t blow in your direction.
- Steady. Once you’ve picked a good position, place the camera on a tripod and make sure the tripod is standing super steady. It is best not to extend the tripod to its full height and keep it close to the ground for optimal steadiness. But if you feel that this way your frame might be blocked then extend it and try putting more weight on your tripod by hanging a bag or something heavy on it. If you don’t have a tripod, try propping up your camera on a sturdy structure so it can stay completely still for several seconds. If you think you can hold your breath and keep your camera steady in your hands for a few seconds, don’t fool yourself or you’ll end up with a whole bunch of blurry images.
- Horizon. Whether your composition is horizontal or vertical, try to get your horizon parallel to your frame. However, if you overlook this detail it can later be corrected in post-processing but it’s better to get it right in the field.
- Modes. This is one of the rare scenarios where Auto mode is completely useless. You will have to set your camera to fully manual mode. Don’t pick shutter/aperture priority since that uses camera metering as well. We need full manual or bulb mode for fireworks. All the bulb mode does is keep the shutter open for as long as you hold the shutter release button. This can come in handy depending on what kind of shots you are going for. If you don’t have manual mode on your camera then look for Night Scene option. Many consumer cameras offer various presets. Night scene or even Fireworks can be one of the presets.
- Aperture. If you want blasts with long streaks and want to capture several blasts in one shot you should use a narrow aperture: f5.6 – f11 and beyond is preferred. This way you have less of a chance of overexposing the sparks. However, if you don’t have a steady camera and need to keep a shutter open as briefly as possible, then open aperture as wide as your lens allows.
- Shutter speed. Shutter speed is probably one setting you will need to experiment with once the show starts. You can also change aperture and ISO on the fly but I would recommend keeping them constant and just play with shutter speed in my experience 2 to 10 seconds window is optimal for fireworks. It all depends on your distance from the blasts and their intensity. Once the show starts try shooting at various speeds and see what works best.
- ISO. Turn off Auto ISO. Since digital noise is more prevalent in darker areas try keeping it around 100-200.
- Framing. It’s usually difficult to know for sure how high the rockets will fly until they start poping so try to keep your frame wide. You can always crop in post-processing. Also, as I have mentioned above, it is usually nice to capture a crowd or architectural detail with fireworks and the light they give off for unique and interesting composition, so pick your position carefully and then take full advantage of it.
- Vibrations. If your camera/lens has Image Stabilization (Canon), Vibration Reduction (Nikon) or any such option, then disable it. These function are beneficial when a camera is handheld, they counteract micro movement and keep your shots steady. However, on stabilized surfaces, such as a tripod, these functions can actually introduce unwanted vibrations and ruin your shots.
- Flash. Unless you want to take portraits of people with fireworks behind them, please disable flash. When photographing fireworks you don’t need flash. It will only create ugly shadows and eat up your batteries.
- Focus. Disable Autofocus. Once in manual mode, set your focus to infinity. If there is no infinity mark on your lens just push it as far in the distance as it would go. Since the fireworks will be relatively far away from you and aperture would be narrow all of it should be in good focus.
- Live View. Disable Live View. It will eat up your batteries and you need to conserve power. You will need all the power at prolonged exposures. Use eyecup viewfinder to frame the shots.
Remote controller. Even if a camera is stationed on a tripod, just by pressing a shutter button you can send tiny vibrations throughout the unit and cause motion blur. There are several ways you can avoid this. The best way is to have a wired remote. With a wired remote you can use Bulb mode and take the picture without disturbing the camera. Remember that these remotes are not universal, so pick one that works with your camera. Some cameras also support infrared remote controls. These are also a good option, but they don’t support bulb mode. If you don’t have these accessories there are other options. Many cameras support Android and iOS apps either through Wi-Fi or wire. And finally, as a last resort you can use a timer. Many cameras have an option for a 2 second timer besides the standard 10 second one.
Once the fireworks start, it’s all hands on deck. Try to get as many shots in the beginning as possible because initially there will be very little smoke and thus the shots will be the sharpest. Don’t check each shot but do monitor your batches. Try to time your shots with each blast. You can often see a rocket trail just before it blasts. Try to press the shutter once you see the trail go high enough. Check your images and reset shutter speed as necessary.
As I have mentioned above you can use Bulb mode. All this mode does is keep the shutter open as long as you hold the button. To get several fireworks in one shot you can keep the shutter open for a prolonged period. If your shots turn out overexposed you can narrow aperture more. You can also use a dark object to cover the lens in between the blasts so that only the necessary light gets recorded by your camera’s sensor.
You can also try zooming out while taking a picture. This can create a very interesting effect. First, zoom in to the maximum frame you can allow, then half-way into the shot zoom out. For example: if the shutter speed is set to 4 seconds, once released count to 2 seconds and zoom out for the next 2 seconds. Don’t worry about vibrations in this instance since there will be motion blur present in those shots anyway. Since fireworks are a relatively short spectacle try to get as many shots as possible and don’t forget to enjoy the view away from your camera as well.