If you are new to DSLR photography you might be amazed by how easy it is to capture fireworks and how good the results are even in automatic modes. However, if you are an experienced DSLR photographer you are probobly looking to push the art of photographing fireworks to extraordinary spectacular places by going deeper into the technology of your camera and knowing the rules of light in the night sky.
As with everything to do with digital photography there are good photographs and there are jaw-opening spectacular ones- the difference is getting the basic right (the easy part), practice and developing your technique.
The Basics of Photographing Fireworks
1. Turn off your Flash
This is a no brainer, turn your flash off. Shooting with a flash will have no impact upon your shots except to trick your camera into thinking it needs a short exposure and unnecessarily light the foreground.
2. Use a Tripod
Make sure your camera is absolutely still and any blur is from the movement in the sky that you want to catch and not the shake of the camera by using a tripod.
3. Use a remote Release or the Self-timers
Also to ensure your camera is completely still during fireworks shots it is a good idea to invest in a remote release device. The other way of taking shots without touching your camera is to use the self-timer but of course it will be more random as you can’t choose when to shoot
4. Be aware of your frame and use a zoom lenses
I usually set up before the show for a wide shot and then zoom for tight shots on individual patterns during the show. So, I recommend a good quality zoom lens with image stabilization which will give you more options of zooming and shooting during the display. It doesn’t have to be a huge telephoto lens by any means, but one with a decent range.
I think it goes without saying if you are using a zoom lens (which you should) you will use it in manual focus modes even if the rest of the camera is still in auto settings.
5. Understanding autosettings on your DSLR
Auto settings tend to set itself for low light of the night and hence it automatical chooses a slow shutter speed to compensate. You need to be aware of this when shooting in auto and learn to use manual for more flexible and faster shots.
Going manual when photographing Fireworks
There is no group of settings I can give you that will work for all firework displays because there are so many variable from how many lights are in the sky to whether there is a moon or not, or if they are over a lit city, a reflecting sea or dark desert. However, here are other some pointers for finding a sweet spot in your settings on the night.
Shutter speed, Bulb Mode & getting your timing right
Fireworks move and how you wish to capture this moving light is an artistic choice not just a technical one- do you want crisp dots of pattern in the sky or long trailing blurs of light, or a little of both. For long trailing blurs you’ll want a long exposure, for crisp sparks of coloured light you’ll want a fast one.
I sometimes shoot fireworks in ‘bulb’ mode which allows me to keep the shutter open for as long as I hold down the shutter (and it also works with a remote shutter release). Using this technique you hit the shutter as the firework is about to explode and hold it down until it has finished exploding (generally a few seconds).
Experiment with a slow shutter speed to get that trailing blur effect but don’t keep your shutter open too long. The temptation is to think that because it’s dark that you can leave it open as long as you like but fireworks are bright and it doesn’t take too much to over expose them.
The Best aperture for fireworks
Generally speaking I find a mid-range aperture (i.e. f8-f16) gets the job done. Many people think you need to compensate and add light but this is not usually the case as fireworks emit light.
ISO for capturing fireworks
Set it low to ensure the cleanest shots possible, 100 might work because as I mentioned even though the night is dark, the fireworks are bright. If you are trying to get a fast a shutter speed to capture crisp light patterns you might need to bump it up to 200.
Other Tips for Photographing Fireworks
Research and find out what to expect from the show before you set up. Often pyrotechniqnicians like to keep the full details a secret but if you know that the display will be 2 minutes or 20 minutes, you can plan for how soon you will start zooming and experimenting after you’ve got the wider master shots.
Also, remember that the most spectacular bits come in the last few minutes, so you can use some of the minutes in the middle to tweak setting and prepare for them.
Scope out the location early and claim you spot. This is especially necessary because you will want to set up your tripod and choose your master frame.
Watch your Horizons. You can always fix it in Lightroom later but if you are straightening a horizon there is the possibility that you cut out some of the pattern in the sky to do it. Shooting fireworks is when the hot hhoe spirit level comes into its own because you can see if the camera is straight in a glance without fiddling with settings in the middle of a show.
Check the images periodically during the display and tweak the setting if necessary. There is nothing worse than being excited about what you are shooting, only to realize that you were under or over exposed during the whole period and nothing came out well. Don’t check every shot but if you have a 20 minutes display check every two or three minutes.
Don’t forget the foreground and other elements. Experiment with shots that include silhouettes of people watching the display and use the foreground in interesting ways to juxtapose the fireworks. Get those wide master shoots and then play.
Use your eyes and feel the moment. This is another reason why I love a remote release so that I can stand back and do a lot of the looking and sensing with my own eyes. Remember it’s not just about a pretty light display and your technical brilliance but the story behind the fireworks- what is the festival or celebration, how did the crowd react, how the weather effected the mood of the moment and what elements did you uniquely notice.