HOW TO… Photograph Fireworks

Focal Length = 20.1mm, Shooting Mode = Night Scene Mode
Shutter Speed = 3 sec., Aperture = F4.7, ISO = 80

A good fireworks picture can be one of the most spectacular picture you take, and the opportunity comes only a couple of times a year. Taking good fireworks pictures is not too difficult and you don’t need an expensive digital camera to do so — but there are a few pointers to keep in mind. As far as equipment is concerned, you need a tripod and a DSLR or a camera with manual mode is preferable, though I took all the fireworks pictures in this tutorial using a point-and-shoot digital camera. I will explain how to take the fireworks photos using a DSLR first, then explain how I used my P&S to do so.

Use the Fireworks Scene Mode
Many digital cameras now come with a Fireworks scene mode. What this scene mode does is keep the shutter open for about 3 to 4 seconds — just long enough for you to capture an upward trail, a burst and the falling sparks. Experiment with this scene mode to see if it fits your needs. I actually used the Night scene mode for the pictures in this tutorial.

I usually find that, to capture spectacular fireworks display, you need to switch your digital camera to manual mode, and this is what we will cover in this tutorial. Understanding how the shutter speed and aperture on your camera affect what gets recorded will enable you to capture some spectacular fireworks photos just the way you like them.

Select A Long Enough Shutter Speed
First, your camera must be able to keep the shutter open for a few (3 or more) seconds of exposure. Some people like to capture both the burst as well as the luminous sparks created by the falling burning particles. I usually avoid recording the upward trail that goes from the ground up into the sky since I find it distracting, but some people like to record it. I also avoid recording the burst itself since it is usually so bright that it causes an overexposure and results in a bright blob of light.

Switch your camera to Manual shooting mode and set the Shutter Speed to Bulb. When set to Bulb, the shutter will remain open as long as you keep the shutter release button pressed down — and close when you release the shutter release button.

If you like to record the trail, open the shutter as soon as a fireworks leave the ground, otherwise open the shutter only when the fireworks explodes (or just after the explosion). Keep the shutter open during the whole time and close it when the sparks start to fade. If you are taking only one burst, then you’re done.

If you want to take multiple bursts on the same frame, just put the lens cap (or simply a thick cardboard or even your hand) on top of the lens (be careful not to touch the lens and leave smudge marks). Then take the cap off for the next burst and continue this cap on/cap off process until you are satisfied that you have recorded enough bursts. You don’t want too many bursts and you want them at different points in the scene. Three bursts distributed at different parts of the scene are usually a good number. This means that you wait and choose to record only when a fireworks explosion occurs in the part of the scene you want.

Include Landmarks
It’s a good idea to include foreground and/or background buildings or other landmarks to situate the scene. A picture with just exploding fireworks isn’t that interesting, so include some recognizable landmarks (building, tower, bridge). However, you do want to avoid anything with strong lighting since leaving the shutter open for too long may cause the building to be overexposed.

TIP: to ensure correct exposure all around, take a test picture(s) of the lighted building first to see how many seconds it needs for correct exposure — and then restrict your actual fireworks capture to that length of time.

For example, if your tests show that the building needs 5 seconds for correct exposure, then open your shutter for the first fireworks burst, then cover the lens. Say, that took 3 seconds. It means you have two more seconds you can use to expose the next burst. In this way, you have 2 fireworks bursts and a foreground building or landmark — all correctly exposed. If you are taking only one burst, then just leave the shutter open for a full 5 seconds to ensure the building is correctly exposed.

Two bursts
Focal Length = 20.1mm, Shooting Mode = Night Scene Mode
Shutter Speed = 3 sec., Aperture = F4.7, ISO = 80
Notice that I did not include the trail and the explosion is overexposed

Aperture Decides Trail Thickness
The aperture you use determine the thickness of the trails. A small aperture (such as F8) will record thin trails, whereas a large aperture (such as F2.8) will record thick trails.

Whether to record the trails as thin or thick is a matter of personal preference. I personally find thin trails more appealing and find the thick trails take too much attention away from the burst itself. Using a small aperture also allows me to use a longer shutter speed and thus record multiple bursts.

If your digital camera does not have very slow shutter speeds, or shoots only in Program AE mode, it will be a bit more challenging to select a small aperture. The aperture used would most probably be F2.8 resulting in thick lines. Remember that on most lenses, the aperture gets smaller as you zoom in, so by carefully zooming in and recomposing your scene, you may get thin lines.

