If you own a digital SLR and tripod, taking great fireworks pictures this Independence Day (or Good Riddance to Colonists Day, as some of my fellow countrymen might have it) is a piece of cake. Point-and-shoot compacts can do the job too (some even have a “fireworks mode”), but I am going to focus on the SLR world, where we have a little bit more manual control.
Over The Bay © Nick Winkworth
The Stake Out
The first secret to great fireworks shots is position. It doesn’t have to be at a famous location – you can get great pictures at even a modest neighborhood show, but if you know exactly where the action is going to be, and what is around you, you stand a much better chance of getting some interesting shots. That means getting to the location early …and in daylight! See where the launch location is. Look for spots to set up where your view will not be obstructed, and where you won’t be yelled because you or your camera are obstructing someone else’s view.
Notice your surroundings – what will the fireworks illuminate? Look for interesting architecture that may be illuminated or silhouetted – or water that will provide reflections. If you are in the wrong place to take advantage of this once the show has started, it will be too late! Look too for unusual vantage points, looking down from a hill, or through the branches of a tree.
Note which way is the wind is blowing. Fireworks make lots of smoke. That could cramp your style (and affect your pictures) if you are downwind!
The Set Up
Get your gear set up while it’s light. It’s sooo much easier.
Lens: You will want to use a wide or medium wide angle lens to include the whole scene. DON’T just focus on the lights in the sky – try to include the surroundings to give your pictures some context. Switch to manual focus – auto focus will have nothing to latch on to and the camera may refuse to fire. If you are only interested in the fireworks themselves, set focus to infinity. If there’s foreground interest that you want to include you can use a chart to calculate the hyperfocal distance, and set it at that.
ISO: Use the lowest ISO to minimize digital noise. This means ISO100 on most cameras. You can also use ISO to adjust exposure while you are shooting, but make sure you don’t go above ISO400.
Aperture: You will use this, not the shutter speed, to determine exposure. This will require a little experimentation. Fireworks are very bright, so you will likely be using something between f8 and f16. Start with f8 and go up or down (in combination with ISO) to get the right mix of black sky and illuminated foreground and reflections.
Remote Shutter Release: Together with the tripod, this is the most essential tool. Set the shutter to “B” or “bulb” and use the remote release to open and close the shutter as you watch the show (it’s no fun trying to watch through a viewfinder!)
Tripod: You will take the best shots when the camera is rock steady – critical when exposures may be several seconds at a time. Start with a solid tripod and weight it down. If the legs are not fully extended (and you are not using the extension) it will be even more stable. In addition to the remote release (which prevents you inadvertently shaking the camera by touching it), you can use your camera’s “mirror lock” or “live view” function to prevent the “mirror-slap” from shaking the camera as each picture is taken.
It’s showtime! You have the ideal spot. You are all set up and ready to go. Now what? Do NOT watch the show through the viewfinder or touch the camera unless you need to adjust the framing or ISO. Instead, stand a little back holding the remote and watch the sky. As soon as you see (or hear) a rocket launching, press and hold open the shutter with the release. When that particular firework is done exploding, release the shutter. You can experiment keeping it open through several volleys, if you like, to see what it looks like as they are recorded on top of each other (a bit like a double exposure).
Remember that the smoke will build up over the course of the show. The sky will only be clear for the first few volleys. Be ready to take advantage of the dramatic effect as the smoke is illuminated in the air and on the ground.
Display over Boulder, CO © Nick Winkworth
Good Luck – and don’t forget to share!