Editor’s note: This is a reprint article, extracted from our Fireworks Tutorial.Shooting great fireworks photos is possible whether your camera is a point-and-shoot (as mine was) or an Interchangeable Lens Camera (mirrorless or DSLR). The important thing is that you need to be able to select a long shutter speed, an aperture and ISO. Here is what I did with a simple point-and-shoot camera to take great fireworks photos.
Pictures of only the fireworks are not as interesting as those that include some kind of recognizable buildings, scenery and other interesting elements. These could be a skyline, a famous landmark, silhouettes of people, etc.
Therefore, if it’s possible, it’s smart to scout the area ahead of time to find the right perspective and a composition that you like. You need an interesting foreground and/or background, and, of course, lots of unobstructed sky above.
You do not want to be too close to the fireworks display because the explosion can be so bright that it will result in a big overexposed blob of light.
As you scout for a proper location, bear in mind that even though the place may be empty now, it will probably have lots of people standing in front of you when the event starts, perhaps obscuring the scene you have so carefully composed earlier. So, select some kind of higher ground to provide yourself a clear view.
I shot the above picture from a hotel balcony.
- With fireworks photography, long exposures (3+ seconds) are common, and so a tripod may be needed, though you may also rest the camera on a solid surface. Some cameras now have very efficient image stabilization that may allow you to handhold them during a long exposure.
- A small flashlight (or your cellphone with the flashlight app) can help you see in the dark to experiment and change settings on your camera.
- Lens cap, a card or hat/cap to hold in front of your camera lens (when the shutter is open and you are waiting for the next explosion to occur). Or, do as many of us do: Use your hand. (However, be careful not touch the glass element of your lens or that will leave an oily smudge). If you are using a lens cap, do not snap the cap back in place (for that will cause camera shake); just hold it in front of the lens without touching it.
Shutter Speed/Scene Mode
If you are using a smart phone, you are quite restricted in the settings that you can adjust, and so a smartphone is not the best camera to use. If you are using a point-and-shoot camera, chances are there will be a Fireworks Scene Mode or other long shutter speed scene mode that you can use. What you want is a shutter speed of about 3-4 seconds.
With an Interchangeable Lens Camera (mirrorless or DSLR), you have more options in choosing shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
You will want to choose the lowest ISO available for the best image quality. This will also give you a longer shutter speed to record more than one fireworks explosion (using the “cover lens with hand” technique).
Aperture: Fat or Thin Trails?
One important choice is whether you like to capture the trail and whether you prefer the trail to be fat or thin.
Use a large (e.g., f/2.8) aperture for a fat trail.
Use a small aperture (e.g., f/8) for a thin trail.
Skip the Trails
Sometimes, I prefer to leave the trail out of my fireworks picture and capture only the shimmering colors after the explosion.
To achieve this effect, let the firework rise into the sky, and wait just a second or so after the explosion. Then open the shutter (or, if you are using Bulb or Time mode, uncover the lens cap) to capture the fully-bloomed display — and the beautiful falling sparks.
In the above photo, I skipped the trail, waiting for the explosion to bloom before triggering the shutter.
Remember that when you include a faraway building in your picture, you should focus on the building. If the building is brightly lighted, a 4-second exposure might overexpose it, so you would want to take two pictures in this case: 1) scene correctly exposed for the building, but no fireworks; 2) same scene exposed for the fireworks, letting the building go overexposed. Then, in post-processing, you can combine the two pictures, masking out the overexposed building with the correctly-exposed building. This is what I did in the picture above.
There you go. Just follow these simple tips and you should have great fireworks photos.
Read more tips in our Fireworks Tutorial.