Week of the Fourth! A few tips for photographing fireworks!

Photograph by Pete Ryan, National Geographic 

What a lucky year for America’s Independence Day! The 4th of July falls on a Friday this round (this Friday to be exact), which means, for many, a stress-free weekend night to watch that most awe-inspiring staple of this midsummer holiday: Fireworks!

For some shutterbugs, this is an opportunity to capture great streaming fireworks shots! However, those wonderful fireworks photos you see in magazines and online do not happen from a simple point and click of the shutter. They are relatively lengthy exposures in near pitch black conditions. The downside is: These images require a few extra steps of preparation. The upside is: You can do it!

Now there are two broad types of cameras people are accustomed to these days: Smartphone cameras and digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. Each is going to be a little different in how they are used to capture the show. I will discuss those differences below, however, first, I will discuss items both would require to capture the best shot.

Good location: A good location is going to be a must when it comes to capturing images of fireworks. Remember most professional fireworks displays take up a lot of real estate in the sky. So you want to be sure you have plenty of room, not only in front of you, but to either side of your field of vision. Buildings, trees, power lines, hills, etc. can and will show up in the image, so be sure to stake out a good location where plenty of sky is visible.

Dark location: For reasons I’ll get to below, you also need to find a relatively dark location. Let’s say you have a great view of the sky, but, for some reason you are shooting over the top of a well-lit gas station or street. Since these photos will require the lengthy intake of light, a bright, stationery object or moving traffic is not going to look good in the final shot. Even a building with a dim light bouncing off of it will be very visible in the final product.

Tripod: No matter what kind of camera you are using, your hands are still likely to be very human. As such, you are unlikely going to be able to hold them steady for the several seconds necessary to capture a sharp, eye-catching shot of streaming fireworks. Also be sure to place it in a location where it will not be disturbed or have folks walking or standing in front of it.
Now to the more specifics, as the type of camera you are using will require certain considerations. I’ll begin with the easy one!

Flash: No matter the type of camera you have, disable the flash! It is supposed to be dark and the fireworks will be bright. Unless you have really specific artsy goals, the flash is not going to be necessary for this endeavor.

DSLR: These provide the most user-friendly settings for capturing some great fireworks display images (smartphones have several “smart”capabilities and limitations that simply get in the way, but I’ll play nice and not be too political about my ongoing distaste for them today).
First of all, use a wide angle lens if possible. The sky is a big place and professional fireworks have a wide reach. You want to capture the whole bursts as often as possible and anything 50mm or higher might make this a little tricky.

Second is focus. As the fireworks will likely be quite a distance from you, focusing on the horizon will be a good start. From there, just let the first few firework bursts be your guide to tweak your focus. I would use manual focus to do this, as auto focus in this kind of lighting is not going to be consistent or user-friendly.

Next comes ISO and aperture settings. Anything in the range of f/5.6 to f/16 (I would go at least f/8 or f/11) will work at an ISO of at least 200 (but not too high, as higher ISO numbers will result in more digital noise). This will allow a relatively sharp image with little interference from light reflections from ground. Just remember the larger the (f) value the smaller the amount of light is getting in, hence the sharper and more precise the fireworks stream.

Fourth is the shutter speed. Now, as I indicated above, these are fairly lengthy exposures. This is why you see those fireworks images and they are very streaky. Think of those points of pyrotechnic wonder as little paint brushes painting an image on a large black canvas. For this, I would recommend setting your camera to “bulb” mode, which holds the shutter open as long as the button is pressed. This allows you total control over when that shutter opens and closes (bearing in mind just one firework takes a few seconds to launch, burst, and trickle down).

With this, a shutter release cable is going to be your friend. This is either a wired or wireless remote that plugs into your camera, which will allow you to trigger the shutter without jostling the camera. It should also allow you to lock the shutter open preventing you from having to physically hold the button the whole time.

Smartphone: Now, comes the less user-friendly method: Smartphones. Bear in mind their cameras were not designed with a lot of tricky photography work in mind. However, as many rely on them as an alternative to higher end cameras (I’m not going to get political, I’m not going to get political…), they might be many folks’ camera of choice this Independence Day.
Like with the DSLR, be sure to place it on a tripod, make sure its view is not obstructed, and give a wide angle zoom to your display.

Next, if possible, focus your scene (or set it to “infinity”) and turn off your auto focus feature. Smartphones are constantly searching for focus when it is aimed for a photo. This is not what you want when photographing fireworks, as it will likely drain your batteries and will not be focused on the right spot when the burst occurs.

Third, you will need some kind of long exposure setting. Most, if not all, smartphones are not equipped with “bulb” mode (I’m not going to get political, I’m not going to get political…), so the best option would be to download a “bulb” app. Now, I am not going to recommend apps I have not tried personally, however, if you have a favorite app download site, I would suggest conducting a search and some suitable apps should appear.

Also, like with the DSLR, if you are able to adjust your ISO or aperture size on your phone, I would recommend similar settings to those listed above.

Technique tips: As for the actual aesthetics of capturing the brilliant fireworks displays, even for the pros, it can be a bit of an experiment. Thankfully, with digital cameras’ advantage of the instant view, it is not necessarily a costly one! Don’t worry! They are not going to set off the best fireworks at first, so take a few seconds during the first few bursts to make tweaks to your focus, zoom, composition, and exposure settings.

Now, assuming you have all these nitty gritty details set, Here are a few of things you should consider:

• Be sure to experiment with capturing a single firework as well as with capturing multiple fireworks in a single frame. Keep in mind, the longer you keep that shutter open, the more bursts you will record on a single frame.

• Keep in mind you don’t want a single shot encompasing EVERY SINGLE FIREWORK in the show (in other words, don’t push the button when the first ball ascends and hold it until the finale has ended). This is going to end in a giant, busy, light cluster mess of an image that will not capture the majesty of the event.

• Understand not all fireworks climb high. As such, some of your images might have a great burst with a few minor cascades at the bottom of your image.

• Now I know I said not to have a lot of obstructions of buildings, however, you can experiment with various monuments, lakes, and people shadows if you want to be a little creative with your shot.

• Be sure not to leave your shutter open too terribly long. Not only do you not want an overly-busy cluster of bursts, but you also increase digital noise with excessive shutter times. The best thing is to open the shutter, and (imagine this) physically watch the fireworks for a moment! Keep a rough idea in your head as to what has been captured and open and close the shutter accordingly. Somewhere between 5 and 30-seconds should be adequate.

• Next, experiment with timing. Like I said above, the camera will capture every bit of light available to it when the shutter is open. This means it will also capture the firework’s ascent and any light bounces on lingering smoke. To help avoid this, keep with your timing. You can snap the shot as the burst occurs (omitting the ascension stream) and wait for smoke to clear before taking the next one. Of course, Photoshop can help deal with either of these issues later, but these are simply ways to avoid it. (Also, if you want multiple bursts without ascension streams and without time-consuming photo editing, you might look into photo stacking in Photoshop, however that is a topic for a different blog).

For a few examples and other tips on fireworks photography, check this link out! (Fireworks Photography Tips)

For those who want to capture some memorable fireworks photos, hopefully this will set you on the right path and let you have some fun with your camera! Along with that, Abanathy Photography, LLC wishes everyone a fun and safe 4th of July weekend!

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