Fireworks displays are a sign of celebrations of important events all over the world. For brief moments in time we are fascinated and enamored with their brilliance before they fade away forever. With a handful of basic starting points, equipment, and essentials, one can capture these moments using a digital camera giving life and longevity to these uplifting moments. Even if you’ve never tried photographing fireworks displays, it’s relatively easy to do using the information presented below.
Equipment & Essentials
You will need a tripod and a cable release for your camera. These can be fairly inexpensive pieces if you don’t already have one or both. The stability of a tripod while standing off to the side as throngs of spectators move about is of paramount importance to the final image quality. The cable release is as equally important for image quality as it is for timing. Timing the launch, the fireworks ascent, the break in the sky, and finally the downward-curving trails under gravity will become crucial through the evolution of the fireworks show. The cable release also lets you watch the show while the camera and your thumb do the work!
Do your homework.
Look at online maps; call the committee responsible for hosting the fireworks; and talk to people like traffic control officers when you arrive [early] to the site. You’ll have a lot better guess at which lens and starting focal length you’ll need to capture as much fireworks action as possible. It goes without saying that you want to build in set-up time to your shoot.
When possible, be sure to place something static in the frame for a point of reference to Earth. Trees, architecture, a background landscape feature, anything to add to the composition of the shot. Set up at late dusk so your eyes can see the landscape features.
I recommend going Full Manual Mode but starting with Auto Focus [AF] on the lens. For the first one or two fireworks, use the camera to set your focus using AF. Chimp the display and check the sharpness and focus. If good, quickly but carefully set the lens to Manual Focus [MF] so it doesn’t keep attempting to re-focus throughout the show.
Every 6 or 7 minutes of fireworks, repeat the AF to MF procedure. As the night air cools down and the battery and digital sensor heat up after sunset, your focus may change due to thermal expansion and contraction. The wind direction may change enough to push the display ahead of or behind your Depth-of-Field range. Keep your targets in focus!
For the technical end of things, try to start with the following:
- Auto White Balance [AWB] – shoot in AWB Mode to make things easier on yourself. Fireworks displays are so variable in the intensity, color, and density of light against a relatively black background, I’m not sure there’s a good one-size-fits-all approach outside of AWB Mode, even trying to shoot one fireworks sequence in Custom and using that for the rest of the show. Resign yourself to some software post-processing work and just go with the AWB.
- User Defined Sharpness – this is personal option but I shoot using a special fireworks-only User Defined Sharpness almost at the ceiling in the onboard camera program menu. I don’t want to use software to add Sharpness in post-processing. I don’t like the fringe created where burning trails cross one another in the final.
- Noise Reduction [NR] – turn it off. It won’t play a key role as these exposures are relatively short, and once the fireworks break in the sky there will be plenty of light in the scene contrasting with the black background of night. Your sequential firing of the shutter will be much faster too preventing you from missing too much of the show while the NR cycle runs its course.
- F/11 – this aperture setting provides a good balance with between Depth of Field and Exposure Value. First, fireworks are 3-D objects with a volume. So, you want to use an F-number adequate enough to keep the entire shell of exploding, burning chemicals in sharp focus from front to back, or inside the Depth of Field. Next, F/11 is a good aperture to allow bright light in fast enough to register on the film sensor but rapidly fall-off to the black background of the night sky.
- ISO100 – this is a general purpose ISO Value. It’ll keep the burning trails of the fireworks bright and sharp enough, and it’ll reduce the noise generally associated with longer exposures at night.
- 4.0 seconds – again a general purpose setting that may or may not need to adjusted based on field conditions and ambient light.
- Start with a kit lens [18-55mm] set somewhere between 18-35mm. The lens and focal length will be highly dependent on how close or far your photographic location is from the fireworks launch site. If you’re too close, you may need a smaller lower focal range. The converse is true. The important part is that your focal length will be the controlling parameter for how much or how little of the fireworks display fills your framed shot at your relatively fixed location. The last thing you’ll want to do is pick up and move once the fireworks show begins!
- Cable Release
- 4.0 Seconds
- 35mm [to start and depending on range]
- Some homework and planning
This image was taken using the settings above on a Canon EOS Rebel xTi with a kit lens the very first time I photographed fireworks last year at the Independence Day Fireworks at Lake Benson Park in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA:
This article was written with a more rural, or low-light ambient environment in mind. Shooting fireworks inside of urban centers and cities requires a little more patience and tweaking of the technical settings because of the background light of the surrounding environment. Good luck and have fun!
Jason [Jay] Sents is a data visualization computer geologist and amateur photographer living in the Southeast United States. You can see his photographs through his blog [http://www.geolojay.com] or follow him on Twitter [http://twitter.com/#!/geolojay].