The grill is hot. The burgers are sizzling. The brats are almost done. The kids are having a watermelon seed fight. It’s time for the Fourth of July.
If you are like me, this time of year means getting ready to cover one (or more) fireworks shows during the holiday. This article will take you through the technique I use, tips on finding the best location, and advice on execution for making wonderful fireworks photographs.
The most important thing to keep in mind before we get going is that you need to keep safety at the forefront of your mind in the planning and execution of this kind of photography. Keep yourself safe. Keep your guests safe. Keep your gear safe.
Fireworks photography is predicated on the notion of long exposure. This is how you get the light trails coming off the mortar launching the shell into the air and the light from the exploded shell(s). At a bare minimum, you are going to need a tripod and a cable release. Additionally, I also use a headlamp with a red light and a bubble level in my hot shoe. Gaffer’s tape is also nice to have.
Here are the settings I use:
- Mode: Manual
- Aperture: F8 – F16
- Shutter: Start with 10 seconds, evaluate the viewfinder, and adjust. I typically stay within the range of 10 to 20 seconds.
- Other tips: Set focus to manual and then focus to infinity. Turn any long exposure noise reduction off. (If there is noise, fix it in post. Noise reduction in camera will result in less of the show you get to photograph).
Simple enough, right?
Here’s the thing… The technique is not what separates the good from the great. The technique is important. Nevertheless, it serves as a solid foundation to build upon.
This is where great fireworks photographs begin to be separated from the good.
As I have written for years, fireworks photographs are all about location. You must think about (or pre-visualize) how your location will look at night. Will there be city lights? Is there a giant radio transmitter in view? Consider what you want in the shot and, more importantly, what you don’t. Fireworks photography is significantly more interesting when there is something besides the fireworks itself in the shot. The easiest way to add something interesting is to find location(s) with objects that will create interesting silhouettes. These can include, but are not limited to, trees, architecture, sculpture, etc.
I tend to use tools like Google Maps and Google Earth to help me in my scouting of new locations. Absent being able to scout in person, these two tools serve as a nice substitute.
Your location will dictate your lens selection. Generally, you will want to err on the side of being too zoomed out when the show begins. This way, you can check your viewfinder and make adjustments as necessary. Most commercial finales may require you to go wider on your zoom than you did for the majority of the show. Remember, you can always crop down. You cannot crop up.
While we are on the topic of lenses, I also would recommend you use your lens hood. It will help in keeping any unwanted light off your lens.
So, you have your technique. You have your location. Now all you need to do is photograph the show.
First thing’s first. You will want to get to your selected location EARLY. Most years, I arrive around 3:30 in the afternoon for a 9:00 show. Bring some games. Bring some water. Enjoy the afternoon. You’re going to be there for a while. It will be worth it.
You will want your camera batteries fully charged. You will want to have a card loaded in your camera that is already formatted. It is also good idea to have extra memory cards waiting. And, I suggest you get your camera set to how you want it before you arrive.
Some shows will fire a couple of test shells in advance of the actual main event. These are anywhere from a several over a couple of hours to one or two within an hour of the show beginning. Keep an eye out for these. These test shells will allow you to make minor adjustments to your zoom and position before the start of the show.
As the show begins, try your best to get in sync with when the mortars are firing. If you can do this, it will allow you to increase your number of potential keepers as you will be able to predict the firing and subsequent explosion of the shells in the sky. If your show is synced to music, this can help too.
During the show, make sure to check your viewfinder and adjust as necessary. Also, shoot both vertically as well as horizontally.
The most important thing to keep in mind is to enjoy the show. Soak it in. And you’ll get some good shots to boot.
Have a wonderful Fourth of July. Have fun. Be safe!
Ted is a Colorado based nature and wildlife photographer (he dabbles in sports photography from time to time too). Besides writing on photography, he is the author of the UX for #togs (User Experience for Photographers) series. Be sure to check out his website and follow him on Twitter.