Wondering about photographing fireworks on 4th of July, New Year or some other event / occasion? In this quick article, I will provide some basic tips on how to best capture fireworks, what type of equipment to use and what camera settings to use during the process. Although the process is relatively simple, there are some things that might be worth considering, as outlined below.
1) Find the Best Location
The first thing you need to determine is where you are going to stand. I would not recommend standing too close to fireworks, because you will be constantly looking up and eventually you will get tired from trying to photograph the fireworks. In addition, if it is too close, you might need a wide-angle lens to fit the action into the frame, which might present another problem – you might end up including unwanted objects like buildings and trees into the frame. Therefore, the best thing to do is to stand further away in an open area (with short or no trees), ideally at a spot that gives you a maximum of 45 degrees view angle relative to the ground, as shown in the diagram below.
The further you stand, the lower the angle and the more focal length (zoom) you will need. Obviously, each situation is different, so just try to find a good spot with clear views of the sky in an open, unobstructed area that can give you a nice angle to photograph the fireworks.
2) What Camera to Take
The good news is that you don’t need an expensive and fancy camera to photograph fireworks – any camera that allows shooting in manual mode will work perfectly fine. Many of the point and shoot cameras do, so double check your manual and see how you can switch to manual mode. Another good thing about shooting fireworks, is that you will be shooting at lowest sensitivity levels (ISO), which means that there will be very minimal amounts of grain, if any. So you don’t have to worry about your camera capabilities, besides being able to switch to manual mode and preferably being able to hard set your camera to a low ISO value like 100. If you have a DSLR, you are all set, because you can do all of this very quickly. Some point and shoot cameras even have a “Fireworks Mode”, which works great and does not require you to change any settings on the camera.
3) What Lens to Use
If you have a point and shoot camera, make sure that its lens can do at least 5x optical zoom, not digital. Optical zoom means that the camera lens will physically move to get more reach, while digital zoom means that the camera will simply cut out the image corners to make it seem like you are closer.
If you have a DSLR, you might wonder what lens to take with you. I have been shooting fireworks for several years now and I find that telephoto zoom lenses above 100mm work best for fireworks. If you have a full-frame camera, my personal favorite is the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR or the Nikon 70-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR, unless you are planning to be close to a relatively well-lit location like downtown and want to capture a wider image, in which case a shorter focal length zoom like 24-70mm would be more appropriate.
The above exposure was 25 seconds, because I waited for the fireworks for about 20 seconds before they fired, so the first 20 seconds were just to expose the downtown area.
Why a telephoto zoom lens? Because you want the fireworks to fill the frame instead of looking rather small with all kinds of badly-lit foreground elements. In most cases, you will primarily be zooming in to capture the action.
4) Other equipment
- Tripod – an absolute must. Get one if you do not already have one, since you won’t get any good pictures by just hand-holding your camera. Remember, you will be using low ISO levels and long shutter speeds above 1 second, which means that hand-holding is not an option – too much camera shake will spoil your images.
- Remote shutter release – very helpful to have one, especially if it allows shooting in “Bulb” mode (DSLR only), but not required.
5) Camera settings
First, set your camera on the tripod and connect the remote shutter release (if available). Then, change the following camera settings:
- ISO – start out by setting your camera ISO to its base ISO level (100 on most cameras including Canon and 200 on most modern Nikon DSLRs) and turn off “Auto ISO”, if you have it turned on.
- Image Format – if your camera has the capability, shoot in RAW format instead of JPEG.
- White Balance – if you shoot in RAW, set your White Balance to “Auto” (you can change it later). If you shoot in JPEG, set your White Balance to “Daylight” – it works well in most cases.
- Noise Reduction – set “Long Exposure Noise Reduction” to “Off” (if available). Keeping it “On” will significantly slow down your exposures, which is unnecessary.
- Camera Mode – switch your camera mode to “Manual Mode”.
- Shutter Speed and Aperture – set your shutter speed to 3 seconds and aperture between f/8 and f/10.
6) Lens Focusing and Vibration Reduction/Image Stabilization
This part is tricky, because you need to make sure that your focus is correctly acquired, whether you are shooting a point and shoot or DSLR camera. Options with point and shoot cameras are rather limited, so you will have on camera’s autofocus system. Start focusing when there is a bright explosion the camera can use for focusing on and then press the shutter button. After the photo is taken, review it on the LCD and make sure that the fireworks are in focus.
If you are shooting a DSLR camera, start out by setting your lens focus to infinity and then take a picture. Many modern lenses allow focusing “beyond infinity”, which might screw up the focus on your images. What I typically do to make sure that my focus is 100% accurate, is focus on a bright explosion using the camera’s autofocus system (by half-pressing the shutter button or pressing the “AF-ON” button), then once the focus is good, I change the lens focus to manual (“M”). Since I do not move, my focus from that point on will be accurate and won’t change, unless I zoom in/out (in which case I would have to move from Manual focus to Autofocus and try again). If for some reason you cannot acquire focus on fireworks, try focusing on a brightly-lit subject that is far away and see if the images are in focus.
If you are shooting with a camera body or lens that has Image Stabilization (or Vibration Reduction in the Nikon world), you need to turn it off – it is of no use when shooting on a tripod.
7) Framing your shots
Don’t worry much about framing your shots in the very beginning – just observe the sky and try to fit the initial explosions. You will be constantly zooming in/out and re-framing, so there is really no set rule for this. Your objective is to try to fit the explosions into your frame, from the beginning to the end of the explosion. If the fireworks appear smaller, it is OK – you can crop your images later.
8) Shooting the fireworks
When the fireworks show begins, take a picture during a bright explosion and see if the image is underexposed or overexposed. If the image is too bright, keep your shutter speed the same and try increasing the aperture to a higher number like f/16. If the image is too dark, try increasing your shutter speed to a longer period like 4-6 seconds. Keep in mind that the longer your shutter speed, the more action your camera will capture, which is not necessarily what you want – too long of an exposure might make fireworks look too blurry. I generally try to keep the shutter speed below 4-5 seconds when there is plenty of action.
Once the exposure looks good, take a series of shots and try lowering shutter speeds to 1-2 seconds and increasing them to 5-6 seconds to get different types of shots.
If you have a remote shutter release and your camera supports “Bulb” in Manual Mode, then try it out by opening up the shutter at the beginning of the explosion and then release it when it ends. You don’t want the exposure to be too long, because the sky will brighten up and the smoke will also be very visible (you want the sky to look pitch black).