Photographing Firework Displays

Everyone loves the big crash, boom and bang of the bright lights and fantastic colors of professional fireworks. I thought this would be a great Tech (Technique) Tuesday post, Photographing Firework Displays.

Happy Birthday America

With the Fourth of July just a few days away, a lot of photographers will be out with camera in hand to capture a fireworks show. I love firework displays. I love the loud concussions, the bright explosions and the smell of sulfur in the air.

1. Preparation

In preparation of the firework show, scout your location. Get a good location picked out. I like to get to the location early and find a place that is slightly elevated i.e. a small hill or the top of a slope. I pick the places out for a couple reasons. One, it helps to keep people from walking in front of my camera and lens while shooting. Two, if helps to get above some of the distractions that can take away from the photograph i.e. trees, people, cars.

Make sure all you camera gear is in good working condition before you leave. Check that lenses are clean, camera is clean and working well. Make sure all batteries are charged and ready to go. Double check that you have everything, because once you get to you location and it gets dark you won’t have time to check your gear and make sure everything is working properly.

2. Tripod

Tripods are key to a great fireworks photography. It will be dark and a long exposure is required to capture a great firework burst. Tripods help keep the camera steady during the longer shutter duration.

I usually use a low ISO. I shoot usually at ISO 200 or ISO 400. This helps keep the noise or grain low on a long exposure. Doing this will allow me to keep the shutter open for a little longer to capture more firework bursts in one frame. I also us a technique I call shading. I will explain shading at the end of this post, as it is a little more advanced.

Some photographers will use a higher ISO. This allows them to take more images with a faster shutter speed. Once again you introduce a little more noise doing this, but on the newer cameras, their chips are more advanced and do produce as much noise or grain at the higher ISO’s. So a good sturdy tripod is a must.

3. Remote Shutter Release

I use a corded shutter release while shooting firework displays. It keeps my hands away from the camera so I don’t bump it while taking a picture. I can also step back away from the camera and enjoy the show at the same time. If you don’t have a remote shutter release I recommended getting one. You will thank me later. However, if you don’t have a remoter shutter release you can always use the self timer option on you camera.

The self-timer function allows you to depress the shutter and move your hand away before the camera takes the image. This is important, because any movement that you hand make while depressing the shutter will subside before the camera takes the image. It is a little tricky to get the timing right using the self-timer, because most self-timers have a ten second delay. Be patient and listen for the pop of the mortar rounds firing in the canister. When you hear the mortar rounds that means the firework has been launched and in just a few seconds you will see the display in the sky.

4. Aperture

Shooting fireworks is like shooting the moon or a bright light. Some photographers will us a wide open aperture like f2.8. I tend to shoot with an aperture between f8.0, f11 or f16. It allow for a greater DOF (Depth of Field) and long exposure time.

5. Shutter Speed

Probably more important to get right than aperture is shutter speed. Fireworks move and as a result the best photographs of them capture this movement meaning you need a nice long exposure. The technique that I developed when I first photographed fireworks was to shoot in ‘bulb’ mode. This is a mode that allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter (preferably using a remote shutter release of some type). Using this technique you hit the shutter as the firework is about to explode and hold it down until it’s finished exploding (generally a few seconds).

Sometime I press the shutter release as soon as I hear the the mortar round fire so I can capture the trail as the firework is propelled into the sky. This gives a nice streaming effect.

6. Good Composition

Most photographers don’t think about composition when they are shooting firework displays for the first time. I know I didn’t, all I wanted was a decent firework image. That’s OK if you don’t think about framing your shot or composition. This is where scouting you location comes in handy. Some more experienced fireworks photographers will add elements into their images. Sometime they will ad the crowed that has gathered the watch. Another option is to shoot a wide landscape from a distance that may included the fireworks being launched from a bridge. A good example would be the fireworks displays that are launched from the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

I took the above image in San Clemente, CA during their Fourth of July celebration. The other displays were from Dana Point Harbor and Laguna Beach, Ca. In the image above I used composition to capture all the firework displays at one time. Fortunately, all Fourth of July firework displays start about the same time. I knew this in advanced, that little bit on knowledge helped create my shot. I knew they would be going on at the same time so I setup my shot with a wide-angle lens so I could capture them all.

Here are a few suggestion to help with your composition and framing:

  • Watch your Horizons – One thing that you should always consider when lining up fireworks shots is whether your camera is even or straight in it’s framing. This is especially important if you’re going to shooting with a wide focal length and will get other background elements in your shots (ie a cityscape). Keeping horizons straight is something we covered previously on this site and is important in fireworks shots also. As you get your camera on your tripod make sure it’s level right from the time you set up.
  • Vertical or Horizontal? – There are two main ways of framing shots in all types of photography, vertically (portrait) or horizontally (landscape). Both can work in fireworks photography but I personally find a vertical perspective is better – particularly as there is a lot of vertical motion in fireworks. Horizontal shots can work if you’re going for more of a landscape shot with a wider focal length of if you’re wanting to capture multiple bursts of fireworks in the one shot – but I don’t tend to go there that often.
  • Remember your framing – I find that when I photograph fireworks that I spend less time looking in my viewfinder and more looking at the sky directly. As a result it’s important to remember what framing you have and to watch that segment of the sky. Doing this will also help you to anticipate the right time for a shot as you’ll see the light trails of unexploded rockets shooting into the sky.

7. Lens Choice

I generally use a wide-angle lens. Sometimes I will you a wide-angle zoom. Wide-angle lenes give you a broader view so to catch the entire area of the firework display. It also gives me the option to zoom in to get a tighter shoot if I choose. Using a fast lens is not as important since I will be sopping down to f8, f11 or f16.

8. Advanced Technique

Multipul FireworksThis is where I tell you about the technique I call “Shading”. I use shading to capture more then one or several firework bursts on the same image. During a firework show when you have your shutter set to bulb and open you are allowing a tremendous amount of light to hit your film or digital sensor. In order to capture more then one burst you have to continually leave the shutter open for maybe more then 30 or 40 seconds and sometimes longer, depending on how fast they launch the fireworks. This is where shading come in handy. In order to limit the amount of light that come in through my lens I have a black piece of cardboard or a small black reflector to carefully cover the front of the lens.

In between firework bursts I will place the over the front of the lens to block all the light. When I hear the next set mortars fire I will uncover the lens and the camera can capture the next burst on the same frame. I may do this several times before I close the shutter. This is a great technique to capture many firework bursts on the same image. This technique of “Shading” works better with film cameras, but can be done with DSLR’s as well.

Be aware that the more light that is captured their is a tendency to over expose the image, so some trial and error can be involved the first few time you try this technique. Also, if you have and older DSLR like I do. The longer the shutter is open, the longer it takes for the cameras to process the image. Example, if I take a 2 minute exposure it will take at least 2 minutes for the camera to process the image. Most firework displays only last 15 minutes so a slow processing camera can eat into allot of time. The new DSLR’s process the images faster, so if you have a newer camera it is not as much as a problem.
Happy Fourth from San Clemente
I hope this helps you in taking great firework photos. Have a great time and enjoy you holiday. Happy Fourth of July everyone. If you are reading this and don’t celebrate the Fourth of July, I hope you can use this technique and another time during whatever celebrations you can enjoy a fireworks display.

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