Focal Length = 20.1mm, Shooting Mode = Night Scene Mode
Shutter Speed = 3 sec., Aperture = F4.7, ISO = 80

Using A Point-and-Shoot Camera
If you do not have Bulb setting, then switch to Manual, or Shutter-Speed, or Aperture-Priority mode. If you have a Point-and-Shoot digital camera, it will usually not have any of those modes, but will usually have Fireworks scene mode, Night Scene mode, or Slow Shutter scene mode. Choose any mode that will give you a shutter speed of 3 seconds or more.

For the fireworks images in this tutorial, I set my point-and-shoot digital camera to Night Scene mode which gives me a shutter speed of 3 seconds. I zoom in a bit and that restricts the aperture to F4.7. I also set the ISO to 80 (the lowest on that particular camera) to prevent overexposure when using long shutter speeds.

Select An Interesting Location
A good location will allow you to capture spectacular fireworks display. We were at Disney and found that being on the ground and framing the Cinderella Castle gave a beautiful composition. But there was a problem: too many people! The crowd that also gathered to watch the fireworks continually jostled us and the view was often blocked by people walking in front of the camera.

Staking a position on higher ground meant coming early — as much as one or even two hours before the fireworks started. That did not seem appealing. Fortunately, we stayed at the Contemporary Resort. I had earlier on arrival asked for a room that faced the Magic Kingdom [you need to ask for it or your room will face the lake or garden]. We got one on the 7th floor but unfortunately, because of the angle of the tower, I was not able to include the beautiful Cinderella Castle in the shots. So I included the Space Mountain instead.

Focal Length = 20.1mm, Shooting Mode = Night Scene (Standard)
Shutter Speed = 3 sec., Aperture = F4.7, ISO = 80
Notice how, by avoiding recoring the trail and explosion, I end up with the beautiful falling sparks only
Fireworks from 3 different shots combined into one in Photoshop

Fireworks Photography Tips

  1. You’ll be using very slow shutter speeds, so camera shake is going to be a major problem. Handholding your camera will guarantee trails that look amateurishly shaky. So, use a tripod. If you need your camera to reach over a balcony railing or other obstacle, remember that with most tripods you can also extend the middle pole for added height (though extending the pole too high might compromise the stability). If your camera has built-in image stabilization, you will need to turn it off when using a tripod.
  2. If your camera allows it, you can use a release cable or remote controller to further reduce camera shake. Not having either on my P&S, I resort to using the self-timer though it’s tricky to capture the bursts just when you want to. I found that a 2-second self-timer allows you to press the shutter release button on the camera just as the fireworks soar into the sky and start recording just after it explodes with the falling sparks.
  3. Use a small ISO for the best image quality. Using a large ISO will result in a noisy image. A small ISO will also allow you to use a long shutter speed.
  4. If your lens has manual focus, set it to infinity. If not, and if you have difficulty focusing in the dark, then point the camera at some lighted object far away and half-press the shutter release button to effectively hold the focus at infinity.
  5. A personal preference: I don’t trip the shutter release as soon as the fireworks explode because I find that the extreme brightness of the initial explosion results in overexposure. Instead, I wait for the burst to bloom fully and then open the shutter at that instant so as to catch the bloom and the beautiful falling sparks.
  6. If there are 4 or more bursts in a series, wait for the last couple of bursts in the series. Too many bursts will result in overexposure.
  7. If your camera has a long zoom, then you can fill in the whole area with a single burst. If your camera does not zoom in much, then consider filling the scene with two or more bursts on the same frame using the lens cap to cover the lens between exposures.
  8. No double exposure function or Bulb on your digital camera? Don’t worry, the magic of digital photography allows you to sandwich a number of bursts afterwards in an image editing software, such as Photoshop. You can combine bursts as creatively as you desire, even making some appear smaller or larger to achieve a balanced and pleasing composition. (Just remember to indicate that the final picture is a sandwiched composition — you don’t want to misrepresent it as a single photo now, do you?)
  9. Some of your pictures look blurred when viewed up close? Never mind! If you intend to display for Web only, the blur will not show in small picture sizes and a good montage with different colored explosions can still be a spectacular image that you can personally treasure.
  10. As you can see, an Interchangeable Lens Camera that allows you to use manual mode, long shutter speeds, adjustable aperture, has a wide-angle lens (especially if you are going to be relatively close to the launching point), and has a remote controller is ideal. But if your camera does not have all of those features (as mine did not), don’t let that stop you — you can still take spectacular fireworks shots by following the pointers and tips in this tutorial.
  11. Last, but not least, do not forget fireworks safety.

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