It’s that time of year again! Summer! That means it’s the season of one of my favorite photography subjects. Fireworks. In my part of the world, Door County, Wisconsin, we get plenty of opportunities to watch fireworks throughout the summer. Especially 4th of July week since there are no fewer than 5 shows to choose from. Fireworks photography is really fun and the images you can get from a good show can be really great. Getting goo images out of your fireworks photography isn’t straight forward. You can’t get point your camera at the sky and get those awesome shots you see on Facebook or Instagram. You have a few things you need to keep in mind.
I wrote the tips below to help you get some cool shots from any fireworks show.
10 Fireworks Photography Tips
1. Find a good foreground
The most important part of any photograph is a subject to hold a viewers interest. Fireworks are a great subject by themselves, no doubt about that! However, including an interesting foreground can give your photo a sense of place and make a cool fireworks photo even more interesting. Pretty much anything can be included in your composition to be a good foreground interest. You can use spectators watching the fireworks, the beach, boats, anything. In the shot below I included the famous sign at the Egg Harbor marina. So I have some fireworks in the background, which would have been cool by themselves, but the sign really sets this photo apart.
2. Watch for the smoke. Position yourself upwind.
In order to get the most out of your fireworks show, you’re going to have to put yourself upwind from where the fireworks are launching. This is because there will be smoke from the show that will fill the sky. If you are downwind, the smoke will be moving towards you and get in the way of you and the fireworks and mess up your shots. If you are upwind, the smoke will move away from you and you will get clean shots throughout the show.
In the image below from Autumnfest in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin I was unable to position my self directly upwind because of the water. The wind was at least washing the smoke to the right of the frame and I could get clean shots of the fireworks
3. Get your shots fast. The best shots will be right when the show starts.
Even if you are upwind, the best shots from the show will be right away. The first few bursts will always give you the best pictures. This is again because of the smoke. Sometimes the smoke looks cool but in general fireworks shots in a clean smoke-less sky look the best.
4. Steady your camera. Use a tripod and a remote shutter.
Since fireworks photography is night photography, you will need a tripod. Your shutter speed will be way too long to rely on hand holding your camera.
In addition to a tripod, you’ll need a way to remotely trigger your camera’s shutter. You can use an infrared or cable remote shutter release or an intervalometer. I just use a cheap intervalometer since it can be used as a simple shutter release. These can be found on Amazon for around $20. I guess you could use your camera’s self-timer if you are in a bind, but it will be difficult to time your shots with the launching of the fireworks.
5. Get your settings right before the show starts.
Fireworks photography is night photography, and night photography can by tricky. Add the fact that fireworks shows go pretty fast and light is all over the place, and it can be difficult to get your exposure right. So you need to get everything set up before the show starts.
You will need to experiment. Start at f/8 and ISO 1600. Your shutter speed will vary since you are using a remote (explained below). But to test your exposure, set your shutter speed to about 0.5 seconds to about 4 seconds.
(My typical fireworks photos are all around 1-3 seconds.)
Now take a shot. How does it look? If the photo’s exposure is off, simply adjust your ISO or aperture so get the right exposure.
Keep making test shots every couple minutes until the show starts. Since daylight is fading and light is changing, you can’t rely on your first test exposure you took 20 minutes before the show. The closer you are to show time when you make test exposures, the better you’ll be when the show begins.
6. Set camera to bulb mode.
Now that your exposure is good, you need to adjust your shutter speed until you are in bulb mode (refer to your camera’s manual to learn more). Bulb mode will allow you to vary your shutter speed easily. When you want your exposure to start, press and hold the shutter button on your remote. When you want the exposure to end, simply release the shutter button. This will help you time your shots with the fireworks (below).
7. Time your shots with the fireworks.
You need to time your shots in order to get the fireworks bursting. With your camera in bulb mode, press and hold the shutter right after a firework is launched and right before it explodes. Let go of the shutter button right after the firework explodes and fades away. You will have a shot that includes the entire explosion of the fireworks shell.
If you want a shot that shows the trail of light leading up to the explosion, press and hold the shutter right before the fireworks launches and hold it until the explosion fades. This will leave you with a shot that has the explosion and cool light trail leading up to the explosion.
The entire time of these exposures will be between 2 and 5 seconds on average.
In the image below I held the shutter from the time the shell was launched all the way through the explosion. The resulting image included the light trail and explosions.
8. Watch your histogram and highlight warning.
During the show, you will want your highlight warning (i.e. “blinkies”) on to let you know if your exposures are too bright. Exposures can easily be too bright since fireworks are so bright. If your exposures are blown out you will not have any detail in the fireworks. Enabling highlight warning on your image preview (see your camera’s manual) will let you see if you are blowing out the highlights in the explosion.
It is also a good idea to have your histogram enabled as well. This will allow you to see where your overall exposure. Sometimes you can go a little brighter without risking blowing out highlights. Your histogram will tell you this. If you are not familiar with histograms or would like a detailed look in to histograms, check out this link at Digital Photography School.
9. Adjust your exposure as needed.
During the show, if your highlights are blown out (or the image is too dark) you’ll need to make adjustments. Since you can’t adjust your shutter speed you’ll need to look at your aperture or ISO. I would recommend adjusting ISO if possible. Adjust by maybe a stop or so.
10. Have fun!
Fireworks photography will take practice. You may not get perfect images after your first try. Don’t let that discourage you! Once you practice shooting a few shows you will be getting great shots in no time.