How to Photograph Fireworks

With the 4th of July less than a week away, I thought this would be a good time to write up a short Photography Tip about photographing Fireworks. The only problem, as you will see when you read all of this, is that as I was writing this I kept thinking of more information that I didn’t want to leave out.  So it is not such a short article anymore. But there is a lot of useful information in here, so I hope you enjoy it!

There is almost a week left before the 4th, so there is plenty of time to experiment and get familiar with these settings.  You might even get lucky and find a few rogue fireworks being shot off over the next week that you can try and practice on before the big day.

The number one thing to remember is to enjoy yourself and have fun at the show.

This is geared more toward DLSR cameras because of the control you have over the settings, but other cameras do offer some of the control and ability to set these options also, so you might have to break out the manual (or google how to make the settings on your specific camera).

(Multiple Bursts in one frame)

Location/Framing/Background:
Whether you are interested in getting images of just the fireworks blasts themselves or getting a larger area in your images with more of the surroundings included, it’s a good idea to go to the location early when it is still daylight if possible to find the best location for the type of shots you want to get. If possible, you could even go well before the show starts earlier in the day to scout the location for the best spot then come back later in enough time to guarantee you can get back to that location before it is taken over by others.
You want to make sure nothing will be blocking your view of the fireworks display.  If there are trees around, you may want to include them or eliminate them from your shots, depending on your personal preference, but you want to get there in plenty of time to make that decision yourself instead of being stuck with what you get.
If the display is around some landmark, you may want to try to get that framed into the shot if you can find a suitable location that will allow that.
Water can be fun to try and get reflections of the fireworks, either just shooting into the body of water to get only the reflection, or framing for the water reflection and the actual display together.
It would be a good idea to bring your camera during the early trip so that you can determine how the location will look in your shots later, as well as what lenses and focal length might give you the best shots. If you wait until it is dark to figure that out, you may have a difficult time seeing things on the little screen on the back of the camera that may show up as a problem on your computer later when viewing it larger.
Doing all this work ahead of time will make the experience later much less stressful and more enjoyable. Even if you only make the one trip there, if you get there early enough to find a good location and get set up, you will not have to worry about fumbling around in the dark later.

Tripod:
Using a tripod is very important for this type of photography. You will need to use a longer shutter speed and, without a tripod, you will risk having camera movement cause issues in all your images. A blurred look may be something you are looking for from an artistic standpoint, and if that is the case then go with it, but for nice, sharp images of fireworks displays a tripod is just about a must-have part of the required gear to pull this off.
Fireworks happen over time with movement of the burning particles as well as movement of the charge itself as it is propelled upward before the blast. In order to capture these elements, the shutter will have to be open for a longer period of time. Generally the theory is that any time you leave the shutter open longer than the reciprocal of the focal length (1/focal length), you will have an increased chance of a blurry image due to movement of the camera during the exposure time. I will discuss shutter speed more below in it’s own section, but you will need a tripod in order to avoid the camera movement during the longer exposures needed for fireworks photography.
There are many different types of tripods and tripod heads to consider.  An entire post (or an entire book) would be needed to cover all the choices that are available as well as opinions about why each is better for a given situation/type of photography and videography.  In the future I plan to write a post for that as well as a review of the one I personally use and why I chose it. Basically, you want a tripod that is sturdy enough to handle the weight of your camera/lens combination, and one that will hold things still. Skimping here can be a mistake because a cheap tripod mixed with a heavy DSLR body and large lens can be a recipe for disaster in the worst case if tipping occurs, and in a lesser case would just not hold your equipment steady enough.
Smaller, lighter cameras can be used with a wider variety of tripods due to their light weight.  And the weight of the tripod is not always a good indicator of stability because some materials used in the more expensive tripods are very light weight and provide an extremely stable platform.

Camera:
Using a DSLR camera would be the optimal choice for this type of photography as they will offer the most control over your settings and a greater variety of lens choices, but other camera types will give you good to excellent results as well. The degree of user control of the settings on non-DSLR cameras will vary from model to model. Some point and shoot cameras even have a fireworks setting that you might want to try out.

Vibration Reduction/Image Stabilization:
Nikon calls it VR (Vibration Reduction), Canon calls it IS (Image Stabilization), Sony calls it OSS (Optical Steady Shot)  and  other brands have their own names for it but it all means the same thing.  It is the electronics built into some lenses that attempt to offset camera shake, usually on longer focal lengths in the telephoto range.
This is great for hand-held photos, especially at slower shutter speeds and longer focal lengths where a small amount of movement that could be caused by something as subtle as your heart beating and the resulting pulse through your arms and hands, can be magnified into enough motion blur to be noticeable in the shot.
If you are shooting on a tripod, it is usually recommended by the manufacturers that this option be turned off. The reason is that when there is no vibration and the VR/IS is turned on, there is the possibility that it can introduce some internal lens movement itself.
There are a few lenses out there that have a tripod setting on the VR. If you happen to be using lenses with this option, then you should definitely switch this option on. This feature actually looks for movement/vibration caused by the mirror inside the camera body flipping up out of the way of the sensor during the process of making an exposure (called mirror shake), and corrects for that specifically.
If you do not have a tripod and are attempting to shoot slightly longer exposures hand-held, then you might want to consider leaving this turned on. I have never attempted to shoot fireworks hand-held so I can’t speak from experience as to whether this will be enough to stabilize this kind of shot like that, however if you can find a post or tree or something to steady the camera against, this might also assist in keeping things steady in the shot. If you are not using a tripod, its worth a try if you have it as an option.

