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Photographing fireworks: The basics and then some

Photographing fireworks

Photographing fireworks: The basics and then some 1

Here in the U.S. there’s a major summer holiday coming up – one that is celebrated with colorful explosions in the sky. The Fourth of July is traditionally celebrated with grilled meats, red-white-and-blue popsicles and of course, fireworks. If you’ve ever taken a terrible photo of a fireworks display and wondered what went wrong, we’ve got some ideas for you – from the very basics to some simple tips that will help you capture all the majesty of those ‘bombs bursting in air’.

Photographing fireworks

Photographing fireworks: The basics and then some 2

First things first: get your hands on a tripod. You’ll need to steady your camera by any means necessary otherwise the long exposures – anywhere from 2s to 10s or more – needed to capture the fireworks trails will just results in a blurry mess. Something else that can blur your photos is pressing the shutter release button, so a remote release of some sort, whether a cable, remote or smartphone will do the trick.

Next, you’ll want a lens or two that give you a variety of framing options. Depending on where you set up and what obstructions are in your path, a zoom lens will allow you to get your composition just right. It’ll also afford you variety with respect to story-telling: a telephoto focal length allows you to compress city elements with the fireworks as we’ve done here, while a wide-angle field of view will allow you to include different context in your framing, such as the viewers in this shot at the end of our slideshow.

Photographing fireworks

Photographing fireworks: The basics and then some 3

Shooting fireworks can be challenging from the perspective of camera settings. First, we recommend you place your camera on a tripod, so you can use the lowest ISO possible. This helps your camera capture as much light as possible, minimizing noise and maximizing dynamic range. Raising the ISO simply brightens tones so much as to often blow the fireworks to white. If you wish to raise dark tones, like the skies and cityscape, it’s better to selectively brighten them in post-processing, rather than increase the ISO which raises the exposure of all tones in your image.

Which gets us to our next point: shoot Raw. This affords you the most post-processing flexibility with respect to exposure of tones, and colors of various tones, including white balance adjustment.

Exposure latitude, and therefore dynamic range, is important when it comes to photographing fireworks. The fireworks are bright, so you don’t want to overexpose and blow them out, while the rest of the city and sky are dark, which you don’t want to clip to black. In fact, some lingering blue color in the sky adds a nice touch to the imagery. Larger sensor cameras, with higher dynamic range, allow you maximum flexibility in post, if you shoot Raw of course. This allows you to recover colors in the bright fireworks, brighten dark blue tones in the sky, and to set White Balance perfectly to balance the warm colors of the fireworks and the blue colors of the sky.

Photographing fireworks

Photographing fireworks: The basics and then some 4

But what settings should you shoot with? After setting your camera to the lowest ISO (usually ISO 100), set your Drive mode to Manual Bulb, then F8 (equivalent) for enough depth-of-field, and to ensure that the initial launch of the fireworks itself doesn’t register too brightly in your final photograph. Trigger the shutter with your remote when no action is occurring, to allow the camera to start accumulate background exposure to capture some of the sky blue and city lights. Once the fireworks explode, continue to capture some of the trails, then end the exposure with your remote. That’ll allow you to capture enough of the fireworks to get a pattern against a well exposed deep blue sky. Any other exposure adjustments to balance the sky, foreground, and fireworks can be saved for post-processing of the Raw.

This method will allow you to to capture just the right amount of fireworks for the effect you desire. Here, for example, we stopped the exposure rather early, to capture some of the interesting paths the fireworks initially took. When the finale rolls around and fireworks are going off all over the place, you’ll want to end the exposures earlier on (shorter shutter speeds), otherwise you’ll get a blown-out mess.

And by the way, the earlier you start shooting, the less mess of clouds and gas from previous explosions you’ll have in your final photograph – there’s already quite a bit of smoke in this photograph!

Photographing fireworks

Photographing fireworks: The basics and then some 5

Photo: Dale Baskin Photography

Move away from the show

Now that you’ve got a handle on the basic principles, here are a few easy tricks you can try out to bring your fireworks photo game up a level.

There’s a natural tendency to want to get close to, or directly underneath, a fireworks show. This works well if your goal is to capture closeups of the fireworks, but without other visual cues a firework over Seattle looks the same as a firework over London. Try moving away from the show and using a telephoto lens to frame fireworks against a city skyline or landscape to provide some context to your photos and to provide a sense of place.

Photographing fireworks

Photographing fireworks: The basics and then some 6

Photo by John Cornicello

Try something tricky

Racking the zoom or adjusting focus while shooting a longer exposure can offer up a creative and new way to photograph fireworks. One way to go about doing this is to throw the focus at the beginning of a 1 or 2 second exposure and quickly refocus after the initial explosion. This will give your images a flower or even sea creature-like look.

Photographing fireworks

Photographing fireworks: The basics and then some 7

Don’t forget video

You can also opt to forget stills for the night. Try shooting high frame rate video if your camera offers it and slowing it down later. Whether you’re watching professional fireworks or simply lighting off roman candles in your backyard, slow-motion video is a simple way to get some very cool shots. Many modern cameras can shoot video at 60 or even 120 fps. And still some cameras, like to Sony RX100 IV used to capture the video below, can shoot as fast as 960 fps.

Photographing fireworks

Photographing fireworks: The basics and then some 8

Capture the human element

For another view, think of capturing the human element instead of the action: Firework photos can frankly be a tad cliche. Don’t shoot the same boring shot as everyone else, instead turn your camera to 180 degrees and capture those watching. Try looking for people displaying an emotional response to the show. And because most folks will be mesmerized by what they’re watching, it should be pretty easy to go unnoticed while you shoot.

Photographing fireworks

Photographing fireworks: The basics and then some 9

Photo by Jonah Cohen

Move away from the show and capture the human element

Alternatively, take a step back and frame the human element, with the fireworks in the background. Here the people are an integral part of the framing, so a small aperture was used for loads of depth-of-field to get both the viewers and the fireworks in focus. You can also get closer to the viewers to create more separation between them and the fireworks, and use a fast aperture to throw either them or the fireworks out-of-focus for creative effect.

Either way, if you’re putting people into the frame, a wide-angle lens will allow you to include a large group of people, as well as create separation, or depth, between the people in the foreground and fireworks in the background. The shot above was taken at 26mm equivalent, for example.

Have any favorite tips or tricks for photographing fireworks? Share them in the comments!

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