Fireworks photography isn’t too difficult — but it does require you to fearlessly get off automatic mode on your camera as well as some planning. While I’ve tended to avoid fireworks displays in recent years, I finally got out with my camera on the 4th of July last year and tried to capture some decent photos. What follows is some fireworks photography tips based on what worked for me (and what I’ll do differently next time).
Every camera is a bit different — use the basic techniques and, after experimenting a bit, you will be at one with your camera (unless you’re like me and keep trying out different cameras).
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First off: In a nutshell, the best setting for my camera (I was shooting with a Panasonic GH5 at the time) was ISO 100, f 11, and a shutter speed of 15 seconds.
Independence Day fireworks events tend to be well-attended. If you’re planning on going to the event grounds, or some other popular place to view the event, you’ll need to stake your claim!
Pick your place
First and foremost, know the launching point of the fireworks! When you know where the fireworks go up, you can hatch your plan to get the best spot.
Think about your backdrop. Cityscapes are good. I remember one year I watched fireworks near a ferry dock where, had I been equipped, I could have tried to get some shots of the ferry and fireworks (though, likely, the boat would have ended up a blur).
Protect Your Pod
Your tripod that is. Once you have it set up, don’t leave it — which should go without saying. I set up early last year and had a curious 9-year-old befriend me. She wanted to know what I was doing, where I lived, and 20 other questions, but was oblivious to my tripod, gesturing wildly with her arms and smacking into my tripod. Not wanting to be unfriendly, I answered her questions and let her converse, but kept a firm grip on my ‘pod at the same time.
Take Some Test Shots
Take some preliminary shots when you’re picking your place, thinking about your background, and what angle you’ll need to shoot from so you can set up your tripod.
Also, take a couple of preliminary shots just as the fireworks began and look at how they are exposed so you can make some quick adjustments to your settings.
Equipment You’ll Need for Fireworks Photography (Besides Your Camera):
To get high-quality photos of fireworks, you’ll need a tripod. Notice, I said, “high quality.” Don’t try to use your “handheld night shot” mode or the like to get photos of fireworks.
Using a tripod helps to stabilize your camera so you can keep the shutter open for a long time without getting blur.
Remote Shutter Release
Even touching your camera on the tripod may move it a bit. Using a remote shutter release helps to avoid this. You may not have to go out and buy a separate piece of equipment — many cameras now let you use your phone for remote control of your camera. However, if you decide to do this, beware. Get familiar with connecting your camera and phone before the event and make sure that it works well to avoid the aggravation of fiddling with your connection when you should be taking photos. I, myself, know the heartbreak of this.
Settings for Fireworks Photography:
Shoot raw and use manual mode
I used to be intimidated by “shooting RAW” what did that mean? However, once I started doing it, there was no return.
Shooting RAW facilitates improving your image in post-processing in so many ways that I don’t want to list them all here. Still, some of them are: adjusting over- or under-exposure, adjusting colors, editing colors, and adjusting highlights and shadows.
The downside, of course, is that you do need to do some post-processing to get that best image. If you need an immediate image, a solution is shooting in both RAW and JPG format, a setting that most cameras have. Doing this will, however, take up more space on your memory card.
You’ll also need some photo editing software to process your RAW images. Lightroom is standard, and a great way to catalog and find your photos, but it does cost, either by purchasing outright or by an annual subscription (Adobe has one that includes both Lightroom and Photoshop). If cost is prohibitive, there are free RAW editing programs like GIMP available.
Use Manual Mode
If your camera has something like “handheld night mode,” avoid it. I was also suspicious of a “fireworks mode” one of my cameras had (no, I don’t remember which camera and, yes, I am just a suspicious person).
While it probably warrants a separate post (though there are plenty to be found on the internet), here are some basics for people who are afraid of learning about “using those camera settings. (You know who you are!) Hint: it’s all about light.
These are the three “biggies” you need to worry about for fireworks photography (and for all photography):
For Fireworks, Keep it at 100
If you’re (at least sort of) old like me, you’ll at least remember choosing a film on “film speed.” At the time I got my Canon AE-1 Program for my 16th birthday, I didn’t bother to understand what this meant and just went with “200” or “400.”
This “film speed” you used to worry about choosing is your ISO; it’s your camera’s sensor’s sensitivity to light.
Here’s the way my super-simple groks ISO. A low ISO will result in a better-quality image but does not perform as well in a dark space (without adjusting other settings) while a high ISO means my sensor is more light-sensitive, but my image may turn out more grainy.
Cameras are getting better at higher ISOs, and every camera’s different. Still, for fireworks photos, let’s keep the ISO at 100 as we’re going to have that camera sitting on a tripod.
2. Shutter Speed
For fireworks, keep that shutter open a long time. What worked best for my photos: 15 seconds.
Your camera’s shutter opens and closes to let in light. To capture and stop quick movements like sports, you want a fast shutter speed. However, if you’re taking photos in low light, you need to keep your shutter open longer to let in more light. The downside of this is that moving objects blur, which is why you have your camera on a tripod. The upside is that you’ll capture those beautiful trailing lights.
Take home: the smaller the number, the bigger the opening and the more light the camera lets in. For fireworks, we want a lower number. What worked for my photos: f 11
Think of the aperture as the iris of your camera. When you’re in a dark space and need more light, your pupils open wide to let in more light. This wide-open pupil is like the smaller f -number on your camera. At f1.8, for instance, you’ll let the sunshine in and can shoot with a lower ISO and shorter shutter speed — but your depth of field will be more shallow. Which is fine if you want to “bokeh” out that kid (like in the iPhone ad) or otherwise get a beautiful, blurred background bringing your subject to the forefront.
However, this isn’t what we want for fireworks photography. We want depth of focus, so we want a larger f-number to capture our fireworks.
If you have something called “Bulb Mode” on your camera, you can use that for better control.
With bulb mode, you control when your shutter opens and closes, pressing your shutter release when you want that shutter to open and letting go when you want it to close. For this, you need to have a remote shutter release, so you don’t move your camera. For more information about using bulb mode, check the manual (or online resources) for your specific camera.
I wanted to end with a comparison of what worked and didn’t work for me, and what I’ll do differently next time. Let’s do that through some photos:
Finding the “Goldilocks Zone” for my Fireworks Photos
The photos below show what happened to some of my pictures at different shutter speeds. The aperture and ISO are constant at f11 and 100. The spot I found to take the fireworks was “just OK.” I took them on Liberty Bay in Poulsbo, WA, which is a beautiful location, but has a less-than-defined backdrop when you’re viewing the fireworks from the waterfront park. A more stunning photo would have been to have the waterfront park as the background (though I’m not sure where I could have found a vantage point where that could even be a reality).
Shutter Speed: Too Little
I took this one with a 5-second shutter speed — a longer shutter speed could have captured additional bursts and shown more of the water and reflections. However, this photo is unedited, and some post-processing could improve it a bit.
Shutter Speed: Too Long
This photo had a 30-second shutter speed. That was too long. In my opinion, this one has too much light and not enough definition of the “firework tendrils” or whatever you want to call them.
Shutter Speed: About Right
While there’s much to be criticized about this photo in other regards, I found that a 13-15 second shutter speed worked best to capture fireworks. This photo was at 13 seconds, the featured image at 15 seconds.
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