Lens:
Lens choice and focal length will vary depending on your personal taste and how you want to frame your photos, as well as the distance you are from the show.
If you are going to be located fairly close and you want to capture as much of the surroundings as possible, then shooting at a wide angle with a focal length of 35mm to 14mm will probably be your best range to work in.
If you are at more of a distance, you can use something in the 50mm up to 200mm or even more, depending on the distance and how much of the scene you want to capture in your shot.
All that comes down to your personal preference at that point. You could be close and use a 200mm lens to zoom in on a portion of an individual blast for an interesting option, or you could be far away at a good vantage point and use an ultra-wide angle lens to get a huge amount of the surrounding area where you might get more than one fireworks display in the same shot if there are several shows going on in your area. I have seen shots like this where you get entire city-scapes with fireworks going off all around that are actually happening in several locations at the same time.
The possibilities are endless.

ISO:
The fireworks are very bright, so there is no reason to set the ISO high. Using ISO 100 or even 50 if your camera is capable of that would be ideal. Your goal here is to reduce the amount of noise in the shot, and when you shoot with a higher ISO, all camera’s sensors introduce more noise in the shots.
There is some argument out there that the “native” ISO is the setting that will provide the least noise.  I know that on Nikon cameras, for the most part, the native ISO is 200.  I personally have not seen a noticeable difference when using 200 or 100. Possibly if you zoom in to the image on a large computer screen and view it at 300% you might find a bit more noise using ISO 100. But in reality, no one ever does that except people who spend their time looking for tiny differences like that – usually engineers that are trying to design the next better image sensor for one of the camera manufacturers.

Aperture:
You will want to set the aperture to somewhere in the range of  f/8 to as much as f/16. The lower the number, the more light you are going to let in to hit the sensor. This is an area where you can fine tune things as you are shooting if you desire.
If you are using ISO 50, then I would start with f/8.  If you are using ISO 100, I would start with f/11, and if you are using ISO 200 then I would start with f/16.

Shutter speed:
This is the important part, and the key to getting interesting fireworks images. This is where you get to let your artistic side come out and play.
Fireworks blasts don’t all happen in a split second. They happen over time and the designs in the sky are caused by the burning particles moving over a distance. So what you have to do in order to catch enough of the blast without missing part of it is to use a long shutter speed. This will be possible now that we have the Aperture and ISO settings dialed in as explained above.
You will have to be in Manual mode on your camera, and there are several options for shooting with the slower shutter speed:

  • Timed long exposure. This is where you choose a time for your shutter to be open. You set the shutter speed manually to at least one second and up to 30 seconds. You will have to play with this to see what you like best. I would suggest starting with a few seconds and waiting until you hear one of the rockets launch and just before it goes off, start the shutter. The you can determine if that was long enough, and adjust from there. You will figure out when to hit the shutter release fairly quickly too, so don’t worry about the timing too much for the first shot or two.
  • Bulb mode is the other option, and the one that I like best. This is usually found on the shutter speed dial somewhere down below the 30 second setting. It will say either “B” or “Bulb”.  The way it works is that you press the shutter button and hold it down, and it will keep the shutter open until you let up on the button. A word of caution here – if you are holding the shutter button down with your finger, there is a possibility that you will cause some camera shake because you are touching the camera the entire time, and this may or may not be noticeable in the images. A remote shutter release is the solution to this problem. Most of the remote releases have a setting for “bulb” or “lock” when you have your shutter set to Bulb mode. Then you can press the remote release button once and it will lock the shutter open until you press the button on the remote release again which will close the shutter and end the exposure. Some of the other ones offer a slide switch that locks the remote release button down until you slide it back, releasing the button on the remote, which ends the exposure. And still other, fancier ones have programmable timers in the remote release that allow you to set a ties release longer than 30 seconds. What you do here is you wait until just before the blast and open the shutter then, when the part of the blast that you want to capture is over, you can release the shutter, ending the exposure. That way you are not holding the shutter open as long after the blast as you would with a times exposure, which will let more of the ambient light in.
  • A more advanced version of the Bulb mode is to do everything described in above, plus take along a black piece of construction paper, a black card, even a hat.  You would then start the exposure and lock the shutter open but you would cover the lens with the black card or hat (careful not to shake the camera much) and when you see that it is time to capture some fireworks action, you simply remove the covering, exposing the sensor to the scene, then when the part is over that you want to capture, just cover the lens again. The fun part about this is that you can then wait for the next one, and you can repeat and end up with several blasts in the same image, which can really look awesome.

