Next to the 4th of July, New Year’s Eve is the big holiday in the U.S. for blasting off massive amounts of colored gunpowder. Or, as some kids say, “boomy boomy!” Regardless of what anyone outside they U.S. may think of us we do love our fireworks.
So of course, photographing fireworks is something we dearly love as well. It’s also one of those subjects that makes new photographers (and some old hands) made enough to want to hurl their cameras across a parking lot. Well, no worries, follow along with me and I’ll help you get some good shots of fireworks tonight.
With fireworks you rarely know exactly where a shell will explode so frame wide. Leave more room than you think you need around the expected explosion and crop down slightly in post production. Framing wide lets you keep shooting without having to recompose your shot with every shell. But how do you make the most of that wide frame? Scout your location ahead of time. If you are shooting a fireworks show you have seen before, you will have a pretty good idea of where the shells will explode. Explore the possible vantage points for the show in the daylight. If you are not familiar with the show, call the local promoter or fireworks company and ask them what the target sky area will be for that show. When you are scouting vantage points there are several things you should keep in mind.
- Is there a vantage point where you can include an iconic landmark in the frame?
- Are there power lines in the way?
- Will there be streetlights or other light sources around that could flare or ghost on your images?
- Are there going to be a lot of other people around who might bump or knock over your camera and tripod?
- If the weather is threatening, can you get your equipment out of rain quickly?
While you can easily set a film SLR to infinite focus and be relatively sure of your focus, digital cameras are often a bit more finicky in focus. With a digital camera you will need to either use your manual focus setting and focus on the first shell by hand or partially prefocus your camera and then allow the autofocus to fine-tune the focus with the first shell. If you allow the autofocus to fine-tune the focus you should immediately turn the focus mode back to manual so that your camera will not try to focus with each shell. If a building or other landmark will appear in the frame you can also focus on that structure.
Once you have the focus distance determined you should consider your depth of field. Aperture settings are not just for light control when it comes to fireworks. Fireworks are actually rather large items and require a fairly large depth of field. This larger depth of field is especially important if you are including a landmark or other structure in your image. F-Stops of 14 or higher are your best bet for crisp images.
Fireworks have a wide range of light intensity. However, even the faintest firework is probably at least as bright as a streetlight at the same distance. Because of this you will be able to shoot with much slower film speeds and faster exposure times than you might instinctively think. If you are including a landmark or building, take an exposure reading off of that structure and underexpose just a little. If there will be nothing in the image you will have to guess at the first exposure. Remember that some of your exposures will be slightly underexposed and some will be slightly overexposed due to the changes in the fireworks themselves and how many shells are exploding at one time.
Some suggested starting points for determining exposure are:
Film Speed: 100
Shutter Speed: 2 Seconds
Film Speed: 200
Shutter Speed: 2 Seconds
Finale of Rapid Shells
Film Speed: 100
Shutter Speed: 1.25 Seconds
If you are shooting with a digital SLR select RAW mode for more freedom in recovery of slightly overexposed or underexposed images.
Support and Eliminating Shake
Tripods or other sturdy support are a must for fireworks photography. Even the best image stabilization technology is unlikely to be able to give you a rock solid image at 2 seconds handheld. Tripods do not have to be expensive to be stable. Even most cheap tripods have a hook on the bottom of them that is designed to hold weights. These weights provide extra stability for lightweight tripods. A couple of wrist exercise weights tied together work wonderfully for tripod weight without being too bulky. Remember to check your tripod’s manual for weight limits. If you are not going to use a tripod, you can use anything from a pillow to your camera bag for support but be aware that each time you touch your camera it will shake slightly.
To eliminate shaky fireworks, you need to avoid shaking your camera. Some shake will happen just by the shutter raising and lowering. However, most shake comes from photographers pressing the shutter button and then releasing it. If you will be manually pressing the shutter button, do not stab the button and yank your hand back. This will cause a lot of shake. Relax your hand on the camera and gently press the button. Leave your hand on the camera body. This is a lot like carrying a full glass across the room. The more relaxed you are, the less you shake. Alternatively, if your camera has the option of a remote release (either wired or wireless) you can nearly completely eliminate shake. It also eliminates the need for you to stand so close to your tripod and risk bumping it with your feet. Remote releases are generally available for well under $50 (my favorite remote release was $24).
After Capture/Post Processing
Because you will not be adjusting exposure for each shell, some after processing is usually required for great fireworks images. Levels, Saturation, and Contrast are the most common adjustments for fireworks photography.
Levels allow you to adjust the light quality of your image. By setting the darkest point and lightest point on your image you can dramatically increase the power of your image. Usually you’ll wind up dragging the left slider in towards the middle a bit to reduce visibility of smoke illuminated by the fireworks.
Sometimes your fireworks images will look slightly washed out due to exposure or competition from other light sources. A quick way to correct this is to pull up the “adjust hue/saturation” control in your photo editing software. Increase the color saturation slightly (no more than +10) and then adjust the “lightness” down slightly (no more than -15) to darken the sky and add clarity to the colors.
If your images still look slightly washed out you can adjust the contrast to add some clarity to the explosions. Be careful not to add so much contrast the brightest parts of the explosions look completely overexposed.