Getting Started with Fireworks Photography
Ask most families what they look forward to in the run up to Christmas and most will answer bonfire night and the fireworks. Ask any photographer what they want to take pictures of during the winter months and they will probably say the same. While everyone loves the food, bonfires, and smell of the fireworks, it is what happens after the sun sets that really get photographers excited and nervous. Fireworks photography is notorious for missed shots, shaky images, bad exposures, and out of frame subjects. However, fireworks photography really is not as hard as you have been led to believe. These basic fireworks photo tips will help you start shooting fireworks quickly.
Fireworks do not explode in the exact same spot every time. Because of this plan on taking a wider shot than you would normally do. You will need to crop the image afterwards, better to have to crop later rather than miss half the explosion!
Fireworks move fast and your camera’s autofocus may have trouble with them. It is best to either prefocus on an object near to where you think they are going to explode or set your camera to manual.
Fireworks are very bright but the amount of light created during a fireworks show varies greatly. The first few explosions are generally far enough apart that a relatively long exposure time is possible. The space between explosions will also allow you to capture the shell flying into the air, the explosion, and the full extent of the explosive display. When the display reaches its finale there will be much more light and the shells will explode rapidly. In order to make an image from this situation you will have to increase your ISO speed in order to decrease the exposure time. Leave your aperture on a high setting (f14 – f22) so that the entire explosion will be in focus.
- Suggested settings for first few explosions
Shutter Speed = 2 seconds
Aperture = 14
ISO Speed = 200
- Suggested settings for rapid explosions
Shutter Speed = 1 second
Aperture = 14
ISO Speed = 400
Those few tips above should get you on the way to taking some decent shots of fireworks
Now that you have the basics down – continue reading on so we can look at fine tuning your images. Some extra preparation and a little creativity can take your fireworks images into a whole new range.
We’ve covered the basic idea of framing wide so that you won’t have to recompose your shot with every shell. But how do you make the most of that wide frame? Check out your location ahead of time. If you are shooting a fireworks show you have seen before, you will have a pretty good idea of where the shells will explode. If you can, explore the possible vantage points for the show in the daylight. If you are not familiar with the show, arrive early, ask the organisers where the fireworks tend to go and look where the crowds are starting to gather. When you are checking out vantage points there are several things you should keep in mind.
- Is there a vantage point where you can include an iconic landmark in the frame (a bridge or pier)?
- Are there power lines in the way?
- Will there be streetlights or other light sources around that could flare or ghost on your images?
- Are there going to be a lot of other people around who might bump or knock over your camera and tripod?
- If the weather is threatening, can you get your equipment out of rain quickly?
With a digital camera you will need to use your manual focus setting and focus on the first shell by hand then lock the focus. If you allow the autofocus to fine-tune the focus you should immediately turn the focus mode back to manual so that your camera will not try to focus with each shell. If a building or other landmark will appear in the frame you can also focus on that structure.
Once you have the focus distance determined you should consider your depth of field. Aperture settings are not just for light control when it comes to fireworks. Fireworks are actually rather large items and require a fairly large depth of field. This larger depth of field is especially important if you are including a landmark or other structure in your image. F-Stops of 14 or higher are your best bet for crisp images.
Fireworks have a wide range of light intensity. However, even the faintest firework is probably at least as bright as a streetlight at the same distance. Because of this you will be able to shoot with much slower film speeds and faster exposure times than you might instinctively think. If you are including a landmark or building, take an exposure reading off of that structure and underexpose just a little. If there will be nothing in the image you will have to guess at the first exposure. Remember that some of your exposures will be slightly underexposed and some will be slightly overexposed due to the changes in the fireworks themselves and how many shells are exploding at one time.
Some suggested starting points for determining exposure are:
- Aperture f16
Shutter Speed 2 Seconds
- Aperture f14
Shutter Speed 2 Seconds
- (Finale of Rapid Shells)
Shutter Speed 1.25 Seconds
If you are shooting with a digital SLR select RAW mode, this will allow for more freedom in recovery of slightly overexposed or underexposed images in your editing software.
Support and Eliminating Shake
Tripods or other sturdy support are a must for fireworks photography. Even the best image stabilization technology is unlikely to be able to give you a rock solid image at 2 seconds handheld. Tripods do not have to be expensive to be stable. Even most cheap tripods have a hook on the bottom of them that is designed to hold weights. These weights provide extra stability for lightweight tripods. A couple of wrist exercise weights tied together work wonderfully for tripod weight without being too bulky. Remember to check your tripod’s manual for weight limits. If you are not going to use a tripod, you can use anything from a bean bag to a pillow to help support your camera but be aware that each time you touch your camera it will shake slightly.
To eliminate shaky fireworks, you need to avoid shaking your camera. Some shake will happen just by the shutter raising and lowering. However, most shake comes from photographers pressing the shutter button and then releasing it. If you will be manually pressing the shutter button, do not stab the button and yank your hand back. This will cause a lot of shake. Relax your hand on the camera and gently press the button. Try and arrive early so that you are set and relaxed, the more relaxed you are, the less you shake. Alternatively, if your camera has the option of a remote release (either wired or wireless) you can almost eliminate shake. If you shop around remote releases are generally available for under £20.
Because you will not be adjusting exposure for each firework, some post processing is usually required for great fireworks images. Levels, Saturation, and Contrast are the most common adjustments for fireworks photography.
Levels allow you to adjust the light quality of your image. By setting the darkest point and lightest point on your image you can dramatically increase the power of your image.
Sometimes your fireworks images will look slightly “washed out” due to exposure or competition from other light sources. A quick way to correct this is to pull up the “adjust hue/saturation” control in your photo editing software. Increase the colour saturation slightly (no more than +10) and then adjust the “lightness” down slightly (no more than -15) to darken the sky and add clarity to the colours.
If your images still look slightly washed out you can adjust the contrast to add some clarity to the explosions. Be careful not to add so much contrast the brightest parts of the explosions look completely overexposed.
You’ve learned all about the basics of firework photography and some more advanced techniques yet your photos still don’t come out how you want?
Partial explosions, light trails with no explosion burst, lots of missed shots. What are you doing wrong? I’m going to tell you the number 1 secret to great fireworks photography.
The number 1 secret for great fireworks photography is timing. You need to know when explosions will start and how long they last.
- Listen – fireworks are loud, when you hear the boom start counting
- Look – when the fireworks explosion starts, count again
- Act – Use the time from the “listen” step to know when to push the shutter button just before an explosion begins. Use the time from the “look” step to know how long a shutter speed you need to capture the entire explosion bloom.
That’s it! The number 1 secret to fireworks photography is just that simple. Know your timing and you’ll get the shot you want.