Have you ever gone out to photograph fireworks only to come home and realize that your images are blurry or not exposed properly? Fireworks light up the night sky with their vibrant colors and witnessing their beauty is a fun and exhilarating experience; however, capturing this explosion of light presents a set of unique challenges for photographers. They happen quickly, the light changes rapidly, it’s dark out and it often can be quite smoky, especially as the show progresses. All of these factors in fireworks photography make it very easy to miss a shot if you haven’t planned ahead and prepared. If you’ve been disappointed in your prior attempts at photographing fireworks displays, or if this is your first time trying to capture the explosive beauty of fireworks, then this article is for you. I’ll walk you through some things to consider for locations, the gear you need to bring, settings to try for the event, and a few post processing tips for when you get home.
BEFORE THE SHOW
As with all photography, a little preparation in advance increases your chances of having a successful shoot, and photographing fireworks displays is no different. Planning which fireworks show your are going to attend and scouting the location ahead of time will make the evening of the show go that much smoother for you. Here in the United States, almost every large city or small town has a fireworks display on or near the 4th of July, giving you plenty of shows to choose from. In addition, many minor and major league baseball teams have fireworks scheduled throughout the season which provides you an opportunity to shoot fireworks multiple times throughout the year. Also you can check the schedules of your local festivals, as many of them also do a fireworks show either to start or end the multiple days of events.
Once you have decided on the fireworks events you are going to photograph, take some time before the show and explore the area around where the display will be to scout out some possible locations. A few things to consider for the location include:
- Is there a hill at the local park where you can be above the majority of the crowds?
- Are there trees that will obscure your view?
- Is there water in the area where you can capture reflections in?
- Can you see the fireworks from the time they launch so that you can also capture the flame trail as they rise in the sky?
- How crowed is the area you are shooting from going to get?
It’s always a good idea to have more than one vantage point picked out. That way, if the wind is blowing towards you on the day of the event, you have a second location already in mind before the fireworks start and won’t have your shots ruined by smoke blowing towards you and obscuring your view.
Personally, I am not a big fan of large crowds so I tend to photograph displays from further away rather than at the event site itself. Not only does this allow to me to move around more freely as there usually aren’t many people around, but it also allows me to photograph towards the fireworks instead of up at them giving me the opportunity to capture more of the scene and not just of the fireworks. Being able to include a building, a skyline, or a monument along with the fireworks bursts makes for a more interesting image. However, the choice to include anything but fireworks in your images is entirely up to you. Now matter what you decide, whether you choose to include foreground elements or just focus on the fireworks, be sure to arrive to your location early and have a clear vision of the images you want to create before the show starts.
Fireworks photography doesn’t require a lot of gear outside of a camera with manual controls and a lens, but a few other pieces of equipment will make the difference between “just OK” shots and great shots, as well as make you more comfortable during your shoot.
1. Use a Tripod
A sturdy tripod is essential for fireworks photography. You’ll want something that’s light enough to carry but strong enough to manage the weight of your camera and lens that won’t wobble, tip or sink while you are shooting. If necessary, you can use a bungee cord or a tie down strap to secure your camera bag to the bottom hook on the center of your tripod. You will want to make sure your camera bag stays on the ground. This method also allows you to to access your bag without adding movement to your tripod and, more importantly, allows you to adjust how much weight you are adding to the tripod.
2. Bring a Remote to Trigger Your Shutter
Pressing the finger with your shutter will move the camera slightly and no one wants motion blur caused by camera movement in their photos. You can use the self-timer on your camera, but that will also trigger a subtle movement of the camera that might not resolve itself by the time the self-timer triggers the shutter. Also, the 2- or 10- second delay makes it difficult to anticipate when to start the time to capture the burst and the precise time you want to.
Instead, a cable release or a wireless remote is the best option to eliminate motion. This allows you to trigger the camera at the precise moment you want without introducing camera shake. Another option would be to use the wireless feature on your camera if it has one and use the appropriate smart phone app to trigger your camera remotely.
3. Extra Batteries/Memory Cards
Having an extra battery or two ensures that you fireworks photography endeavor doesn’t end earlier than you planned. The same goes with having extra memory cards on hand. You don’t want to have your evening photography adventure grind to a halt because your camera battery died, or you filled up your only memory card before the show began.
4. Choose Your Lens Based on Focal Length
You don’t need to bring every lens you own with you for fireworks photography. Consider where you are shooting the fireworks from and then bring either a wide angle or a telephoto lens with you. If you aren’t sure which lens you want, bring one of each. It never hurts to have a back up just in case and having an extra lens won’t weigh your bag down much or be hard to keep track of.
It will also help to have an extra layer of clothing to put on as once the sun sets, the temperature also starts to stop. Depending on your location, you might need to arrive hours in advance in order to set up a spot with an unobstructed view. Don’t forget to bring snacks, water, sunscreen, and bug spray as well. A flashlight or headlamp can also be helpful, not just for seeing the buttons and dials on your camera, but also for seeing into your camera bag if you need to.
Now that you have found your location and you’ve arrived early, it’s time to work out some fireworks photography settings before the show starts.
- Shoot in RAW. To capture as much data as possible, shoot in RAW mode.
