New Year’s Eve, The Fourth of July, Guy Fawkes Night and Diwali are nights I look forward to with child-like glee for the fireworks alone. For years my efforts with photographing fireworks fell far short of the experience itself so this year I decided to get serious and came away with some fantastic shots.
Despite having the appearance of fancy photography these photos were surprisingly easy to achieve. A little thought and prep beforehand and you will capture magical pictures.
- Clean your lens!
- Charge batteries and carry a spare for your remote.
- Camera settings – get familiar with what your camera can and can’t do. Work out which settings will work best for you before you are out in the dark.
- Practice has to be your number one most useful tool in every situation. If you’re unfamiliar with your kit or the setting have a couple of dry runs so you know you’ll be ready on the night. Even if you don’t have time before the display remember you can adjust and experiment during the fireworks – there is normally enough time.
- Make sure you have your kit ready in advance.
- Camera and wide-angle lens – you’ll want to capture as much sky as possible so a wide-angle (smaller mm/zoomed out) will help you achieve that.
- Tripod – in order to get sharp pictures you need a stable base and a tripod is a necessity.
- Remote control – no 100% necessary but really useful. I use a Hahnel Giga T Pro wireless remote control. If you don’t have a remote set your camera on a 2 second shutter delay to minimise the impact of movement from the camera.
- Timer – if you are using bulb mode then use a timer to keep track of the exposure length.
- Neutral Density Filter – these cut out light without changing colours meaning you can achieve the same exposure with slower shutter speeds. By increasing the amount of time you have your shutter open for you can have more explosions in one picture.
- Black cloth – or similar. If you want to take really long exposures then this will help you eliminate excess light between fireworks.
- A torch – really useful to be able to light your equipment up while your set it up in the dark.
Where to stand:
- This will have a big impact on your composition. In these pictures I was stood at the front of the crowd which gave me a clear shot but it meant I was too close to get enough space around the fireworks.
- Check the wind direction and get up-wind of the launch site or as near as possible. The smoke will catch light so you don’t want it between you and the fireworks. You can see in the bottom picture that by the end of the display there is quite a lot of smoke in the air.
- It’s not always easy to know where the fireworks are going to go off so being further back allows you to make smaller adjustments with the tripod than if you were close to the action. If you are able to talk to the organisers beforehand find out how the display will play out. For this shoot the majority of fireworks exploded in the same spot in the sky meaning I didn’t need to go over 30 seconds to capture my shots. If it had been spread out then I’d have been able to use exposures of 30 – 60 seconds.
- To be in complete control you’ll want to use your manual settings. With a DSLR this will allow your to control the whole picture, with a point and shoot you might not be able to control settings such as ISO – check out your manual to find out what you can do.
- Aperture: you want your aperture in the mid-ranges around f/10-16. You can experiment with larger and smaller apertures but the mid ranges will give you good sharp trails.
- Shutter Speed: this is what you’ll most likely be adjusting throughout the display. The first shots will have the clearest skies as there will be little smoke so you can use longer exposures without much need for editing out smoke. The general rule of thumb is the longer you have your shutter open for the more fireworks you will capture. Want just one firework? Set your shutter for 4 – 7 seconds. If you’re looking to capture several fireworks then a shutter speed of 10 – 30 seconds or more is what you’ll need. I’ve used a neutral density filter to allow me to have my shutter open about three times as long as without the filter.
- ISO: I set mine to 200 so it was more sensitive to light but not so high that it created any noise/grain as I wanted these pictures to look sharp.
- White Balance: I left this on auto.
- Focus: Set your camera to manual focus and leave it on infinity. You do not want your camera to be trying to seek focus during the show!
These pictures were shot in RAW and edited with Adobe Lightroom. It gives me more flexibility on colour and range when editing. I tend to make my adjustments by eye aiming for a photo that reproduces what I saw. The adjustments I have made are global:
- Contrast +5, whites +19, blacks -10, clarity+30, vibrance +25 and saturation +10.
- For the later photographs which suffered from smoke I changed to: contrast +17, whites +38 and blacks -81
If you’re not editing RAW files but shooting in JPEG then a great piece of free software is Picmonkey where you can achieve similar adjustments with the exposure, colour and sharpen tools.
Fireworks are such a thrilling event and getting the photography mix right will heighten the excitement. If you’re well prepared you’ll be able to create some awesome shots and no doubt be impatient for the next display to do it all over again.
Kit: Canon 500D, 18-55mm kit lens at 18mm, 0.9 neutral density filter, tripod and remote shutter release.
Settings for all shots: f14, 15 – 20 second shutter and ISO 200.