Oh, fireworks; and Fourth of July fireworks, no less! This is one of my favorite times of the year, and the National Fireworks along the Mall is one of the reasons why. It may be a cliché, but this is one of the great things about this town. But it’s difficult to enjoy if you don’t know the ins and outs. To help you out, I’ve got this post!
(*PST*: Before I go further, remember the fireworks meetup tomorrow…ok, I swear that is the last reminder!)
Last year, I went through a lot of the details: locations for the viewings, tips on how to survive the crowds, and even a bunch of great pictures. This year, I wanted to give some advice on taking pictures of the fireworks (or any fireworks for that matter). If you’ve always wanted to get great photos of the fireworks, but never knew how, please keep reading.
Gear that you’ll need:
A functioning camera is a must, of course. Doesn’t really matter what kind: point and shoot, DSLR, micro four third, even film (though long exposures with film is more difficult; this post is meant for digital sensors). A lot of point and shoots, and some DSLRs, now have a fireworks preset. Basically, it has your camera take a long exposure and will compensate for the bright flashes as the pyrotechnics go boom.
The other piece of necessary gear is a tripod. This is for keeping the camera stable while the shutter is open for a long time. Don’t try to tell yourself you can hold a camera still for a second or two exposure, because you can’t. It’s physically impossible; the human body makes small movements every moment, which we don’t notice because it has been happening for our entire lives. But a camera will notice even slight movement. So get a tripod (if you can’t buy, RENT; Penn still has a great rental section) and you’ll pictures will be that much better.
If you’re using a DSLR, I would recommend bringing an assortment of lenses. The natural tendency is to bring a zoom lense and focus only on the fireworks. We’ll get to why this isn’t always for the best in a second. But bring a zoom and a wide angle, because you never know what the view will be like with where you’re sitting. I’ve taken firework photos zoomed in and with the widest of angles; both work in the right situations. So bring an assortment.
There isn’t much more “necessary” gear for taking firework shots. Yes, an off camera shutter release is useful (it minimize you touching the camera, to make an exposure, and thus eliminates out of focus pics), but it isn’t required. If your camera has a shutter delay setting, you can use that too; most DSLRs have such a setting (check your manual).
And that’s all about the gear. Now it for the actual photographic technique.
Taking Firework Photos
There are two things you are aiming for with firework pictures: nice light lines and color. You get the light lines by having you’re shutter open for a few seconds (normally between two to five seconds). You get the color by not over exposing your shots; remember, you are taking pictures of explosions. If you are following what I’m saying, you’ll quickly notice that these are mutually exclusive. Expose a shot to long and there will be little to no color; expose it for too short of a time and you won’t get the light lines. As with most things in life, you need to find a balance between the two.
If your using a pre-set on your camera to take your pictures, the most important thing to do is get your camera on the tripod and don’t touch it while it is exposing. It’s important to realize that even a slight bump will get your photos out of focus. So press the button and very carefully remove your hands until the exposure is over. Once you have enough practice, it’s easy.
Now, if you’re feeling more adventurous, I would HIGHLY recommend putting your camera on full manual, and playing with the shutter and aperture settings. A pre-set is all well and good, but do you want make pictures or have a machine do it for you? If you’ve read this far, I would hope you want to tell the machine what to do.
Playing with the shutter and aperture settings will give you much more control and, once you get the hang of it, much better pictures. I’ve gotten some pictures with a long shutter, compensated with a small aperture; and I’ve gotten some great shots with a short shutter speed. Moral of the story: be sure to play around with your settings while you’re taking the shots. The big problem I tend to see when people take pics of fireworks is they keep the camera on one setting and don’t experiment. What happens is you’ll have a hundred pictures that look roughly the same. This is the artsy part, so play around.
I’d recommend (please note: recommend does not mean “do only this”) a shutter speed between two and five seconds, and an aperture of around f/9 (lower for shorter exposures, higher for longer). If you’re really advanced, ISO should be set at either 400 or 800, but you can go as low as 200; I would not recommend higher than 800, as that is pretty sensitive and you will get a lot of digital noise.
The last piece of photographic advice is to not only focus on the fireworks. Yes, I know, you’re here to learn how to take photos of fireworks. BUT, if you can incorporate other things, particularly people, you will have a much better photo. Look for interesting ways of including buildings, trees, statues, people, even the smoke cloud from the fireworks! Look at some of the example below and see what I mean. (This example I can’t show below, as the photographer hasn’t give us permission, but I can link to it as a great firework photo example.)
And that’s about all I can teach you. Go forth son and/or daughter and make art; while you’re that, celebrate this great country of ours, where a self trained photo nerd can pass on his knowledge free of charge!