Fireworks. The word conjures of memories of 4th of July’s, New Year celebrations, visits to Disney theme parks, and other very special occasions.
So how do you take pictures of fireworks? It is not that hard really. Fireworks photography is one of those photographic techniques that is rather prescriptive. This article is a “how to” for digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras.
1. Pick a Good Vantage Point. Just like the real estate business, it’s about location, location, location. Knowing how the fireworks will be displayed really helps with selection of a good vantage point. Keep in mind the wind and direction. If possible, check the weather forecast, and avoid sitting downwind of the fireworks. Smoke obscures your view and the quality of your exposures, not mention possibility of breathing in the smoke. So plan to get there early, claim your space, and setup before it gets completely dark.
The fireworks photographs in this article were taken during the 4th of July 2013 fireworks show in my neighborhood, Avalon Park of Orlando, Florida. The community sponsors two wonderful fireworks shows yearly, Independence Day and New Year’s Day, and they have been consistent in the staging of the shows. Knowing the show layout, I choose a position on the side of lake that will give me the best view. In the foreground, you can see the crowd, then the pond for a reflective effect, then the floating fireworks platform in the middle of the pond. The background is framed by the Avalon Park downtown buildings on the right, and the white flag pole/cell tower on the left.
2. Use a Stable Tripod and Set It on Firm Ground. Taking pictures of fireworks is about making a long exposure, to show traces of the firework mortar as it explodes and etches pretty floral bursts of all patterns and colors across the sky. Exposures typically range from 2 seconds to 20 seconds (more on this later), so you need a solid tripod and it needs to be set on firm ground. Be careful to avoid setting your tripod on unstable surfaces such as thick grass (e.g., St. Augustine lawns) or a wood deck. Use deep spikes to anchor your tripod in grass. Be wary wood decks that can transmit vibrations of footsteps.
Lesson learned: I had one new year’s fireworks shots ruined because I placed my tripod on thick St. Augustine grass. The tripod undulated on the grass as my spikes were not deep enough to plant themselves firmly in the soil. The fireworks light traces captured the undulations of my tripod.
3. Lens Selection. This depends on the your vantage point. Are you close to the fireworks or far away? How much of the environment or skyline do you want to compose into your shots? Based on these factors, use the appropriate lens and focal length to frame the fireworks and surrounding environment. Zoom lenses offer flexibility in your reach and composition.
I chose to use my Nikon FX super zoom lens, the 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S lens, as it allows me the flexibility of a very wide range of focal lengths. The Avalon Park fireworks were initially launched off of the floating platform on the pond in the foreground, so I was fairly close to the pyrotechnique action. Zooming out to a wide 28mm allowed me to fill the frame with all the action using a portrait format. After the first five minutes or so, the fireworks show shifted to the open field behind the pond. At that time, I chose to go landscape and zoomed in to about 50-78mm focal length.
4. Lock Your Focus. Pre-focus on an object that is equal distant to where you expect the fireworks to explode and lock your focus by turning off the autofocus function. For Nikon lenses, turn the autofocus switch on the lens to the “M” (manual) position and do not disturb the focus ring. This prevents your camera from trying to focus before making an exposure, adding delay before shutter release and possibly mis-focusing.
5. Use Manual Exposure Mode. Set your exposure mode/dial to “M” (manual). Choose the lowest native ISO setting (100 ISO for newer Nikon and Canon DSLRs, 200 ISO for older Nikon DSLRs). For ISO 100, set f-stop to about f/13, and f/9 for ISO 200. Adjust the f-stop as needed to compensate for the brightness of the fireworks. Increase f-stop (f/13 to f/16) if the fireworks is too bright (colors begin to wash out to bright white), and vice versa.
Keep your flash off: There is no need for flash. It cannot possibly reach the fireworks (not that fireworks need help from flash to be seen).
6. Setting the Shutter Speed and Triggering the Shutter. Setting the shutter speed depends on your artistic vision and the tempo of the fireworks bursts. A typical burst takes about a 2-3 second exposure to capture. If the tempo is fast, a shutter speed of 2-3 seconds might work. For slower shows, 10-20 seconds may work better. You can also use the “Bulb” mode to manually trigger the opening and closing of your shutter. To minimize camera shake, consider triggering the shuttle with a remote control, either wired or wireless.
In this series of shots, I chose to capture between 10-15 seconds to capture 3-6 bursts during the slower portion of the Avalon Park fireworks show. I triggered the shutter when I see the first mortars shooting up in a salvo. I try to capture enough bursts to make the exposure look interesting, as too many bursts would wash out the exposure.
Timing is everything, knowing when to trigger your shutter and how long to leave it open is a trial and error process. This is the “art” of taking fireworks photos. You are essentially painting with light, without knowing what is coming.
7. Portrait or Landscape? There is no right or wrong. As with other photographic subjects, it is a personal decision based on your artistic vision.
When the fireworks were shooting off from the pond, I zoomed all the way out to 28mm focal length (the widest setting for the zoom lens) and used the portrait format to capture the mortars as they shot off of the floating platform. It was just enough to fill the frame. As the fireworks transitioned to the far field across the pond, I changed to the landscape format to compose in some of the iconic Avalon Park low-rise condos in the skyline to give my shots an environmental context.
So get out there, stake your vantage point, and have fun. Get to know your camera’s manual settings and learn to use them in darkness. But just in case, bring a flashlight so you can make the requisite camera setting changes. If not for anything else, the flashlight would help you find your way back in darkness after the show.