It’s almost Independence Day–my favorite holiday of the year.
Flags, fun, family, food and fireworks–all fun, all celebration, no stress.
Being a photographer, one of my favorite parts of the day is the fireworks. I have been fascinated with fireworks since I was a kid. I grew up in California where EVERYTHING was illegal, so I don’t play with them. I also had a childhood friend who suffered a serious and permanently disabling injury in a firecracker incident, so I have a healthy respect for the damage they can cause.
But they’re so pretty and so cool and they do amazing things now that they didn’t do when we were kids. I just LOVE fireworks. I love watching them and I love photographing fireworks. So, in the interest of sharing. . .
Here are a few tips for getting some great fireworks shots.
1. You need a camera with a manual focus setting.
(you CANNOT autofocus fireworks and expect to get consistent results) and preferably a bulb setting for the shutter or at least the ability to make exposures between about 15 and 30 seconds. A cable release (yep, old school) or a remote shutter release is also very helpful.
2. You need to be able to hold the camera absolutely steady.
No one can hand hold steady for this length of time, though you can get some interesting results that way. A tripod is the ideal choice and will allow for the best positioning of your camera. If you don’t have a tripod any steady flat surface can work. I’ve used block walls, picnic tables, even the roof of my car, in a pinch.
3. You need to be fairly close to the fireworks.
It’s best to have an unobstructed view, though having some foreground is nice as long as it doesn’t block the fireworks. It’s best to be as close as possible without being in the middle of the crowd where your camera could get bumped.
Now that you’re all set, here’s how to do it:
I usually set my camera at ISO 100, bulb setting and f/11. I also shoot in RAW mode, though JPG will also work just fine. I always recommend the highest possible quality settings as they give you the most options after the fact. You want to be set up and focused to infinity (maximum focus distance) before the show starts. Besides, if you’re closer than that, you’re probably too close. Fireworks debris is hot and hurts when it hits you (yes, I have firsthand experience in this department–and I am talking about commercial fireworks set off by professionals).
Watch the first couple of bursts through your lens and make any necessary composition adjustments, such as zooming in or out. It’s good to have a bit of extra space in the frame, but don’t zoom out so much that you end up with tiny little fireworks and lots of black sky. You can see an uncropped and cropped firework photo at the end of this post.
Once you’re all set, go ahead and take some photos. Vary your exposure times, holding the shutter open for about one to five bursts. Leaving it open for too many bursts produces a very cluttered and messy image and lessens the drama and impact. Using too short of an exposure will create only pinpoints of light, missing the great light trails that give fireworks their drama. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, you can set your camera for the desired time and use your self-timer. If you want to end the exposure earlier than the set time, use a dark cloth or small towel to cover the lens until the shutter closes.
Now that you’ve gotten a few, get brave and experiment a little. Gently pull your zoom lens back (make it wider) during an exposure. You can also zoom in the same way.
After you’ve taken the photos, you may need to do a little cropping to show your fireworks at their best. A little saturation boost or color tint can also increase the drama. I nearly always photograph fireworks horizontally and then crop to either square or vertical, whichever most flatters my fireworks.
To put the finishing touches on your fireworks, add a nice keyline or digital mat to highlight the colors and you have a great memento of Independence Day.