- Shoot in Manual mode. Manual and Bulb modes are the only two modes on your camera that will give you full control of the final image. Both allow you to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings independently of each other giving you ultimate control over the final image produced. I have found that I rarely exceed 30 seconds of exposure time when photographing fireworks so I usually choose Manual mode for my images. If you are using Bulb mode, you can keep the shutter open from the time the fireworks launch until the explosion in the sky.
- Set your focus mode to manual. If you are not comfortable using manual focus, you can use autofocus to prefocus on a spot before the fireworks start and then switch to manual focus. You shouldn’t need to focus again unless you change focal lengths or your composition.
- Aperture. A good starting point for aperture is between f/8 and f/16. Not only is this generally the range in which your lens will be the sharpest, it will also give you plenty of depth of field to capture sharp fireworks and the surrounding area. This is when having a steady tripod comes in handy. Since you’ll be shooting in the dark, you’ll need a slower shutter speed to keep the aperture narrow.
- Use a slower shutter speed for light trails. A longer shutter speed will allow you to capture the colorful trails of light falling through the dark sky. The longer shutter speed you use, the longer the trails will appear and. The more bursts you will capture in a single frame. I find that beginning with a two-second exposure is a good starting point. Form there, I check to see if I like the results and then adjust as necessary. I find that most of my fireworks exposures are often between 1 and 10 seconds, though you may opt for even long shutter speeds if you desire. One key thing to remember, the longer the exposure time the more bursts you will capture; if your frame is starting to look messy or really cluttered, speed up your shutter speed. Once you find the sweet spot, you notice that you have nice trails of fireworks going into the sky but you won’t have too many bursts.
- Use a low ISO. Using a low ISO will help to keep digital noise out of our photos. While many modern digital cameras are quite capable of shooting at a higher ISO without noise, a lower ISO also allows for long shutter speeds. I generally keep my ISO below 200 as I want the longer exposure times to capture the bursts spreading across the night sky. Remember, you’ll be using a tripod and remote to allow for longer shutters speeds so there’s no reason to increase your ISO and add noise to your night sky.
- Avoid using your flash. Leave your speed lights at home and turn off the pop up flash on your camera if it has one. Because you are using a longer shutter speed, the flash is unnecessary and could actually hinder the process of capturing your fireworks images. The one exception to this is if you are photographing a person in the foreground with the fireworks display in the background. I leave my flash at home since I tend to photograph the surrounding landscape in my fireworks photography.
ONCE THE FIREWORKS START
Once the fireworks start, its time to start photographing. Make sure if you are including foreground elements that you have the camera level for a straight horizon. As the show progresses, the sky will become increasingly more hazy as smoke fills the sky. Because of this, your earliest shots will often be the cleanest and most striking. By having your settings dialed in before the show starts, you may find that your first shots of the show end up being your favorites. However, if you notice that in the first few bursts, your settings are off, take a few seconds to make adjustments, either to your lens choice, your settings or even your composition. This will allow you to capture stronger images during the middle and the end of the show. Fireworks shows happen quickly and the majority of shows are over with within 10-20 minutes of them starting though it may seem longer.
AFTER THE SHOW
Once the show has ended and you’ve made it home, it’s time to import and back up your images. You will be excited to start processing them but make you take the time to back your images up, not once, but twice! You don’t want to go to all the work to process an amazing image only to have the only copy of it be on a hard drive that crashes. The few minutes that it takes to create multiple backups will save you the heartache of losing your files should a hard drive fail.
Now that your backups are completed, it’s time to edit them. Below is my workflow for a fireworks photography images in Lightroom. While I can’t give you the exact amount to move each adjustment slider, moving each slider left or right will increase or decrease the effect. Playing with each slider is highly recommended to get the look the you are going for and that feels right for the image you are creating.
- White Balance – Because you shot your fireworks photos in Raw, you can take the white balance wherever you choose. Play with the Temperature and Tint sliders to get the colors you like. If you have included foreground objects, use those as a reference point to determine what colors are realistic in the fireworks.
- Play with the Exposure Contrast and other riders to create an image of your liking. If your highlights are a bit bright (but not blown out), you can bring them back by shifting the Highlights slider to the left. You might also choose to bring down the Blacks if you sky needs to be darkened down a bit.
- The Dehaze tool can help reduce smoke in your image if it became a problem in your shot.The Clarity and Texture sliders can give your fireworks extra pop and sharpness, but a little goes a long way with these sliders
- Vibrance and Saturation – typically used conservatively, using these sliders can add some intense color to your imagery. It’s your image so go ahead the experiment to see what look works best for the imagery you are creating. Too much saturation will blow out the details of your image so watch your histogram RGB channel. A histogram going off of the right edge indicates that that color is oversaturated.
You can also choose to create composites of multiple bursts in Photoshop, using layers and masks. This, unfortunately cannot be done in Lightroom as it doesn’t support layers at this time.
In closing, while fireworks photography is exciting, it can also end in frustration. Please, don’t get so wrapped up in the process of trying to capture an amazing fireworks photo that you don’t get to enjoy the show. Take the time to enjoy the spectacle before you. If you aren’t enjoying the process of creating the fireworks, then stop and just focus on enjoying the fireworks display. There will be many opportunities in the future to capture another show and try again. As with any photographic endeavor, the more time you spend photographing fireworks, the more comfortable you will be photographing them the next time there is a show in your area.