How To Photograph a Fireworks Display

Judging from the tutorials I’ve seen, you’d be forgiven for thinking you need a postgraduate diploma in photography and $10,000 worth of equipment to capture a simple fireworks display. I’m going to apply some MakeUseOf logic and say that’s not true, provided you follow a few basic rules and are happy to experiment.

While July 4 has passed for another year, there are plenty of other opportunities to catch fireworks around the globe in 2013 and beyond. With a few pointers, it’s possible to capture more than a few out of focus squiggles and digital grain.

Here are my top tips for getting the most out of your camera during a firework display.

Adapt for Conditions

In most situations, a photographer will have to focus and expose for a subject, such as a person or building. This subject must be bathed in light, in perfect focus and follow some sort of aesthetically pleasing composition. Well, you can forget all of that when it comes to fireworks.

At a fireworks display, light isn’t just a factor, it’s your subject. You won’t be carefully focusing on a nearby object but a distant flare that won’t necessarily be there while you set-up your shot. Fireworks themselves are fleeting, varied and changeable. Light intensity, colour and spread change in a matter of seconds – no two displays are the same, and no two exposures are the same either.

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This is great, because it can often afford you some spectacularly unexpected results. But in order to do that you’ll need to leave the point and shoot approach at home and be prepared to experiment. If you haven’t yet, it’s time to graduate beyond your camera’s automatic settings. Oh, and please, please, please: shoot RAW. You’ll be able to do so much more with your photos afterwards.

Focus, Shutter & ISO

Assuming you are shooting with a digital SLR or prosumer that offers you a high degree of control over the manual settings on your camera, you will need to pay particularly close attention to your focus, shutter and ISO settings. Most firework displays, at least the large ones, take place at a fair distance from the crowd. This means you’ll get best results by focusing for infinity on your camera. You can easily achieve this by enabling manual focus, and then exposing for maximum distance.

Shutter speed plays a huge role here. If the shutter isn’t open for long enough, your scene will be too dark and won’t capture enough light. In the same way a long exposure works by “burning” light into an image in lines, fireworks can be used in a similar way to create striking trails as the pyrotechnics play out, just like in the image below.

If your camera has a shutter priority mode, use it to set a slow shutter speed. A speed of half a second and slower will provide interesting results, so experiment. The image below is the result of around 13 minutes of exposure at Disneyland, hence the brilliant lines and smooth curves. Shooting full manual also works, just set a wide aperture (low f-stop number) of around f/3.5 – 5.

Last of all, the ISO setting you choose dictates how grainy the overall image will be. Seeing as fireworks displays take place at night, a camera in Auto mode would automatically choose the highest, grainiest ISO to capture as much light as possible. You can override this and choose something a little less extreme. Experimentation is key, but a wide aperture and long shutter speed should negate the need to take your ISO beyond 400-800 in most cases.

Then again, don’t resist the urge to turn it up if your results are disappointingly dark.

Bring A Tripod

If you want good-looking fireworks photos, you’ll need a stable base from which to shoot. Fireworks leave largely straight, sleek curves and lines as they travel and explode, and squiggles aren’t a very welcome addition. Do the right thing and bring a tripod. A monopod or makeshift leaning surface may also suffice – the whole world can be a tripod with a bit of persistence.

The straight lines seen in the photo above would not have been possible shooting handheld (though the image does appear to have been “mirrored” to achieve that perfect symmetry in post-processing too). No amount of Photoshop would have made up for a handheld, shaky exposure though which would have resulted in a blurry mess. You don’t necessarily require an expensive professional tripod for these results, just something steady to lean on for the duration of the exposure.

Listen to Your Camera

While you can prepare for certain conditions, you’ll also find there are other factors that you can’t prepare for. Fireworks displays generate smoke, which can really throw-off your exposure settings as light reflects. In this instance, you’ll need to experiment and use the results on your camera’s screen to judge your technique. You can do this using the simple image review method: does the image look good, is it exposed correctly, are there any blown-out or underexposed details?

The other way of doing this is by learning to use your camera’s histogram. While the historam is likely to read more on the dark side during a fireworks display, it is still the most accurate method of reviewing a picture that’s still on your camera. LCD screens vary massively when it comes to accurately display colour and exposure, and shouldn’t be trusted when it comes to the finer details.

Rock Up Early & Pick A Spot

Where you choose to shoot from can make all the difference. If you’re stuck at the back of a crowd, you might catch a few hands or heads in your shots, and you’re bound to miss out on “the view”. Simply put, many fireworks displays are designed to make the most of the town, vista or water scene they take place in front of. For the best results, try and incorporate your surroundings into the shot.

Wide-angle lenses are great for this, and if you can capture a whole firework’s trail from the ground to its explosion, just like the photo above which makes wonderful use of the lake reflection, then you’ve probably got something the local paper will happily pay you for.

Picking your spot is important mainly because firework displays don’t last all that long. Once the barrage begins, you may only have about 10 minutes actual shooting time. Don’t waste the moment by moving around – make the most of the display instead.

If the fireworks display happens to be particularly major – say a New Year’s eve display in a large city – you might not need to move far to get some particularly impressive results. Take the photo above, taken in Sydney to usher in the new year. Using a telephoto lens with a long focal length from such a distance is a great way of making the background (and fireworks) appear closer.

Don’t Just Look Up

Is it me, or are the fireworks not the be-all and end-all? I remember from the many Guy Fawkes bonfires I experienced growing up in Britain, as well as the more recent Australia Day celebrations I’ve experienced down under that there’s more to fireworks than explosions in the sky.

The atmosphere of a display, the reactions of the crowd, the laughter, food and sparklers – don’t forget to look around you too. Fireworks aren’t just a focal point, they are often the culmination of an event. Don’t get caught up in the technicalities of shooting gunpowder and magnesium and miss some of the more human aspects of celebration.

Image credits: Heart of Satan (Trey Ratcliffe), Daily Disney (Joe Penniston), Fourth on Lake Austin (Trey Ratcliffe), Sydney New Year’s (*vlad*), She Found Herself… (Lotus Carroll), Blue Fireworks (Tambako), Beach Couple Fireworks (Neven Mrgan)

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