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Photo Tip of the Week

Photographing Fireworks

OK, it's that time of year, at least here in the United States. The Fourth of July is right around the corner and coming with it is the annual right of fireworks displays. If you live elsewhere, you will likely get a chance some other time of the year. Some people may be content to go and just watch, but others will be tempted to bring along their camera. It is in honor of this second group that this week's PhotoTips article is dedicated.

The first thing you're going to need is a tripod. Well, make that the second thing since I suppose your camera qualifies as the first thing. In any case, you will need a tripod since your average exposure times will range from two seconds on up. If you try to hand hold, you will either end up with blurred pictures or your shutter speeds would have to be fast enough to freeze the action, resulting in, at best, sharp pictures of tiny points of light that look nothing like the experience of fireworks. You need to record motion blur to show the graceful arcs of the burning embers as they move outward and begin their fall towards earth.

Be sure you have an adequately charged battery so you won't need to worry about having to quit before the grand finale. If you are shooting film, bring a few rolls, or the equivalent in compact flash cards if you are using digital. If you want to be extra safe, bring a bit more since it's better to have too much than not enough.

As for ISO, the most common recommendation is to go with ISO 100 if possible. Faster speeds can be used, but you risk having the sky not come out black if your speed is too high.

In terms of aperture, you need to allow in enough light for the bursts to register, but not so much that they overexpose. This can be somewhat of a hit or miss proposition, but you should find the values in the following table will get you in the right ballpark:

  ISO Speed     Optimal Aperture Range  
 50 speed  f/5.6 - f/8
 100 speed  f/8 - f/11
 200 speed  f/11 - f/22

Ideally, set your focus to the hyperfocal distance for your chosen aperture. If you are shooting just the fireworks though, you can generally get away with setting your lens to infinity focus. If you are trying to include some recognizable landmark in silhouette with the fireworks overhead, you may be able to focus on the edge of your foreground element if there is enough contrast. Otherwise, you'll need to estimate focus distance to ensure a sharp silhouette. Regardless, turn the AF off once you have set focus. Your camera will hunt for focus too much if you try to use auto-focus during the show.

Try to arrive early so you can find a good place to set up. If you can, position yourself upwind from the main area so any wind won't blow smoke your way. Even if it doesn't get in your eyes, you'll find it can obscure your view if you are downwind. You might want to bring a small flashlight with you since you will be working in the dark. No matter how well you know the controls on your camera, it can't hurt to be prepared in case you need to check something out.

Now let's consider technique. When the fireworks show first starts, don't start firing right away. Let the first few bursts go off to get a sense of where the action is happening, and then adjust your focal length and direction to best cover it. Close-ups of individual bursts can be effective as can shots that cover the entire display, so a zoom lens can be a good choice. Exactly which lens you use will depend on factors such as how big the display is and how far away from it you are.

A fireworks double exposure - ISO 100 at f/11When a new round of shells is launched, wait for them to get up to the height where others have been going off, then open the shutter with the camera set on "bulb." Use a cable release so you can do so without touching the camera body to prevent movement. Close the shutter when you think you've recorded what you want. Assuming that the only source of light is the exploding fireworks, the black sky will not record in the image. As mentioned, you will generally find that exposures of several seconds will give you good coverage but you may want to try up to thirty seconds to see what happens.

Another interesting option is to shoot double exposures. Since it is night, there shouldn't be much ambient light, making this easier than it might seem. Just leave your shutter open and cover the front of the lens with something dark like a piece of black cloth or even a baseball cap. When another burst is about to go off, uncover the lens to allow it to add to the exposure already recorded. Be careful not to actually touch the lens though to avoid blurring due to vibration.

And lastly, in amongst your keepers, be prepared to get a lot of shots that don't come out quite the way you had hoped. If you are shooting digital, you should have at least some sense of how things are going by referring to the images on your camera LCD, but if you are shooting film you'll have to rely at least in part on faith. There's a lot of guesswork and trial and error involved in getting good fireworks shots. This makes sense since one of the big draws that fireworks have is their surprise factor. The shells go up and with anticipation you await what you know must come next. But no matter how much you think you know when they will go off, you will sometimes be wrong. When you least expect it, they will explode across the sky with colors and patterns that will amaze the kid in you. It's part of the thrill of the experience, and part of the challenge of photographing it.

Date posted: July 2, 2006 (updated July 25, 2006)


Copyright © 2006 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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