How to Take Brilliant Photographs of Fireworks

Fireworks closeup photoThere are plenty of fantastic opportunities to make brilliant photographs, and fireworks celebrations present an exciting venue for photography enthusiasts at all levels. Today, Canadians will be celebrating Canada Day, with Americans set for their Fourth of July celebrations just around the corner. Of course, there are numerous fireworks events year-round across the globe, so if you have a nice day-long celebration planned, here are some helpful tips to keep the photography running smoothly all day.

I often come across several questions (throughout the various photography forums which I like to visit) regarding “how to shoot fireworks photos,” and since I have found some success in shooting fireworks, I thought I would share these helpful tips for those of you who will be bringing your cameras to your next fireworks-filled events.

Daytime Shooting:
If you are planning a picnic in the park or a day at the beach, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to get the best possible photos. If the weather is co-operating with you, and you have a nice sunny day to shoot, be sure to bring along your circular polarizers or ND filters for your lenses. They will not only help cut down the glare of the hot sun, but they will also help you achieve those deep blue skies. I would also recommend bringing your tripod for the evening, but leaving it in the car during the day. It’s not going to be necessary for your daytime shooting, and will only get in either your or other people’s way. Chances are wherever you go to celebrate, it’s going to be busy and we want to make sure that we are carrying as little gear as possible.

If you are celebrating the daytime with loved ones, slap on a nice 50mm or your favourite portrait lens, and take as many candid shots as you can of your family and friends having a ball without the standard “pose for the camera” shots (although sometimes those can be fun too – especially the goofy ones). These photographs are great for capturing the memorable spirit of the celebration. If you are celebrating with children, remember to switch your camera’s shooting mode to “continuous” or “burst” mode and fire off rapid successions of shots of the kids playing. When you go back to preview them, you will find some great expressions captured.

Night Shooting (Fireworks):
As the daylight begins to fade away, you may want to break out your flash unit for some nice portraits against the sunset, along with your tripod for stability. While there is still some available light as the sun sets, you will find that your portraits and scenic shots of the celebrations and location will have a great tone to the images, thanks to the magic of the low angled lighting from the sunset. Now is probably a good time to also stake out your spot for shooting the upcoming fireworks!

Bring Your Tripod:
First and foremost, the single most important thing you need to have when shooting fireworks is a tripod. Whether you are shooting with a point and shoot camera, or a fancy digital SLR, you simply won’t be able to hold the camera steady enough by hand due to the relatively long exposure times required in fireworks photography. Tripods are a MUST! With that being said, you should also remember that if you are planning on bringing a tripod to an event such as the Fourth of July (or any fireworks celebrations for that matter), there are bound to be plenty of people all trying to claim enough space to stand or sit comfortably, so you’ll want to go a little early to set up your tripod before the crowds arrive.

It’s also a really great idea to bring along a shutter release cable. A tripod is easy enough for other people to look past, but if there are others seated behind you, it’s much more considerate for you to stay as low as possible.

Switch to Manual Focus:
Before we get into shutter speeds and apertures, the one important thing to do first is switch your camera to MANUAL focus, then focus to infinity. In very low lighting situations such as shooting fireworks, your camera’s autofocus is going to have a heck of a time trying to decide where exactly to focus, plus you want your entire scene to be as sharp as possible. Setting your camera to focus on infinity in manual mode will ensure that your shots are nice and sharp, regardless of how you frame the scene.

Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO:
When shooting fireworks, you’ll achieve great results if you shoot with a fairly long exposure time. If you are using a point and shoot digital camera, most of them have a dedicated “fireworks” mode or setting. If you are shooting with a digital SLR, you’ll want to use anywhere from a 4-5 second exposure, shooting at an aperture of f11 or even f16. You also want to eliminate any noise in your images, so I would recommend keeping your ISO setting down to 100 or 200 maximum. To achieve the best results, you will be best off to change your camera’s mode to MANUAL so that you can set these exposures and shutter speeds manually.

As mentioned above, one of the best tools to have with you (in addition to your tripod) would be a shutter release cable. This allows you to set up the initial framing of your shots and control the shutter while still getting to watch those beautiful fireworks with your eyes. Also, a shutter release cable would be especially useful if you want to use your camera’s bulb mode to capture even longer exposures.

Another experiment you can do, is to set your aperture very small, say at f22 or even f32, and shoot with an exposure time of 20-30 seconds. You’ll be able to catch several fireworks in the frame, and the results can be outstanding!

Adjusting Settings:
Here’s how you can adjust your settings to achieve the best results.

Fireworks too bright/dark: Adjust your aperture to control the brightness. Smaller apertures (higher f-numbers) will darken the fireworks if they are too bright. Opening the aperture wider (lower f-numbers) will brighten them if they appear too dark.

Firework trails too long/short: This is where you adjust the shutter speed. If your trails are too long, then your shutter is open too long. You can increase the shutter speed for shorter streaks of light, or lengthen it to make those light trails longer.

Breaking the Rules: Sometimes breaking the rules can work extremely well too. Try super long exposures (but don’t forget to close your aperture down) or very short exposures (open your aperture here) and you’ll get some creative shots!

Framing Your Shots:
In framing your shots, it will all depend on the type of photos you are after. If you like the closeup and tight shots of the fireworks blast as in the above image, you will want to bring a zoom lens which can go to at least 200mm. That will allow your camera to get up close and personal with those fireworks. If you prefer to capture the fireworks in a landscape or “entire scene” view, bring a nice wide angle lens. Here’s a look at what a wide angle lens would be likely to capture:

Wide Angle Fireworks photo

Last year, I brought along a 16-45mm wide angle for the above shot, and a 50-200mm lens for some closeups such as the first image in this posting. If you haven’t learned to switch your lenses on the fly quickly, then spend some time the night before (July 3rd) practicing. I would spend about 5 min with your zoom lens to get some cool closeups, then switch to your wide angle for the rest of the event. The finale moment of any fireworks show is usually quite spectacular, and you’ll want to capture the scene as a whole.

Post Processing Fireworks Photography:
Post processing fireworks photography is probably one of the most easy types of photography to work with. All you really need to do is make your skies black, and your fireworks vibrant. However, quite often as the show goes on, there is lots of smoke in the air. While this can sometimes produce some cool shots too, you may find that it only increases the amount of reflected light in your scene, leaving the skies in your fireworks shots looking a bit hazy. If you are processing in RAW, you can either use your “Blacks” slider or curves to darken the shadow areas of your images. I personally prefer to take my skies all the way to a nice deep black, but of course your preference prevails in your own photography. You can also reduce the Highlights slider to tone down any smoke that may be causing a distraction in your scene. Next, I like to boost the saturation and/or vibrance of the colours up approximately +20 for each. I find that it gives the firework trails a very nice pop, and vibrant colour blend. Lastly, all that’s really left to do is some sharpening. Sharpen your photos to your heart’s content, and you are finished – How simple is that!

I hope these quick and easy tips will come in handy, and help you to further enjoy your Canada Day or Fourth of July holiday weekend by snapping some fantastic fireworks photographs!

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4 Responses

  1. James McCann

    Kevin “Cranky Pants” Simpson, nice work on this article. Maybe me and the other drivers are wrong, you might be worth something. Keep snapping bro.

    Your biggest fan.

    1. Allan flagel

      Excellent article Dave. I have been shooting fireworks for many years and agree with everything that you said.
      The two images included are fantastic!

  2. Pingback : Download Your Fireworks Photography Guide - PhotographyBB Online Magazine and Community

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