A few days back I was out taking some pictures of the New Years fireworks in London and was struck by how difficult it can be to take pictures of fireworks. So I thought I would put together a few basic pointers on how to do this so you don’t run into the same challenges I’ve had in the past.
- Starting with the basics – aperture and ISO. Aperture should be set around f/8. This will ensure that you’re getting focus throughout a wide plane (the fireworks will be at varying depths of field depending on where you’re standing). The ISO should be set low – I prefer 100 but you could do 200. If you go much higher than this you will not only add noise to your photo but you’ll also make your camera too sensitive to light. It will prevent you from leaving the shutter open long enough to get the light streams that make a fireworks photo worth taking.
- To set the aperture and ISO you’d think you’d want to shoot in Aperture Priority mode, but this isn’t true either. The problem with shooting fireworks is that each one is different – yes they all tend to be bright and shiny but some “explode” larger than others or are simply brighter. So the best way to setup your camera is in “Bulb” mode. This mode allows you to lock down the aperture and ISO settings while giving you freedom during the shot to decide how long to keep the shutter open. You can play with this at home prior to going out – holding down the shutter button keeps the shutter open, when you release it it closes. The bulb setting is generally a part of “Manual” where you set the shutter speed to > 30 seconds. However my camera, and I’m sure others, actually have a specific setting for it.
- Focus is another story altogether. I tend to like a manual focus; I may turn this on after the first series of fireworks (where I would use the autofocus function) to ensure that the camera knows where the action is happening. After establishing focus, I then switch to manual and try not to change it again (as long as I’m shooting in the same location and with the same zoom setting of course). If you keep the camera on autofocus, it will sometimes track if you start shooting while the rocket is in the air and your pictures will turn out blurry. And if your aperture is set as recommended above, your focal plane will be large enough so that the focus won’t be so critically important.
- Now – when to take the shot. I take the shot when the sky is clear (probably smoky though) and when you get the sense that a new rocket has been fired (sometimes you can see them, sometimes you can’t). Since we’re shooting in bulb mode, you’re holding down the shutter until the firework goes off and blooms outwards. Release the shutter button when you think it’s right and take a look at the photo. Average shutter times should be anywhere from 3-7 seconds (my experience, although yours may differ). It’s truly a game of trial and error, and like everything else practice makes perfect.
- Some other general tidbits and points of advice – I’m often surprised at how often I require a wide angle lens to take good photos of fireworks. So make sure you have one in your bag but again this depends entirely on where you are in comparison to the fireworks display. I would recommend a remote shutter release (cabled or not) for hitting the shutter button. You’ll have the camera mounted on a tripod and when you actually touch the tripod and the shutter release button you’re more likely to move it than you think. You can get a cheap shutter release from Amazon that will easily do the trick. I would also recommend a flashlight or a headlamp – depending on how familiar you are with your camera’s controls it can sometimes be a bit tricky to get everything setup and make any adjustments while you’re shooting photos. And one final point – I think some of my best fireworks photos have silhouettes in them. They seem to bring a sense of scale to the photo that is otherwise lost.
- Last but not least is post processing. I take all my photos in RAW and import to Lightroom. Once there I tend to do a few basic things to all the photos – I adjust exposure (for me this is usually making the blacks darker by pulling the exposure down a bit). I also tend to bump the clarity up a bit and I always increase the contrast (“strong contrast”) in Lightroom. This can also be done with a Levels adjustment in Photoshop – this can work wonders for clearing out some of the smoke that sometimes accompanies the photos. Finally depending on the color you can increase the vibrancy and saturation if required.
I hope these brief tips help you in taking some better fireworks photos the next time you have the opportunity to take them. So whether it’s the fourth of July, Guy Fawkes day or another New Years, you now have a little bit more information on how to take some better fireworks photos in the future! Best of luck!