Shooting Fireworks Photography - Digitally

As the 4th of July approaches, the more I've been thinking about what I'll need before this event. So, I thought I'd write up what you see before you. Most of it is obvious stuff, but can be forgotten when the day arrives and you grab your camera, thinking you have everything covered, and dash out the door. Some, may not have thought much about any of this and hopefully may benefit from this article. Above all, before the 4th of July comes around, I strongly recommend that you practice some night photography before hand and not on the day in question. Consider it a dry run for what's in store for you. If something is going to go wrong, you at least will be prepared come the day of the fireworks.

1. Location: Before you can even think about shooting fireworks, you need a nice location to shoot from. This is key to shooting any night life, especially when it comes to fireworks. For example, if you try to take photos of fireworks from your back yard, how many objects may get in the way or become part of the photo? Trees, other houses, chimney's, etc. could all show up in your fireworks photos and could distract from the main subject, the fireworks, leaving you with some ugly snapshots. Climbing up on your roof or to a hill high above the city life can prove advantageous, as most of the objects on ground level would no longer pose an issue. Of course, I'm not saying that all objects are bad. A nice object would be to have a statue, monument, famous hill or mountain, etc. in the photo along with the fireworks to add extra content to the photo.

Scout out your location a few days, or weeks in advance. Some places are sealed off when it comes time to shoot fireworks. Some people don't like everyone flocking to their property and parking or hanging out and littering. For those that try to get as close as possible, they may seal off the access roads leading up to where the fireworks are going to be executed from for safety reasons. A prime location to shoot fireworks would be a place close enough to the fireworks, away from crowds and artificial lighting. Having to shoot within a crowd of people isn't something I would recommend. You'd have to be on guard for those walking by who might trip or bump into your tripod. Also, the less people, the less you'll have to worry about people pulling up in a car with their headlights shining right into your lens and overexposing your shot. Flashlights and someone lighting up a cigarette could also do the same. The list of why not to film night photography in a crowd could go on and on.

2. Arrive early to your destination: There's nothing worse than arriving after dusk to your perfect spot, only to find that your place is a real hot spot for crowds. In this particular scenario, you might have a backup location because you took the time to scout around before hand. So, if you arrived early only to find a hundred people sitting around waiting, you could check out your secondary spot. Arriving early will also help you find an unobstructed view of the fireworks and allow yourself to get setup where you want, before anyone else can take your spot.

3. What to bring? You'll need your camera of course. You'll also need a tripod, cable release or remote control, plenty of media/compact flash cards, a fully charged camera battery (bring more than one if you have them or consider at least buying a second one), and a flashlight to help you shoot in the darkness.

4. What to avoid? First and foremost, is artificial lighting. The less lighting around, the better. You are going to be shooting time elapsed photos and you need all the darkness you can, as you want to be the one controlling the light for the fireworks and not your surroundings. If there is already too much artificial lighting around you when you start taking photos, your shutter won't be open as long or everything may be washed out/over exposed. Try to stay away from street lights, cars passing by, etc. If you are shooting from your back yard, try turning off the lights in your house.

The second thing to avoid, as I already mentioned, is a crowd of people. This may be a personal choice, but personally, I'd rather be concentrating on the fireworks and the photography than the people around me.

5. Camera settings: When it comes time to shoot the fireworks, you need to set up your camera to get the best picture. The first setting you can use is landscape mode. This is normally depicted as a mountain range on your camera mode dial. By using this setting, you won't have to worry about focusing issues.

The other setting which is probably the most preferred, is the "B" (bulb) setting. By using the bulb setting, you can control how long your shutter will remain open. How long it remains open comes into play with the aperture settings. With the bulb setting, this is where your cable release or remote control comes in to play. Once your camera is on the bulb setting, you simply open up the shutter by using your cable release or remote control and then lock it or hold it down. In the case of fireworks, you'll probably just want to hold it for anywhere from one to four seconds, vice locking it. The exposures aren't going to be longer than that and locking it will be pointless, since you'll spend half the night locking and unlocking. Just hold it and count off the seconds. The exposure range should be around 1 second, generally. 1 to 4 seconds should be pretty general for everyone. It will vary depending on your location to the fireworks and how much light is coming into your frame. One second would be my choice for the first shot. Once you've snapped off a couple of shots, you'll realize that fireworks photography isn't rocket science (no pun intended). If the photo is too dark, then hold your shutter open for another second. If it's too bright, you held it open too long.

6. Aperture & ISO settings: I always shoot on ISO 100, especially when it comes to night photography. Therefore, my aperture range will be from F/8 to F/16. If you shoot on a higher setting, such as ISO 200, then your aperture range will be around F/11 to F/22 and so on. Keep in mind that the higher the ISO, with most photography, the more grainy photos will appear. Although with this type of subject, you generally don't have to worry too much about graininess, provided you stay below 400. Lower is always better. Some of you might be tempted to use a wider aperture because you're concentrating on the dark sky. Your goal is to shoot the fireworks, not the dark sky. Once the fireworks explode, you'll have plenty of light.

