Summer is here and the Fourth of July is right around the corner. That means its time for some fireworks photography. Fireworks displays are an exciting subject because of their visual qualities and the technical challenges they present to a photographer. They are a great subject for creative photography and definitely something to include in your summer photo agenda. I have includes several fireworks photo tips in this article to get you started. Fireworks are fun and beautiful photography subject for and the sky is literally the limit on how creative you can get shooting them.
FIREWORKS PHOTO TIPS
TIP #1 – Keep it Steady!
Keeping your camera steady during a long exposure is an important skill to master. It is especially critical when you are photographing fireworks to secure your camera and to avoid camera shake! We use long duration exposures (shutter speeds) to capture the action of the cascading embers and for working in low light conditions. A tripod is an essential tool for this type of shooting. The heavier your tripod the more stability it will give. Camera shake and movement will blur your image and the tripod provides the camera a solid foundation for those long exposures. Although a tripod is your best option you can use other support devices to stabilize your camera (sand bag, mini-pod etc…).
TIP#2 – Trigger Carefully
One of the most likely problems with camera movement comes when you depress your shutter button to make your exposure. The pressure exerted by your finger is enough to introduce camera shake and blur your image capture. Having a light touch when triggering the shutter. Camera shake is more likely to occur with point and shoot digital cameras because force is greater on a smaller object. Some cameras and lenses incorporate image stabilization technology which can help reduce this issue.
The best method is to use a remote shutter release device. Many cameras have model specific triggers as well as generic devices that are used to trip the shutter. Triggers can physically connect to the camera or work wirelessly (infrared). An alternative to a remote trigger is to use the self-timer controls on your camera. The two or ten second delay from the time you depress the trigger till when the shutter opens allows the vibration to stop and you camera to become still. The trick with this method is to anticipate when the fireworks launch and time your release in advance.
TIP#3 – Lens Selection
Determining which focal length lens to use for fireworks photography is relative to your proximity to the launch and display area. In general would select a longer focal length to help keep your frame full of the firework burst. A mid-range telephoto zoom lens like a 70 to 200 mm is a good choice if you have that option. Please note that telephoto lenses a prone to vibration which makes using a tripod even more critical. Lens choice is also relative to the scope of the scene you want to include in your images. If you want to have the fireworks be the dominant element, use a longer lens. A telephoto lens compresses the distance relationship of objects in your scene. A wide angle lens will allow for more skyline and the general scene in the shot.
TIP #4 – Be Prepared
Try to get to the fireworks event early so you have a good chance to scope out your camera position. Pay attention to ambient light sources and background elements you want to avoid (street lights, power lines, cell towers, etc…). Once the crowd shows up moving around with a tripod is a challenge so scout carefully. Note wind direction so you can anticipate how the clouds of smoke will pass through your scene. Smoke blowing in your face will block light and diffuse your image. Make sure you have plenty memory cards and charged batteries in your camera bag. Also bring along a penlight or small flashlight. Operating your camera in the dark is difficult… a little light will come in handy.
TIP# 5- Frame Carefully
When you photograph fireworks your camera needs to be in position and ready to fire before the fuse is lit. Aiming your camera and establishing your point of view without the subject being present is a real challenge. You have to anticipate and observe the path of the fireworks and plan when they will cross your image area. When you are setting up your shot consider how much sky you want to include in the image. Be careful to keep your horizons level and vertical elements squared up. When you are shooting consider moving from horizontal to vertical format. Fireworks can have a trajectory that works well vertically while some of the large burst makes more visual sense in a horizontal frame.
TIP#6 – Use Manual Exposure Mode
Manual exposure mode is the best way to control your results when shooting in the lighting conditions presented during fireworks. Your camera in automatic exposure cannot anticipate or compensate for the dramatic swings from light to dark during fireworks (the bright burst compared to the night sky). Setting your camera in manual allows you to choose the shutter speed, aperture and ISO combination that will yield the best results.Some cameras offer a SCENE MODE for fireworks which may give you a good starting point for your exposure but manual is your best option (Don’t forget to turn off your flash). Fireworks are a great available light subject and the burst of flash will only annoy the people around you.
In general you should start with a mid range aperture, (usually f8 or f11 on a typical Dslr lens) which will provide enough depth of field. Stopping down to smaller apertures will probably underexpose and opening up to maximum aperture will cause overexposure. Select the lowest ISO possible to give the best results. The higher the ISO the greater the chance you will get noise and digital artifacts, especially in your shadows.
Shutter speed is the most important exposure element to control when shooting fireworks. Capturing the movement of the streaking lights of fireworks require relatively long exposure durations. I would start with an exposure of about 4 seconds at f 11 (ISO 100). Bracket your exposures by increasing and decreasing your shutter speed to see what duration is best (from 2 seconds to 8 seconds). The brightness of each burst is different so bracketing is a good strategy to get correct exposure.
TIP #7 – Use Manual Focus
Autofocus control is inherently difficult in low light conditions. Switch your lens to manual focus and pre-focus before the show begins. If you increase your distance away from the fireworks and use a longer lens you can set the focus on infinity in manual (infinity symbol on your lens focus scale is ∞). With an aperture (f stop) of ʄ 8 or ʄ 11 you will maintain relatively good depth of field and the images will be sharp.
TIP# 8 – Timing is Everything
The timing of your shots is the trickiest part of making great fireworks photography. Having the shutter open when the fireworks shells burst is the goal. Trip your shutter when the round is launched so you can capture the full explosion when the shell bursts and the sparks fall. Pay attention at the beginning of the event to anticipate wind direction and avoid the changes accumulated smoke make to sharpness and color.
TIP# 9 – Experiment
Fireworks are a fun subject and they certainly lend themselves to experimentation and innovation. As you shoot check your results and histograms on your camera display and note the changes you make. Observe the relationship of time and motion and get creative with those photographic elements. One idea is to bring a piece of black cardboard that you can use to block your lens with. Using the BULB – “B” setting, you can make a composite exposure of several bursts by holding the black card in front of the lens in between launches. In “bulb” the shutter remains open as long as the shutter button is depressed. You can use your lens cap to block the lens in the same way but taking it on and off the lens may cause vibrations. Blocking the lens between bursts while leaving the shutter open will not increase your exposure of the night sky and it will remain a solid dark background for the overlapping fireworks. Don’t forget to include other elements in your image. Use a wider perspective to include cityscapes, silhouettes and the crowd to add a narrative element to your photographs.
TIP # 11 –Shoot RAW not JPEG
If your camera has the option, use the RAW file format (some point and shoots do not have this option.) Make sure you shoot your fireworks with that quality setting. RAW is your best image capture file format. JPEGs are your best image distribution file format. You will have more options for fine tuning your RAW files on the computer and for dealing with the lighting challenges present in fireworks photography.
TIP# 12 – Analyze your First Shots Quickly
Fireworks shows move quickly and in general the most action is at the end of the show. As soon as the fireworks display begins fire off a few frames quickly and quickly check your results. Examine your framing and focus. Look at your histogram to see the exposure qualities. You may start with a bracketed exposure sequence (2, 4, 8, 16, 30 seconds) and compare the results. Once you figure your settings you can then concentrate on shooting the rest of the show. Periodically you can spot check your results to check any changes.