With 4th July approaching quickly and a summer of outdoor events ahead of us there will be lots of opportunity to photograph fireworks.
With a little preparation you can set yourself up for some lovely shots during the evening, whether it’s a ten minute display at your local park or a world class boom buster.
I keep it simple in terms of the kit I take out for fireworks. In the dark it’s not so easy to rummage in a large bag so I stick to a few items that I can keep in my pockets.
Remote: I use a wireless remote and have a tethered remote as back up. I use them so that I don’t jog the camera with my hands and also to get a fast shutter reaction.
ND Filter: I tend to bring an ND filter along as an option.
Mini torch: Invariably I’ll need to check something on my camera and a small torch is invaluable. I also use it to test my exposure before the fireworks get going.
Spare battery and fingerless gloves: both very important on a cold night!
Tripod & fluid head: My tripod is from the Manfrotto 055 series, I’ve been shooting with it for a few years and I love it. I tend to use my fluid video head for fireworks as it allows me to tilt the camera up and down quickly and smoothly. A 3-way head will be better if you want portrait and landscape images.
Camera & lens: I shoot with a full frame Canon 6D and will take either a 24mm or 35mm to fireworks displays. A zoom can work well for fireworks as you can get in close or come out wide without moving your tripod.
1. Use a remote or delay.
To get a sharp image you don’t want any motion from the camera. A sturdy tripod (or weighted-down tripod) gives you a good base but if your finger on the shutter makes movement it can ruin the shot.
If you can’t shoot with a remote then add a two second delay to your shutter so you can click and move back.
2. Shooting fireworks handheld.
While I wouldn’t recommend shooting handheld it is possible. This image was taken during the surprise fireworks at my cousin’s wedding. My tripod was in the car and I had no option but to hold the camera.
I got myself onto a stable base of a bench to eliminate my body movements, kept my elbows in close and held my breath during each exposure. The exposure on this shot is 3.2 seconds; you can see the figures in the foreground have a lot of movement but the fireworks have come out well.
3. Shooting fireworks with Neutral Density filters.
An ND or neutral density filter limits the amount of light coming into your camera. This allows you to take longer exposures of the display. Long exposures give you lovely light trails across the sky. Using an ND filter can work particularly well for displays which cover large parts of the sky.
You can comfortably set your exposure anywhere from 30 seconds up to a couple of minutes depending on the strength of the filter.
4. Your position.
Where you stand is worth planning in advance. If you can visit the location beforehand so much the better.
In general you want to be away from the detonation site to give yourself room in the frame to capture the whole firework. Check wind direction and consider being upwind of the fireworks – smoke from the explosions blowing towards you can wreck your photos as you see in this image.
If it’s possible to get an elevated or hillside spot which allows you to shoot over the heads of the crowd take it. Simply adjust your tripod legs and use the spirit level to compensate for the uneven ground.
5. Choosing your settings.
I do a few tests with a torch before the show gets going so that I know I’m in the right ball park. I’ll then keep an eye on the images as they show up after a shot and adjust as needed. Most often it’s the shutter that I’ll change over the display depending on what is going off.
ISO: I set my ISO between 200 and 500, my camera performs well in low light so I don’t get a lot of noise at these settings. If your camera is quite grainy in the dark keep the ISO at 100.
Aperture: I like to set my aperture upwards of 12 in general. On the other hand, using a wider aperture can give you some incredible bokeh effects.
Shutter speed: All of the shots in this post were taken with shutter speeds of 10 – 30 seconds with the exception of the handheld shot. A long shutter allows a few fireworks to go off and you get this lovely layering effect.
Focus: I have my focus on manual and will have it on infinity at the beginning of the show. Once I can see the first couple of images I then adjust if needed. Adjusting your focus during a long exposure creates an interesting effect.
6. Composition & anticipation of the shot.
Having an idea of how you want to compose images before you go out is a really useful bit of prep. It allows you to change what you’re doing in the moment with the bigger picture in mind. Taking some time to explore firework images can give you inspiration.
Some ideas to consider are: Using wide shots to show scale, having a landmark in the foreground, using reflections, using a flash to illuminate the crowd / one person during a long exposure.
Anticipation of the shot is everything, a microsecond too long and you might miss the initial explosion. If you’re using a shutter delay you need to be a couple of seconds ahead of the game. With long exposures you can add a few seconds to the shutter and release it as you hear the firework launch, the seconds of dark sky won’t affect your final image and you’ll get the explosion in the bag.
Firework photography is incredibly fun and I find it a real stretch of my creativity. Good luck capturing the explosive joy of good display.
Kat Molesworth is a Photographer and lifelong camera enthusiast. She works for a range of commercial and private clients and teaches photography workshops in the UK.
Kat is also Director of Blogtacular, the conference for creative bloggers. You can find her on Instagram as @thatkat and she writes her personal blog at Housewife Confidential.