Photographing Fireworks – Things to think about!
Each time that I prepare to go out and take shots of fireworks, the points outlined below are what I think about and review. The situations may change, locations may change, the weather will definitely change and the camera and lens combinations may change but, overall, these bits of guidance have served me well over the past few years as a reminder of the little things that I have to remember to think about before heading out to try and capture the bigger picture.
Taking photos of fireworks is easy ( 🙂 GRIN). One of the mistakes that I made, when I switched to digital and AF/AE etc from a full manual camera platform, was to assume that the camera knew what I wanted. It was as if I forgot everything I knew from manual world and I had a terrible experience.
Hopefully the suggestions that follow will help someone else avoid some of my mistakes!
What follows is some basic information with a few photos added as examples of some of the points. Good Luck. Enjoy.
A. Fireworks checklist before leaving home:
- Bug spray – Useful if needed but keep it off of the camera equipment!
- Flashlight – Don’t use it to blind others and don’t use it too often.
- Tripod – The sturdier, the better.
- Camera with fully charged battery
- Lens of choice – My lens of choice for night photography happens to be a Nikon 58mm f1.2 Noct-Nikkor lens which I purchased used a few years ago. Most people will simply be using the mid-range zoom lens that they would normally be using for daylight photography.
- Compact flash or SD cards
- Release cable or remote release
- Blanket or folding chair – An insulated blue foam pad is nice to have to put on the snow, frozen ground or wet ground but be careful because they can be pretty slippery when wet or cold
B: Checklist upon arrival
- Check direction of wind and select a location. A position with your back to the wind usually works best.
- Take charge of your location – Use the blanket or chair to establish possession of at least enough space for your tripod. I’m always amazed at how often a leg of my tripod gets kicked just before the fireworks show is about to begin!
C: Getting ready:
- 1) Decide on what type of shot you want – wide angle landscape or portrait, whole fireworks or cropped fireworks.
- Decide on the focal length of the lens to use to achieve the type of shot that you want.
- Take a test shot while there is light available to check composition and placement of possible obstacles such as trees. Look for location of street lights and other bright light sources that might accidentally compromise your photos.
- Switch camera settings to MANUAL
- Switch shutter release time to BULB
- Set ISO to 100 (or lowest ISO that camera supports)
- Set aperture to f8.0 or f11.0
- Vibration Reduction/Image stabilization – follow instructions for the specific lens or camera as some systems need to be turned off when on a stable support such as a tripod.
- Attach your release cable or remote release (if you have one) and test fire before dark to make sure that all of your connections are okay.
- Put camera on the tripod if you haven’t already done so 🙂
E: Taking the shot (the rest is primarily timing):
- Depress shutter when you see the shot going up in the sky
- Release the shutter as soon as the burst is over – Your shutter is open probably from 3-6 seconds but not critical.
- Check the first few shots for exposure and composition – You are exposing for the bright light not the night sky. If the centre burst is badly overexposed, your picture is overexposed. NOTE: The overexposure is an error in the ISO/f-stop settings and has almost nothing to do with the time that the shutter is open!!! Therefore, if overexposed, reduce ISO if you can or try f16.0 and experiment. If underexposed, try opening the aperture (lower f #) before increasing the ISO. Depth of field is not normally a really critical issue with fireworks.
- If you get the exposure right, the centre burst point is very small and everything else works out okay :-).
- If you are late in your timing (or late on purpose) your shutter opens after the burst and you end up with a void in the center in the shot. This can result in an interesting effect if that is what you want.
F: Problems that can occur:
- Don’t have flashlight with you so can’t see your settings in the dark.
- Don’t have enough memory card – 100 -200 shots per fireworks not unusual.
- Pointing to the wrong spot in the sky.
- Standing downwind of the fireworks – lot noisier but also smoke then gets between you and the launch area and ruins your shot (unless you really want the smoke effect).
- Standing at 90 degree angle to the wind – interesting effects of fireworks going sideways if that is what you want but not usually as pleasing.
- Chimping too much or not at all – if you are chimping you may be missing shots. If you don’t chimp a bit, you might be getting everything overexposed or pointing in the wrong direction. – I don’t look through the viewfinder all that often once I have things set up – easier to time shots and enjoy the event if looking at bigger picture.
- Trying to get every burst – probably miss more shots by moving the camera than you gain.
- Thinking you need a telephoto lens. Depending on the distance from the fireworks, 25-55 mm works well with the wider angle useful when you are trying to get some ground level infrastructure in the picture. Of course, if you are a half mile away a longer focal length might be useful.
- Forgetting to bring bug spray and knock over your tripod while trying to swat a mosquito :-(.
- In the winter, touching your ice cold metal tripod with a wet finger or your tongue. Not pleasant. Please don’t experiment 🙁 :-(.
Hope that you found this to be helpful information. Best of luck with your next fireworks display!
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