It’s almost time to celebrate the Fourth of July - America's birthday, and for many photographers, the draw of photographing fireworks is hard to resist. I don’t know about you, but some of my early attempts to capture fireworks resulted in a blurry mess of smoke! In frustration, I took to the Internet to figure out the secret of capturing those plumes of spectacular color and light - minus the smoke!
Believe it or not, shooting Fireworks is actually not that difficult once you get the hang of it. And you will be WOWING your friends and neighbors with gorgeous firework photos!!
Camera Gear You Will Need
- Tripod — this is the magic ingredient
- Remote trigger (optional but I highly suggest getting one and they can be purchased for as little as $30!)
Setting Up the For the Shot
Try to find the ideal spot to set up your camera and tripod in an area where the fireworks will be seen. In our local town square, the fireworks are always shot from behind Town Hall. So with my camera on the tripod, I compose the shot and lock focus on Town Hall. If you don’t have a building to focus on, you can focus on something in the foreground such as trees OR you can put your lens on infinity focus (look for the ∞ infinity symbol on the barrel of your lens and manually rotate the barrel until the line is the infinity symbol), then compose your shot.
If you look closely at the image below, you can see the infinity symbol on the barrel. It's perfect for when you don't have an object in the foreground to lock focus.
Now, put your camera in manual mode and turn down your ISO. Yes, turn it down. It might seem counterintuitive with the lack of light in the evening sky but you want a slower ISO. Typically, my firework images are between ISO 100 and no more than ISO 400.
Next, stop down your aperture to between f/10 and f/16. You will want the shutter to be really tiny so that less light hits the sensor, requiring the shutter to be open for a longer period of time to achieve proper exposure. This is what creates the beautiful trails of color against the dark sky.
Setting the shutter speed will depend on how you are metering for the available light. I switch to live view and meter for any available light in the sky. Ideally, you will want your shutter speed to be very, very slow. My shutter speeds range from 2.5 seconds to 30 seconds. Live view is a great way to quickly meter a scene because you can see how the exposure looks and make shutter speed adjustments until your scene is pleasing to your eye.
Take a few quick test shots and if you are happy with the overall exposure then you should be set.
The image below was taken at a concert and I locked focus on the stage. Settings - f/10, ISO 320, 25-second exposure with 35mm lens. Note, you will see ghosting of the people in the foreground because they are moving. For me, it added an element of movement that I liked.
The image below was taken using infinity focus while in Montana a few years back and was taken during the summer when shooting fireworks finally clicked! It was pitch black, I was facing a lake and had no idea where the fireworks would appear! Settings - f/9, ISO 100, 3.2 seconds, 43mm focal length using 18-250mm lens on infinity.
Use a Remote Trigger
If you have a remote trigger, get it set up so that once the show starts, all you have to do is sit back and press the button while you enjoy the show! If you do not have a remote trigger, set your camera for a 2 second delay to so that you don’t accidentally cause camera shake even though your camera is on a tripod (believe me, I did this with my old tripod which wasn’t super stable for long exposures and it was very frustrating!)
In the image below, I adjusted the position of the camera, locked focus on the trees and maintained a 25-second exposure, f/10, ISO 320. Notice with the super slow shutter how the colors drift into the sky for a beautiful effect.
What Lens Should You Use?
What lens should you use to photograph fireworks? This really depends on how much of the scene you are hoping to capture. I have used my 35mm in order to get a wider angle and take in the entire scene but have also used my 85mm for a tighter view of the show. A zoom lens can be very handy so that you can quickly change your composition if you are too tight or too wide. Just remember if you make composition adjustments, you will need to readjust where you lock the focus.
Sometimes when I have several frames of beautiful fireworks but too much negative space, I take one into Photoshop as a base image, then export several other frames as JPGs and then embed them onto the base image using a similar technique as a head swap. Once the image is positioned over the base image, I add a mask and brush off the the negative space so that there are multiple firework bursts within a single frame (see image below). I then export back to Lightroom where I will do a single edit. It's super easy!
Timing the Shot
Once the fireworks start and you hear the initial pop before the explosion of color, press the shutter. You will find a rhythm between the longer shutter speeds and when to engage the shutter with your trigger or delayed timer. After a few frames, check the preview of your images and make adjustments for exposure and/or composition as needed. It might seem complicated in the beginning but I promise, it’s really pretty simple and can be very fun!
If you have time, here is another great tutorial on How to Photograph Fireworks!
Have a safe 4th of July and happy shooting!
Do you have any questions or comments about Photographing Fireworks? Leave me a comment below - I would love to hear from you! And please share our tutorial using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)!