It's Fireworks Time!
The Fourth of July is right around the corner, and here in the United States, that means it's time for photographing fireworks. If you live in another part of the globe, feel free to read on anyway and avoid the rush, your turn for fireworks will likely come soon enough.
Fireworks displays can be fun to watch, but photographing one can be harder than it might seem. First of all, fireworks generally happen when its dark, whereas the majority of photos you've probably ever shot were made during the day. As such, the first difficulty encountered by those new to fireworks photography is that they can't see what they are doing. It might be easier to the camera controls if you shot a daytime fireworks display, but such an event would be far less interesting. There's a reason fireworks shows happen at night, so go with it. At night, you will either need to be well practiced at operating your camera, or have a small flashlight along with you. Or both. If you do use a flashlight, bring one that is only barely bright enough to the task at hand to avoid impacting your night vision. You want the flashlight for emergencies, not be forced to use it continually by never letting your eyes adjust.
When you arrive at the site for the fireworks show, you'll need to pick a location. As a spectator, the obvious answer is to get as close as possible. That's why you came, after all. But as a photographer, you might want to rethink that strategy and choose a location a bit further back. The closer you are, the only view you will be able to capture is looking up, creating images with no sense of place or perspective. If you stand a bit further back, you can shoot wide angle shots with the crowd in front of you in the foreground. If you're really lucky, you can pick a location that affords a view of some major landmark in on the horizon such as a cityscape or scenic vista. Once the show starts, the crowd around you will make changing location difficult, so try to arrive early enough to find a good spot. Once there, relax and wait for the show while all those late arrivals all around you freak out.
Exposure for fireworks can seem like a tricky topic. If you wait for the fireworks to go off to meter for exposure, you'll likely miss the shot. If you try to meter before the big event, you'll be standing there in the dark with nothing to meter on. Thankfully, it's not as hard as it seems once you start thinking of the fireworks themselves as a light source rather than just the subject. Remember, you will be standing more or less in the dark. Within reason, you can leave the shutter open and no image will be formed at all until the fireworks go off. So long as enough light eventually reaches your sensor, it doesn't matter if that light happens at the beginning, middle or end of the time the shutter is open. Fireworks photography is truly "painting with light."
Indeed, you want a moderate to long exposure to show the trails left by the fireworks as they explode. Just like when photographing a waterfall, an exposure that is too short freezes the motion, creating an image that looks curiously interesting, but less like the experience of being there than does one shot with a longer shutter speed to render motion. For starters, set your camera to around ISO 200 at f/11. Depending on how spectacular the display is and how far you are from it, experiment with varying exposure durations until you get the look you are after. The longer you leave the shutter open, the longer the lines created by the falling trails from each burst will be, and the greater the potential will be to capture multiple bursts in a single shot. Just as it is impossible to predict the specifics of a fireworks display as a spectator, so too is it impossible to guess the best exposure settings up front.
This means you're going to need a tripod. You want to capture the motion of the firework trails, not that of the camera shaking in your hands. Tripods can be problematic at certain professional events since they take up more space than a person does on their own. A few venues may limit you to a monopod for this reason, so check the rules out ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
In terms of focus, resist the temptation to use autofocus. Remember, although you may see them as a painting unfolding in front of you, they actually happen in three dimensions. There isn't much out there for camera focus to lock onto, or more correctly, there are too many little "things" all over. Using autofocus will result in a lot of hunting for elusive focus and the inevitable lost shots. Manual focus is the way to go. Sometimes, you may see recommendations from others to set your camera on infinity focus, but this too is a bad choice. Although the fireworks will be some ways away, they aren't infinitely so. Pick a focus distance a bit shy of infinity, and leave it there, counting on depth of field to do the rest. After shooting your first few images, check the results on the camera back LCD screen and adjust accordingly if you don't like how things are turning out. Remember that if you are shooting the crowd in the foreground you will need more depth of field than if everything is further away.
Your choice of focal length will depend on the display you are shooting and how far away from it you may be positioned, as well as on the type of image you are interested in shooting. A telephoto lens will let you capture the detail, while a wide angle will let you create images with a sense of place and perspective. The choice is yours. If you bring a selection of zoom lenses with you, you can change lenses as need be and not be limited to a single zoom range or fixed focal length. This is another good reason to have a small flashlight with you.
Not all of your shots will come out well. Part of the attraction of a fireworks display is the unpredictability of what will happen, so don't stress it. You can delete all your rejects later and no one will be the wiser. Just keep focused on what is happening in the moment and go with it. Do the best you can, and you may just surprise yourself. At its heart, fireworks photography is a "learn as you go" sort of thing.
Above all, approach your mission to photograph fireworks with a sense of adventure and wonderment. After getting comfortable with the basics, try experimenting a little. Have some fun. That's why you're there, now isn't it?