Fireworks photography: How to get creative and capture the dazzle
Fireworks are a perfect example of something that's absolutely stunning to experience, and really difficult to capture on a camera. That won't stop tens of millions of people watching the fireworks through the screens of their smartphones this 4th of July, stacking up dozens of photos each that they'll be disappointed in, and probably never look at again.
On the other hand, these giant, bright, colored light sources in the night sky can make for some highly unique shots if you're willing to put in some time and thought. Here's a few things to consider to get the most out of fireworks photography.
Basic camera settings
You're going to want a tripod. A good, solid one if possible, set on firm ground rather than bleachers or wood planks that might move. Most of the best fireworks shots are long exposures, so you want to keep the camera super still. If you've got a remote trigger, bring that too, so you don't bump the camera around when you're hitting the shutter button.
Turn off autofocus and set your focus manually, whether on the fireworks themselves or on the scene around you. Timing is important and you don't want your camera hunting for focus when it's go time.
As always, you're gonna have the greatest latitude to post-process and polish your shots if you're shooting in RAW rather than JPG.
Set your shooting mode to manual. Auto, aperture priority, shutter priority, all the other modes on your camera require the camera to make a judgement on how long the shutter should stay open. At a fireworks show, the light levels change constantly and wildly, and will confuse your camera's exposure meter.
Set your ISO low – 100 or 200 ought to do the trick. Higher ISO levels lead to more digital noise and less keepable photos. On the other hand, turn off any in-camera noise reduction settings, because they can sometimes take time to apply, robbing you of shooting opportunities. You can run noise reduction in post processing if you need to.
In general, you're probably going to want to set your aperture around f/8 or higher, particularly if you're planning to include some scenery in your shot as well as the fireworks themselves. And because fireworks shows are usually around dusk, you're going to need to constantly stay on top of your exposure settings as the ambient light changes.
As for shutter speed? Well, that's yours to play with. Leave it open longer to capture more different fireworks in the one shot, with longer trails. Go shorter to move back closer to what it looks like to the naked eye and capture the moment.
Let's face facts: you've gotta get pretty creative with a photo that shows nothing but fireworks to make it even remotely interesting. On the other hand, a photo that shows fireworks in context, lighting up a city or a building or a bridge or a crowd? That can capture the feeling much better, and give your shot a sense of scale and context that's often missing in firework shooting.
Things can get crowded at large-scale civic celebrations, though, so finding the perfect spot can take some planning, preparation and occasional elbows-out defense. You need to know exactly where the fireworks will be, for starters, and it helps to know how high they're going to go. If you really want to nail the shot, you might consider checking if there's an early fireworks show for the kids and a later one for the drunks. The show itself is usually identical, letting you get a perfect preview of where the best angles are.
From there, the job is to compose a photo that looks interesting by itself, but that needs the fireworks in it to feel properly balanced. Use all the normal guides to help: fibonacci patterns, rule of thirds, put something in the foreground, mid-ground and background to add that feeling of space and dimensionality. Balance the frame, imagining that the fireworks are there. Consider them not only as a visual feature, but as a light source that will back-light anything in front of you and side-light buildings that they're next to.
If there's a body of water around – and there often is – think about leaving space for the reflection. The water might be too choppy for a perfect reflection to the naked eye, but over the course of a long exposure it can really shimmer and glow and help the frame come alive.
Be aware of the smoke in the air – by the end of the show, when things are going really crazy, there can be a ton of smoke around. Earlier fireworks will have a much clearer sky. Clearer sky will come out looking darker, a smoky sky will reflect the light from the fireworks and look light and cloudy. Neither is necessarily better or worse, just be aware of it and make your choices based on it.
If you're shooting around dusk, get yourself toward the west side of the fireworks show if possible. Having the eastern sky behind the bombs will make things darker and add contrast if there's still some sunset light left in the west.
Oh, and if you want to be really finicky about things, you can shoot multiple exposures to perfectly capture the cityscape and/or crowd, and blend in exactly as much fireworks as you want for a really crisp looking image – either in camera, or in an editing package like Photoshop afterwards.
There's plenty of scope to mess around and get creative in search of more artistic and surreal shots. Here's a few ideas:
In this shot, the focus is squarely on the bald head between the camera and the fireworks, and the aperture is wide open. Thus, you get a backlit silhouette of the head with the fireworks themselves out of focus, brilliant in bokeh and adding a dramatic background.
Manual focus shift in
To get this kind of shot – and it's not the easiest to capture – you go handheld, zoom in on an individual burst, and open up the aperture as wide as it goes. Using manual focus, you set the focus to be as accurate as you can, then remember that position with your hand and twist around until you're way out of focus, making everything stand out in giant soft bokeh spots.
Then you hit the shutter button, and rotate the focus ring back to bring things back into focus gradually through the exposure. With a bit of luck, you end up with wide fat blurry trails that sharpen into perfect points. Any wobble as you hand-hold the camera can actually turn out as a nice wiggly effect. Good luck!
Manual focus shift out
You can get the opposite effect by starting in focus and twisting the focus ring out of focus through the shot. This should give you nice sharp starts to the trails that soften and widen as they move outward.
Similar to the focus shifts, a zoom shift simply requires you to hold the camera as steady as you can and rack the zoom in throughout the exposure. Things can get pretty trippy!
Slow-moving light trails can be used as light painting sources. Move your camera around a bit during the exposure and all the moving light points in the frame will bounce around the frame together, making for some interesting repeating patterns.
Hopefully these tips and sample shots give you a few ideas to help you grab some interesting exposures and open up some creative and technical shooting with your fireworks photography. Link us anything nice you've achieved in the comments below!