With Independence Day around the corner, it seems fitting to do a post on photographing fireworks. Fireworks present several unique challenges for photographers, but they also make for some of the most rewarding images when you get them right. After all, who doesn’t like pictures of things exploding in a shower of sparks and a rainbow of colors? (We’re easily entertained.) Here are five tips to help ensure that your pictures of bombs bursting in air don’t, uh, bomb.
1. Use a tripod.
You’ve heard this before, I’m sure, and yes, it’s true: a tripod is probably the best investment you can make in improving your photography—and not just where fireworks are concerned. A tripod not only stabilizes the camera, but it forces you to put more thought into creating the photograph, especially regarding your framing. It makes it easier to keep a level horizon, and it opens up the option for doing long exposures (more on that in a second). If you really don’t have any other use for a tripod and don’t want to buy one, then at least rent one for the day. That’s not to say you can’t take great photos without one, but you’ll have more options with one.
2. Focus manually.
Autofocus at night is slow at best, and slow is not good when you’re trying to capture things blowing up. By focusing manually, you can pre-focus on a desired spot, effectively removing any lag when you go to take the picture. And, since you have your camera on a tripod, you don’t have to worry about refocusing unless you change subjects. When focusing for the fireworks, keep in mind that they will be near the “infinity” end of the focus range of your lens (unless you are dangerously close to them, which we don’t recommend). If focusing for something else, say the crowd of people in front of you to create a silhouette, it’s not a bad idea to take several practice shots to check your focus. It can be difficult to focus in the dark, so if you find something like a streetlamp that is the same distance away as your subject, you can focus on that, which will be much easier to see.
3. Shoot in manual exposure mode.
Autoexposure is going to be all over the place with fireworks. That’s because there are some really dark areas and really bright areas of the frame, and your camera’s meter is not going to be sure what to exposure for. Start by keeping your ISO as low as possible. An easy-to-make yet incorrect assumption is that you’ll have to shoot with your lens wide open because it will be dark, but fireworks are very bright. You should actually be able to stop your aperture down quite a bit, maybe to f/8 or f/11 (or smaller for long exposures). This will increase your depth of field and help ensure you’re getting things in focus. Shooting with a slow shutter speed will create beautiful patterns of color and motion blur as the explosions expand and fall, whereas shooting with a fast shutter will freeze the explosion in any one moment, allowing you to see the details of each unique firework. I recommend experimenting with several different shutter speeds, but keep in mind that slower speeds will necessitate a tripod. Now, some cameras do have a “fireworks” scene mode, and be my guest to experiment with that if you’d like, but shooting in manual is the only way to really control how the image looks and get a proper exposure.
4. Pay attention to the wind.
This is probably the one thing that even advanced photographers forget to consider. Fireworks create a lot of smoke, which lingers in the air long after the flames have died out. As the show goes on, this smoke builds and builds, clouding the air and potentially your view. If you are downwind, the smoke is going to be between you and the fireworks, making it difficult to get a clear picture. By staying upwind, or to the side, the fireworks will always be crisp, and the smoke behind will catch the light and make for a great backdrop. Of course, this is just another rule you can feel free to break—you might get some very artistic shots by shooting through the smoke. In general, though, upwind is the place to be.
5. Fill those memory cards!
The best way to ensure you get plenty of “keepers” is to shoot as many pictures as you can. Keep that shutter clicking. Experiment with focal lengths, framing, and shutter speeds. Feel free to shoot in burst mode for your faster shutter speed shots, and don’t worry about checking every image right after you shoot it—that might cause you to miss the next one! You should, of course, check your practice images, but then just shoot like crazy. Now, if you’re using film, more power to you. I wish you good luck, and you are far braver than I.
Bonus tip: wide-angle or telephoto?
A wide-angle lens will be “easier” in that you can establish your framing and ensure wherever the firework goes, it will be in your shot. A telephoto lens can create some great results and turn the firework into an abstract medley of light, color, and smoke. It can be more difficult to actually frame your shot, however, because of the narrower field of view. Again, experiment and see what works for you.