Independence Day is coming up in the United States and that has me thinking about taking photos of fireworks. For many years I tried getting cool shots of fireworks with terrible results, until I thought through what I was trying to catch.
Be prepared to capture your local fireworks show by following some of these tips.
Plan your location
Figure out where the fireworks will be launched from and how close you can safely be to get a good shot.
Use a tripod
A tripod is your best friend on July 4th. It will be dark out and your shutter speed is going to have to be slow to let in as much light as possible and to catch the movement of the fireworks. The tripod height is not all that important as you will likely be shooting up regardless. It should be a sturdy piece of equipment and, generally, the heavier the better. If your tripod is not incredibly sturdy and stable, consider using a remote shutter release. This can be a cable that runs to the camera or a wireless remote control that triggers the shutter. On a tripod that is not rock solid, even the act of pressing the shutter can be enough to shake the camera and cause a blurry photo.
Use a slow shutter speed
I’ve found that I like to shoot fireworks somewhere in between ½ a second and 4 seconds depending on how bright the show is, how close you are, and how long the fireworks hang in the air. You’re going to have to do some experimenting on this one. Generally, from the time the firework busts to the time it reaches it’s peak size is a few seconds and if you leave the shutter open you’ll capture the whole thing.
Try to include a static item in your frame, like a building or a tree. This will give your fireworks some scale. In my photos in DC I included the monuments on the National Mall. You can see how big the fireworks are relative to the monuments.
Set your focus to the static item in the distance or on fireworks when they first go off and then don’t touch it. Autofocus does not work well for fireworks—at least not on my camera—because it is not fast enough to detect the light and fire at the beginning of the explosion.
Control exposure with aperture
Your shutter speed is pretty much fixed based on the timing of the fireworks. So use your aperture to control how bright your fireworks appear. The smaller the aperture (f18, f20) the darker they will appear, the bigger the aperture (f4, f5.6) the brighter they will appear. My DC fireworks photo was at f20. You may have to play with this. If there was only one firework up there I would go to f16 and if there was a ton at the grand finale, and it was very bright, I would go to f22.
There is an element of luck to getting the perfect fireworks shot. You never know when the fireworks will be lined up perfectly and at what point in the sky they will explode. Use your best judgment and keep firing away. Ideally you will capture the very beginning of the explosion through when the light begins dissipating. View your images as you go and quickly decide how long the shutter speed should be and how much light to let in with the aperture. I figured it out through trial and error.
In case you’re with a big group of folks this July 4th, learn about mastering group portraits too.