7. High Quality: You'll want to set your digital camera to take the highest quality photo. This allows you to reduce the amount of compression that the camera will make to its images. I always have my camera set on high quality. There are times where I probably don't need the quality, but having it set on this for night photography is even more critical to me. I want the highest quality photo when it comes to night photography and I don't want to introduce compression noise (blocks of colors instead of being smooth). There is nothing worse that seeing a photo of lights in a blocky formatted fashion. It's just a horrible looking picture.. Well, there is one thing that's worse and that's a camera that isn't steady, which brings me to my next topic - tripod.

8. Tripod: Night photography is when you need the camera to be totally still. Any movement of the camera during a time elapsed photo and the photo is almost a guaranteed flop. This is where the tripod comes in and it's a must. If you don't have a tripod or your camera doesn't have a tripod thread, all is not lost. Try placing your camera on a platform. This can range from the top of your car, a wall, fence or even a railing. If you have some time, visit a local camera store and see if they have a small bean bag you can place your camera on. The bean bag will provide support as well as allow you to position the camera at the angle you need it to be to shoot the fireworks display.

9. Lens choice: This all depends on how close or far away you are from the fireworks display. If you are close up, you'll probably want to use a wide angle lens. If you are too far away from the fireworks because of all the crowds and what not, you'll probably want to use something with a longer focal length. In either case, you'll want to frame your image so that it includes the trail of the fireworks as well as give you some dark sky around the blast of the firework when it explodes. Using this theory, should give you a basis of what lens to utilize. Also, make sure you remove any polarizer filters from your lens before you start shooting.

9. Shooting the fireworks: You should have already experimented with shooting at night before the day of the fireworks and your camera needs to be mounted on a tripod. If you don't have a cable release or a remote control to keep the shutter open, you'll need to be as still as possible as long as your finger is on the camera. That being said, your first few photos of the actual fireworks is still going to require some experimenting, although not that much. You already know how to set your camera up. The experimentation is going to be positioning the camera on the first firework display. You really shouldn't have to adjust too much after the first firework display. The second firework display is where you will have to experiment with how long of an exposure to do. My suggestion, as I already stated, is 1 second. This first photo should tell you a lot. If it's too dark, well, that's an easy one. Hold the shutter open a little longer. But what if it looks nice to you? Take a closer look at the way the fireworks look in your camera. Does the white of the fireworks seem just a little too bright? Chances are, it might be. You may never notice it until you go back to the digital darkroom. If your camera allows you to zoom in on a photo you've already taken, zoom in and take a closer look to see if the colors are washed out. If they are, you might want to not expose the next frame as much. Try backing off half or even just a quarter of a second less.

Ok, let's say the fireworks look fine at 1.5 seconds. Do we keep shooting at the same amount of timed exposure? Maybe. If the last fireworks photo looked great, does that mean the next one will too? Chances are, it probably won't be off by too much. If the last firework photo was dark blue in color, will the same amount of exposure come out just the same on a bright white firework? Probably not because it's brighter and you'll need to back off on the exposure a little. I'm just throwing some questions out to get you to think a little bit about setting up the shot and to drive home that it's not an exact science. After about 10 or so shots, you should have it in your mind that dark colored fireworks may require an additional half second of exposure than a bright white firework. Mileage will vary of course. How close you are shooting to the fireworks (focal length) is a factor. If you are really close to the blast (focal length), then you won't have as long as an exposure. If you are wanting to get more than one blast in the photo, obviously your shutter will have to remain open longer to expose two or more blasts. In this case, you may have an exposure that is 10 seconds. As long as you are shooting nothing but darkness in between the fireworks, you really won't have to worry too much about over exposing your shot.

10. When do I snap the picture? If you are doing a close-up shot of the explosion, you'll want to snap the picture off just before it explodes and then release the shutter when the firework is ending. If you are close enough to hear the blast of the mortar, then you might want to open up the shutter at that precise moment. After it explodes and the light disappears, then close the shutter. (Keep in mind that after you release the shutter, that your digital camera will need a second or two to write to the flash card. You may end up skipping every other firework, depending on how long your camera takes to process an image and how fast they are shooting the fireworks.)

Don't forget to continue experimenting. Try changing the position of your camera and taking vertical photos as well. This may get you some awesome shots of the firework trails as they are blasted up to the sky and when they explode. If all of this is basic stuff so far, try experimenting with a zoom lens. When the explosion goes off, zoom in on the fireworks. The result will get a photo of a firework looking like it's exploding directly towards your camera.

One final note. This is all based on a Digital SLR camera. Some of the "point and click" digicams may not have some of the features I've mentioned here. If you fall into this category, my only suggestion is to do what your camera will allow you to do and see what happens. If your camera allows 100 ISO speed, but you can't control some of the other settings, just try taking some photos and see if you like them. To experiment with night photography before the day of the fireworks, go down near a semi-busy street at night and take some photos of the cars going by. See how they turn out.

Good luck and above all, have fun!