Flash:
I wanted to briefly mention flash here because it is not needed.  It won’t help the exposure of the fireworks because it won’t reach that far anyway, plus the light coming from the fireworks would never be affected by flash because it is very bright itself.
Flash could also make your camera think it can take a fast exposure depending on what mode you are shooting it – you don’t want that.
Also flash can get annoying to the other people around you trying to enjoy the show.

Focusing:
Fireworks are usually photographed from a significant distance and the individual fireworks explosions vary in their distance from your camera. They happen quickly, so focusing on each one individually is not going to work. Luckily the distance that you are from them will work in your favor. The Depth Of Field ( the distance from front to back of your shot that is actually in focus) becomes longer the further away you get from your subject. This, combined with the use of a smaller aperture (bigger number) work together in making for an even longer area that is in focus.
There are several options for focusing on fireworks displays.

  • One option is to set up your equipment and get your shot framed then wait for the initial fireworks to go off. When you hear the first ones being launched, be ready and when they explode, you can focus on them to set the focus, then turn off the auto-focus and and shoot the rest of the show with that setting.
  • A similar option would be to get all set up and focus on something that is at approximately the same distance from you that the fireworks will be. This can be difficult because you may not know exactly where the fireworks will be, and there may be some additional compensation to the distance based on the height of the explosion, especially if you are located closer to the action.
  • Another option is to set the focus to infinity. There is usually a window or a mark on your lens that indicates infinity. Put your lens into manual focus mode and twist the focus ring until the indicator points to the infinity mark.
  • An option that will probably be a bit confusing is to set the focus to the Hyperfocal Distance. This one is complicated and requires math or a chart or possibly an app. It is based on the focal length of your lens, your aperture,  and a few other factors. You can look it up before you go out to the show and get all set up if you are shooting at a certain focal length and aperture. It works best on a wide angle lens. Hyperfocal Distance focusing places everything from a certain distance away (usually less than 10 feet) to infinity in acceptable focus. One other problem associated with this method is that newer zoom lenses and some primes do not tend to have the marks on them to allow you to focus at certain distances. In this case you would have to measure off a distance or approximate it and focus on something at that distance.  For example, I shoot with a Nikon D3 DSLR Camera body. If I am shooting at 35mm and my aperture is f/16, the Hyperfocal Distance is 8.49 feet. I would set my focus to 8.49 feet (or close to that) and everything from about 7.5 feet all the way to infinity would be in focus.  Here is a link to an on-line calculator that shows the Hyperfocal Distance called DOF Master. (It is also useful in determining how far your depth of field extends for narrow DOF situations.)
  • One less complicated method that I see used pretty often for landscape photography is to focus approximately 1/3 of the way into the scene. To do this, you would evaluate the distance of the entire scene you are framing  for your shot, and then find something that is approximately 1/3 of the way into that distance, then focus on that. Then turn off the auto-focus and make your shots using that focus setting.

Once you have used any of these methods to focus your camera, be careful not to move the manual focus from that point or your shots will no longer be in focus. Some photographers will use gaff tape to actually lock the lens down once they get their focus set so they do not accidentally change it.  Gaff tape is common to the photography and video worlds and does not leave residue when you remove it and it is quite strong. It is usually black. Every photographer should keep a roll of it handy. It has lots of uses.

Flashlight:
Consider bringing a small flashlight that you can use to see when making adjustments to your camera’s settings after it gets dark. If you are very familiar with your camera buttons and dials, you may be able to make some adjustments without needing to see, however there will probably still be some external adjustment that you would end up needing a light to see anyway. At least that would be my luck.
Another option is that you may have a flashlight app on your phone that you could use, but the light from the face of the phone will likely not be bright enough. I know mine is definitely not!

Batteries:
You will want to have your camera’s battery fully charged and if you have a spare battery, bring that along and don’t forget to charge it too.
Shooting with long exposures will use your battery’s charge faster than normal. You don’t want to start out with a low battery and have a dead battery toward the end of the show when they usually have a large, spectacular ending that you might miss.
Also, some tripods accept “L” shaped brackets that allow you to mount the camera in landscape (horizontal) as well as Portrait (vertical) orientation. Some of these brackets will block the battery door when installed.  If your’s does this, you might want to bring along any special tools that you may need to remove the bracket in the event that you need to swap to a spare battery.

Memory Cards:
Make sure you offload old images and format you memory card in advance. You don’t want to have to worry about whether you have already made copies of the images that are on your card, or be bothered with trying to go through them deleting ones you may not want at the last minute when fireworks are exploding and you are missing the show.  Formatting a card on the spot can cause you to miss a shot or several.  Taking care of all that in advance of heading out to the show will keep you from having to worry about all that and make for a more enjoyable experience.
If you have spare cards bring them along also. You don’t want to run out of space and miss anything. Also remember to take care of offloading images and formatting the spare cards in advance too. It’s never fun to swap in a different memory card and realize it’s full or close to full and have to deal with that while you are missing the show.

(Reflections in the Water with some of the surrounding area visible)

Remember, the primary goal is to have fun, and hopefully you will come away with some awesome shots too!