Fireworks Photography

Fireworks Photography and other thoughts on long exposures.

As I write this column Independence Day is right around the corner, so naturally I’m getting plenty of questions about fireworks photography.  Therefore; it must be time for me to talk about this subject again so you’ll be ready to get out and shoot, or review what you’ve shot with a little more background information.  I’ve decided to offer this topic up as a list of discussions for each point that you should be concerned with.

  1. Fireworks are bright, and since that’s our subject; we don’t need to use a “bright lens” or high ISO to capture this subject.  The fact is that our subject is providing plenty of light for us to get a good exposure from, so we want to keep our ISO down as low as possible to maintain high-quality images.  On my cameras I have the option to use 100 or even 50 ISO and that’s where I like to shoot fireworks.
  2. Because the fireworks are the principal light source that we are concerned with; our exact exposure will vary depending upon how far away the fireworks are from our shooting location.  If you are very close to the explosions you might want to shoot with a very small aperture like f/22 or f/16, but as you move further away you may want to use something more open like f/5.6 or f/8.  In this you must remember that light diffuses over distance, so the further you are from the light source (in this case: fireworks) the less light you have hitting your sensor.
  3. Fireworks are launched from the ground and then spend some time climbing to altitude before exploding into whatever design they create.  In many cases those launches are accompanied streams of colored sparks that are an intended part of the show, and therefore a part of what we want to capture.  If you count in seconds how long it takes for one mortar to be launched and completely burn out after explosion, you will have a good idea how long your exposure should be.  In summary, this is a moving target and you will want to record it for a long period of time to capture it all.
  4. Refer to point #3 and don’t forget to bring your tripod.  We are talking about exposure that might be 2 seconds and might be as much as 12-15 seconds, so you’ll want a nice sturdy tripod to keep the camera still. 
  5. Use a cable release or remote shutter release to prevent camera shake by pressing the shutter release button on the camera.
  6. Turn the auto-focus off and focus the lens at infinity.
  7. Set the white balance to daylight. Auto white balance will ruin your images by taking away all of the color that you’re trying to capture.
  8. Don’t let the smoke get in your eyes.  If you’re getting smoke in your eyes, which means the smoke is in between you and the subject (the fireworks) and you won’t have very good results.  It’s best that you check the weather before you head out to determine wind direction and speed.  Then when you get there make sure the wind is at your back so the smoke is blowing away from you and behind the fireworks.  Ok, it would be ok for the smoke to be blowing off to the side of the fireworks too, but sometimes the smoke provides a nice background for the sparkling bursts.
  9. Use the landscape and skyline of the city (if you’re in a city) to your advantage by making it a part of your composition.  Familiar places or landmarks can help viewers identify where the images were taken and add interest for anyone familiar with the scene.  Lakes and rivers (or any other body of water) can be really great for capturing reflections of the fireworks too.  Don’t be afraid to let something of significance to be in the foreground too (like the bridge sculptures in the photos I’ve included here). 
  10. Unless you have something near the camera in the foreground that is a part of your desired image, TURN YOUR FLASH OFF.  The flash can be handy to provide fill for the foreground if you have a subject (like your kids watching the show) in between you and the fireworks show.  Otherwise you’re just wasting battery and annoying everyone nearby who’s trying to enjoy the show.  It should be needless for me to mention that you will be shooting in Manual mode and therefore the flash should not come on automatically.

 As a simple starting point I usually set my camera to f/8 @ 8 seconds on ISO 100 with the white balance on daylight.  From there I’ll adjust my f/stop or shutter speed depending on my location and the type of fireworks in the show.  I will also consider how much ambient light I have in the scene and how much of the scene I care to include in the final image.


Photo Seminars by Jeff Cowell© 2010 Jeff Cowell, jrcowell.com

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~ by jrcowell on July 1, 2010.

3 Responses to “Fireworks Photography”

  1. Thanks so much for posting this tutorial on shooting fireworks. You did a great job on the step by step instructions. Everything is clear and to the point, that’s what I enjoy about your photography classes. I’m looking forward to using your tips to capture some fireworks.

  2. Some images posted by one of my students:

    http://www.chadholtphotography.com/p530510913#h7eb9062

  3. Tks Jeff for the tips. Now if the weather holds out we’ll try it.

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