I love going to fireworks shows. It's just one of those can't miss moments of summer vacation and something I look forward to all year long! I've always tried (even before digital cameras) to get great photos of the awesome fireworks displays, but have always been disappointed in the results.
But guess what? Last year, I finally learned how to photograph fireworks properly and got some decent photos. Actually, I got some photos that were more than just decent--they were wonderful! (If I do say so myself, ha ha.) I was so thrilled that I finally got some great firework pictures that it's been difficult to wait for the next fireworks display to roll around. Luckily, we have one coming up in mid-June, so I thought I'd get these pointers down to remind myself and to help anybody out there looking to improve their firework photography.
How to Photograph Fireworks
Honestly, you're going to find all of these same tips all over the internet, and that's because they really work. Still, I'm going to tell you exactly what I did and why it worked for me.
1. Use a Tripod
It's possible to get decent fireworks shots without a tripod, yes. But it's much more difficult, and after a few years of trying that, I finally lugged my tripod with me to the sea of humanity that is the 4th of July fireworks show. The difference was clear, and I will be lugging my tripod to every fireworks display I want to photograph from now on.
2. Use a cable or remote release
This is a piece of advice I ignored, simply because my cable release is broken and I haven't bothered to replace it for a couple years since I so seldom use it. So, I did Step #3 instead, and it worked beautifully. So, if you don't have a remote shutter for your camera, don't sweat it. If you do, I think you'd get excellent results using it, especially if you use the BULB shutter speed (see Step #6), but you don't absolutely need it, so no need to run out and buy one.
3. Use the Self-timer
Instead of a remote release device, just use the self-timer. It is a little less predictable, but you can make it work and get some really great shots. The reason you need to do this instead of just pressing the shutter button is because otherwise you will get some motion blur in your photos and they will not be as clear or crisp as you would want them to be. The self-timer allows you to press the shutter and get all of that movement out of the way several seconds before the camera fires.
With the self-timer, you'll need to anticipate a little bit when the fireworks will come, and I admit to getting a lot of shots of blank sky. I started to learn to press it just when one firework was fading and I would usually be able to catch the next one that way.
4. Focus on Infinity
Turn off the camera's auto-focus, and set the manual focus to infinity. This will focus pretty much everything in your shot and leaves you to worry about getting the shots timed well instead of having to worry about focusing.
Most lenses have the infinity sign right on the focus ring, so this is very easy to do. I just recommend checking the focus every once in a while to make sure it doesn't get bumped.
5. Use a low ISO
I actually had mine set to 400 in all of these photos, but I could have (and perhaps should have) gone lower. I keep 400 as my default ISO, though, because--I'll be honest--I am always forgetting to switch it. 400 gives me a fighting chance of catching a good photo when I've forgotten to check ISO.
6. Set your aperture somewhere in the middle
You don't want your aperture to be either too wide (low f/stop number) or too narrow (high f/stop number), so play around with an f/stop between f/8 and f/16 when you are first starting to photograph the fireworks display. For all of these photos here, I settled on an aperture of f/11 and was very happy with the results. You will get the sharpest light trails when you keep your aperture right in the middle.
7. Set a long shutter speed, but not too long
Since you need to be in charge of both aperture and shutter speed, you'll need to shoot in full manual. The shutter speed is something you'll want to experiment with at the beginning, along with the aperture, but don't go too long with it. My photos were shot with a 2 second shutter speed, which turned out to be just right. Too much longer and you start getting all of the smoke and haze in the photo. You'll still get smoke and haze, depending on the wind conditions, but it will be much more obvious the longer your shutter stays open.
The one exception is to use the BULB option for shutter speed. If you have a remote release, this means that you can press the shutter down and release it when you are ready. You control the shutter speed by watching the firework. I'm hoping to replace my remote this year so I can try this out.
8. Other camera settings
White balance should be left on auto, flash should be off.
Bonus Tip: Get other elements in your photo
After a while, I got completely bored of just shooting the fireworks themselves. Because of our location, I couldn't pull back as much as I wanted to (we had amazing seats last year), but I was able to pull back enough to start getting other elements in my photo. I love this last photo the most. If you look closely, you can see my kids and a friend enjoying the show. You can see a fireman in the distance. While I wish there had been less smoke, it still adds to the feeling of the photo and I love it.
Make sure to look around you and incorporate the fireworks into your total experience. I'm excited to do better at that this year.
Most of all--enjoy the fireworks show! Don't let fiddling with your tripod or camera settings make you miss all the fun!
More photography tutorials:
How to Get Great Photos at the Beach
How to Get Catchlights in the Eyes
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