(The majority of the information in this post was first published in July of 2016 here. I am repeating it with just a few additional tips based upon photographing this years fireworks. )
Fireworks displays are to be found around the globe as are photographers out there capturing those colorful bursts of light against a dark sky. Here are a few tips that have worked for me for photographing these events.
You will need your camera (of course) and a zoom lens. If you don’t have a zoom lens then a long prime lens will work. As stability is paramount, a study tripod is needed because you will be working with long shutter speeds. A monopod will work too providing you can hold fairly still and they do work better when in crowds. A shutter release cable is useful in order to prevent any further camera shake and remember to set out with media cards and a charged battery in camera as well as a backup one. Bring along a flashlight or a cell phone for lighting because you will be in the dark and need to not only see where you are going but to be able to see the settings on your camera that don’t have a light function. Having a chair or blanket to sit on while you wait is a good idea and depending on the time of year, insect repellent; you are shooting outdoors.
If at all possible, scout out where you will want to be for taking the photos ahead of time. Fireworks are pretty big so it’s not necessary to get up close and personal with them but you will be competing with other people who want a good view of the display so claiming your spot early might be advisable. It also helps to know which direction they will be launching the fireworks from… there’s nothing like having your camera pointed towards the left and the fireworks go off to your right.
READY TO SHOOT
- You will be shooting in manual so set your camera to manual mode and turn off any image stabilization if your lens has it.
- Don’t try auto focus! Instead, set your focus ring to infinity and point your camera to an area in the sky where you will get the images you want. This may or may not include trees, buildings and crowds depending on where you are located and what you want your composition to be; you can always adjust this later in Photoshop or whatever editor you use.
- Use a slow shutter speed of between 1 to 30 seconds. After a shot or two you will figure out what works but I found I had to adjust mine for the final display because there was a lot more light going on then which pretty much washed out color and form. Using your cameras bulb setting is another option.
- Set your ISO to between 100 and 200 and experiment with your aperture; between f/8 and f/16 is usually suggested. I varied between f/11 and f/14 for my shots. I read that someone set their white balance to tungsten while shooting; I left mine at auto white balance and as I shoot in RAW (I strongly recommend shooting in RAW) and adjust later in Photoshop.
- Remember, stability is important so use that tripod, monopod or if you have neither try to find something sturdy like a wall, fence or a post to lean on or against.
- Timing is important when shooting fireworks. You ultimately want that trail and then the big burst so it’s best to trigger the shutter as soon as you see a rocket going up.
So did I do anything different this year? Yes! I used my tripod this year instead of a monopod and if I ever find where I put my remote for my camera I will use it next time. I also brought a flashlight this year so no tripping in the dark. As with last year, setting my 70-200mm lens to 70mm worked best (I got a pretty good spot fairly close again) with my settings starting at f/11, ISO 125, auto white balance and shutter speeds that ranged from 3 seconds to 4; eventually I went for 10 seconds. Last year because I used a monopod I didn’t go any longer than 2 seconds; that’s about as long as I could hold still. What I learned this year from shooting at longer shutter speeds was that sometimes I would get a wonderful overlay of explosions and then there would be shots that because of the combination of my shutter speed and how fast or slow they decided to launch the rockets, I’d miss the full effect of an explosion. This would end up as an image that captured nothing but the residual smoke or the very tail end of a burst. And then there was the multi blast finale. What I learned from that was it would’ve best to have an F stop somewhere around f/16 because of all of the light.
Shot at 4 seconds – good but no trail and barely a multiple burst.
Shot at 8 seconds – better with multiple bursts and trails.