A beginner's guide to photographing fireworks

July 4 is one of my favorite holidays and has been since I was a child. In recent years my love for the holiday has only intensified as through trail and error I've slowly learned how to photograph these incredible displays. While I would stop short of calling myself a pro, I most certainly know my way around a dSLR and have learned quite a bit through years of research, trial and error. So, if you're looking to get out and "shoot" some displays, here are my thoughts for excellent shots.

Equipment:

  1. You don't need a fancy camera, just one with a fair bit of manual control. 

  2. Lens: "Fast glass" isn't needed here nor are the crazy telephoto lenses. The standard 18-55 lens that ships with so many entry-level dSLRs is perfect. Just pick something with some wiggle room based on location and you should be good. Most of my shots tend to come in around 30 mm give or take. 

  3. Use a tripod! It doesn't have to be fancy but the key to the most dramatic shots is long exposure. Even those with the most stable hands would be hard pressed to not introduce even a bit of camera shake. Tripods are cheap, Walmart even stocks them.

  4. If possible, use a remote.  For years I've used the super cheap and very handy Nikon ML-L3. There are many other corded and infrared options. Choose the one that works best for you. Some of the newest cameras even have Bluetooth or WiFi options via an app on your phone.

  5. For the love of god, no flash. It never fails that at every show I see people trying to take photos of fireworks with flash. If this is you, no harm. The first step in overcoming a problem is admitting you have one. There's no way your flash will light up a bright fire it the sky hundreds of yards away from you.

Camera Settings:

All too often when I chat with those interested in photography people are scared of tampering with settings. To get the best shots you've got to branch out. Now is the perfect opportunity! On the other hand, those who have ventured into uncharted territory with camera settings might incorrectly assume fireworks at night would command high ISO settings and low F-stops. Not true! Remember that fireworks are bright and to get the most dramatic effects we want long shutter speeds. To achieve this we want to limit the light hitting the sensor.

Below are some basic guidelines. By no means is this list comprehensive and for the sake of my own sanity I'll be referring to things in the Nikon nomenclature. To make things extra tough Canon, Sony and the other guys all have different names for many of the same concepts. If you don't shoot Nikon, refer to your manual for help. 

Things to turn off:

  1. Automatic ISO: Most dSLRs have this turned off by default. Many point and shoot cameras have this ON by default. Your camera may vary.

  2. Long exposure noise reduction: This makes minimal difference in image quality given the relativity short intervals we'll be shooting at. But the real downside is NR drastically increases in-camera processing time which means fewer shots. 

  3. "Active-D lighting" (Canon calls this Auto Lighting Optimizer): This setting causes weird color ghosting around high contrast edges like those we're looking to capture in the fireworks. 

  4. Auto-focus: Set the focus at, or close to infinity. This varies widely by lens so you may want to tweak. Start with infinity and move backwards as needed. 

Basic guidelines:

Still with me? Good! The final step is configuring the details. This is where things will get messy and variable. There are many, many ways to obtain great shots of fireworks, these are the ones that work for me. You may have to introduce some variability based on your own equipment and shooting style. 

  1. ISO: We discussed earlier that we want auto-ISO off. So that leaves us with the question of what ISO setting is best? Truth is, it varies widely by camera. The key, however, is to keep it low. Remember contrary to standard photography we want long exposures for dramatic effect. Additionally, higher ISO introduces noise, and we certainly don't want that. My Nikon D90 had a default ISO of 200 which is what I used for the images above. My D7200's default is 100 which I think I'll stick with this year.  Some photographers suggest going as high as ISO 400. I would suggest starting low and moving up in the event you aren't getting the exposures intensity you desire. 

    Warning: This is where we move the camera setting to Manual. So swing that dial over to the big M. Don't worry, I've got your back. You can do it! 

  2. F-Stop: Another area for wide debate. The one thing everyone can seem to agree on is wide open F-Stop is not the way to go. If you've got a fancy f/1.4 or f/2.8 lens... Cool. That extra range is of zero help in this scenario. Pick a "medium" number and start there. I typically begin around f/8 and move up or slightly down from there based on the conditions.

  3. Shutter: If you are planning to use a remote, you'll want to go into "bulb" mode. That is, with one actuation of the remote you start exposing and with another you stop. I hate to use the world "manual" because that scares people, but that's exactly what this is! You get to be in control of what's captured. Isn't that liberating? In this case I click when I hear or see the mortars and finish the shot once the the firework has ignited and there's been a second or so for the streamers to fall. 

    If your camera doesn't have bulb mode, chose a preset shutter speed of anywhere between 2 and 5 seconds to start out and adjust accordingly. For me, 3 seconds seems to be the sweet spot. 

Final thoughts

Not every shot be usable, and that's to be expected. The variability in the number and type of fireworks per round, their brightness, as well as the smoke from the prior works will all gang up on you and make at least a third  of your photos destined for the delete button. But in today's digital age there's no real loss. Push delete and move on. If you notice a trend, adjust the f-stop, ISO or focus accordingly. 

Too bright?
Are you using a higher ISO? If so, drop it down. If not, choose a higher f-stop (bigger number). If you are using a manual actuation, consider trimming the number of seconds (this is a last resort).

Too dark? Flares are too thin? 
Choose a lower f-stop. Don't go lower than 4. I've had exactly zero luck below 4-- Just too much light. 

I hope this was helpful. Go out, have fun and enjoy this beautiful holiday which commemorates the birth of our fine country. 

Did I help you? Something to add to this story? Leave a comment!