Photo Tip: Photographing Fireworks

In the US, it’s 4th of July weekend, which means there will be many fireworks displays.  While I have never seen fireworks on safari, I am still going to post the general info on how to photograph fireworks.

Which camera?

I often prefer shorter, 2 second exposures if windy conditions exist - photo by P. B. Eleazer

All you really need in the way of equipment is a camera on which you can manually set focus, shutter speed and aperture. Normally these days that would mean a digital SLR  or a high end P&S type digital camera. The reason that you need to be able to manually set the camera is that autoexposure probably won’t work, plus you need an exposure of several seconds in order to record fireworks bursts. You also need to be able to set the focus since there may be nothing in the frame when you open the shutter (more on that later), so AF will fail.

Which Lens?

Which lens you need depends on how close you are to the show, but I used a 24-105 zoom on a Canon 7D for a show that was about 1/2 mile away. Most of the time I used focal lengths around 80mm. If your lens has Image Stabilization, turn this off as it is not needed for tripod use and will add blur to your images. Set focus to manual and focus at the distance at which the fireworks will be from you. For most work, this will be a setting of infinity. If you zoom, make sure that your lens keeps focus when it zooms, otherwise you may have to refocus after zooming. The Canon EF 24-105 doesn’t noticeably shift focus when zoomed, or if it does the use of small apertures such as f8 and f11 masks any focus shift. Also, since you will be shooting stopped down, you don’t really need a fast lens and even a consumer zoom usually gives good results at f8 and f11.

Camera Settings

So what camera settings work? Well a good place to start is with a 4 second exposure at f8 with the camera set to ISO 100.

The shutter has to stay open this long to record the trails of the various components of each burst. You can also try exposures of 2 seconds and 8 seconds if you want less or more bursts captured. Remember, check the histogram after the first few shots to make sure you are getting the right exposures.  I find that for windy conditions, the 2 second exposure actually works best.

The brightness of the trails depends on the aperture and ISO setting, not on the length of the exposure. For very bright firework bursts, stopping down to f11 might give better results.

With such long shutter speeds the use of a tripod is essential and the use of some type of remote shutter release (either wired or wireless) is highly recommended.  I also recommend you carry a flashlight as you will be working in a dark setting.  I prefer an LED headlamp style light so my hands are free to work the tripod and camera.

When to Shoot

The problem of course is that you don’t know ahead of time how bright each burst will be, when it’s coming or exactly where in the sky it will be, so there’s an element of luck in capturing the image. If you wait until you see the burst, it will be over by the time you take the shot, so you have to anticipate. Sometimes you can see the rocket trail going up and that can give you a clue when to open the shutter. Ideally you want to open the shutter just before the major display occurs.

Some thought is needed on the ‘when to shoot’ part.  I find that if you try and shoot during the ‘grand finale’, the composition gets too cluttered with burst and is also easily over exposed.  Additionally, as the display progresses, the sky fills more and more with the smoke from the explosions.  This can add effect, but is out of your control.  For balance, I find shots with about 3 explosions being revealed often works best … but you do not know when or how many shots are happening at a given time.  The only solution is to shoot a lot of shots.  Yes, you will end up with a lot of reject photos, but some will be keepers – this is not an exact science.

It is helpful to check the 'image preview' screen on the back of the camera to see if you need a longer or shorter exposure. - photo by P. B. Eleazer

It’s a hit and miss process, but with digital you can afford to fire off 10 shots/minute for the duration of the display (usually displays don’t last more than 15-20 minutes), though that would get a bit expensive if you were shooting film. It’s worth varying exposure times and apertures a little, but bracketing around 4s at f8 and ISO 100 should usually give the best results.  It’s very difficult to get good framing (except by luck) since you don’t know exactly where the major bursts will occur or how high they will be. This probably means you’ll need to crop your images somewhat to get the best composition. Sometimes you may get lucky though and get a shot that has everything in the right place.

The Grand Finale

At the end of the fireworks show, many events feature a ‘grand finally’ with many burst happening almost simultaneously.  While this has great potential, the light entering your sensor is also drastically increased with this final event.  I suggest you increase your f-stop at least one and maybe two stops to decrease the potential for over exposure during this dramatic show end.

Summary

  • Use a tripod. You can’t handhold the camera for a time exposure, even if you’re using an IS lens.
  • Turn off the image stabilization.
  • Use ISO 100. Fireworks are bright and the lower the ISO setting, the lower the image noise.
  • Unless you are a really long way from the fireworks, a wide to short-telephoto lens should be fine.  For the shots above, I used my 24-105mm lens on a Canon 7D
  • Stop down to around f8, maybe f11. This will give you the sharpest images and allow a long exposure.
  • Prefocus the lens and switch to manual focus.  This is critical or you will not get the shot.
  • Try shutter speeds from 2s to 8s. The longer the exposure, the longer the trails will be.
  • Open the shutter while the firework is on it’s way up, not when the shell explodes.
  • A remote release will be useful. Use one if you have one.
  • Shoot lots of images. Some will work, some won’t. It’s a matter of luck.

3 comments for “Photo Tip: Photographing Fireworks

  1. Cathy
    September 11, 2010 at 3:26 am

    This cannot possibly be Buddy Eleazer with whom I went to high school with in Batesburg Leesville SC! While researching tips on photographing fireworks I spotted a familiar name can it be my brief friend from long ago?
    Cathy Waugh

    • P. B. Eleazer
      September 11, 2010 at 8:07 am

      Yep, Cathy, it’s me. Really nice to see a note from you. Drop me an email at Buddy@ChobeSafari.com and I will bring you up to date on things. I would love to here what happened with you after school.

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