DSLRs: Photographing Fireworks

It’s that time of year again here in the US. The 4th of July promises 2-3 days of fireworks displays in many areas. For photographers, that means lots of opportunities to get shots of fireworks.

Having shot more fireworks than I know what to do with the past few years, I have several tips you may find helpful.

Here’s the short form:

  1. Pick a location upwind and preferably high enough to get a view above the crowd and the trees.
  2. Use Manual or Bulb exposure. Don’t worry much about depth of field. Keep ISO low and shutter speed long. Use primarily Aperture and/or secondarily ISO to brighten or darken the fireworks if they’re getting under or overexposed.
  3. Use a wide angle zoom lens (16-35mm works well if you’re close; 24-70mm if your further away; if you’re really far away, you might need a telephoto lens) on a tripod and a remote to release the shutter.
  4. Setup with a wider angle than you think you need–this will help you catch fireworks that go off in different positions more easily.
  5. Manually focus on infinity unless you’re closer than 2 football fields and using a telephoto lens.
  6. Speed up your shutter a lot for the finale when many fireworks go off at the same time.
  7. Try to let your camera have a short rest between shots when you can–this will help it keep up with writing image files, preventing it from not firing when you least expect it, and help keep it cooler, reducing noise.

Planning Tips:  Location, Location, Location

Find out where and when the fireworks will start. Look at the location on Google Earth. Even better, go to the location and check it out ahead of time. Look for a good vantage point that will give you a view of the fireworks and, preferably, the ground–you may need to get yourself invited to a rooftop party for the best view. 🙂 If you have trees between you and the fireworks, you will be limited to shots of the fireworks above the trees.

Alternatively, look for an interesting foreground subject you can put fireworks behind. Check out this famous photo by Jim Zuckerman of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by fireworks for inspiration.

Additionally, consider smoke when choosing a location. Check the weather forecast for the wind direction and speed. Hopefully there will be a light breeze that will dissipate the smoke. You want to be upwind of the fireworks with the hope that the wind will carry the smoke behind the fireworks and keep your photos clean.

Have an idea of how you’re going to get to your chosen location, how bad traffic will be, and when you will need to get there to ensure a place to setup a tripod. You will need a tripod.

Exposure Settings

Shooting fireworks is similar to shooting lightening except it’s easier because you can predict fireworks better. (See Lesson: 109 Long Exposures and Lightening).

There are two methods I have used with success. I prefer the second one, which is how I shoot lightening, but it requires imagining how much you’ve captured, so you might find the first one easier.

Method One: Manual Shooting Mode

In this method, you choose an aperture, shutter speed, and ISO setting that you think will give you good exposure of the fireworks. You then adjust your shutter speed longer or slower to get what you want and adjust aperture and ISO accordingly.

Most of my single-firework examples (in the gallery above) are ¼ to 1/13 of a second long using this method, but how fast or slow your shutter needs to be is partly dependent on how large the fireworks are in your frame, partly dependent on personal preference, and partly dependent on whether you want to get multiple fireworks in the same shot. Most people shoot fireworks with much longer shutter speeds.

You will likely want shutter speeds of 5-15 seconds or even longer to get multiples, but this is, of course, dependent on how frequently fireworks are being fired.

Note that you will not be able to use your light meter. You can meter while a firework is firing, but the brightness of one firework to another is quite variable and the percentage of the sky that is firework vs dark may make your meter reading deceptive. Also, during the finale, you will need a much shorter shutter speed because many fireworks are going off simultaneously–you may end up with a massive jumble with a very slow shutter.

As far as aperture goes, for fireworks it is more a factor of getting the exposure you want than getting depth of field–you are likely to have all the DOF you need (if you’re shooting wide and not too close). Because fireworks are a lot like light painting, the maximum amount of light you can capture is determined more by how long the firework is glowing, how wide your aperture is open, and how high your ISO is than what you’re shutter speed is. The one thing to be cautious of is if you use a very slow shutter and one firework goes off after another in the exact same spot, not only will they not look so good together in the same frame, but you will probably blow out the highlights where the brightest part of each firework ended up overlapping. This is one of the reasons I prefer using the bulb mode.

ISO can be minimized to reduce noise in most cases, although ISO 800 works for me when shooting single fireworks at shorter shutter speeds. But, bear in mind the longer the shutter speed, the more noise you will have.

Method 2:  Bulb Shooting Mode

Bulb simply allows you to manually open and close the shutter instead of setting the shutter speed ahead of time. Some cameras have an actual “Bulb” shooting mode (“B”) on the shooting mode dial. If yours doesn’t, bulb is probably selected by being in Manual Shooting mode and changing the shutter speed–it’s usually the one after 30 seconds.

I prefer this method. The advantage is that it allows you to control the shutter speed based on how bright particular fireworks are, how many have gone off, etc. Instead of guessing ahead of time what’s going to be fired, you can imagine how much light has reached your sensor and how many individual fireworks have been included in the shot.

Use your eyes and brain to “measure” the amount of light that has been produced by the total number of fireworks that have gone off since you opened your shutter. Mentally picture the combination of fireworks that have gone off in the image. This takes getting a feel for when to close the shutter, but isn’t that hard to do because each firework fades rather than continually adding light, meaning there’s a lot of leeway from an exposure perspective as long as ambient light from sources other than the fireworks is minimal.

To maximize the length of time you can leave your shutter open, you can set your ISO to 100 and stop down to f/22. However, you may find the fireworks look at bit dim. Each firework only emits light for so long, so you want enough light to reach your sensor to record each one brightly. For these examples, I used ISO 100 and f/16.

If you have a remote for your camera, this is a good time to use it. Pressing the shutter button can introduce vibration into your shot, which may cause some blur. In fact, it’s preferable to use a remote even if you’re not in Bulb mode. But it’s doubly important when using bulb mode.

Focus

The short answer is manually focus your lens at infinity (there should be a mark on your lens that is an infinity symbol with a line showing you where to turn the focus ring to). This will yield sharp fireworks the vast majority of the time.

If this makes you nervous, you can refer to Lesson 106: Focusing in the Dark. Or, you can point your camera at a bright object that is about the distance you expect the fireworks to be, if your lens has a distance meter you can look at the distance meter to see how far away that is and if your lens is focused at infinity. If you are shooting wide, you may be surprised to discover how close a subject can be and still result in focusing at infinity.

If there is nothing bright enough to focus automatically on, you can focus on infinity and check to make sure the first image you take is sharp.

If you are very close to the fireworks and using a lens that is longer (where infinity focus is much further away) you can autofocus on the first firework itself.

Realistically, you are likely to have so much DOF that accurate focusing is less important. I cannot say I’ve ever had a problem with focus, but then, I typically shoot wide. Focusing at infinity at 16mm, for example, with my full-frame camera at f/16 everything will stay in focus from less than 2 feet away to infinity. I have no desire to be that close to fireworks!

By comparison, if everything were the same except my focal length, at 100mm, I would need to be at least 70 feet from the fireworks. We are not usually that close either, so focusing at infinity will usually work. But, if you’re using a 300mm lens, you’d need to be over 600 feet away for infinity focus to work well. This is still pretty darn close for fireworks, but just keep in mind that if you’re using a 300mm lens and are less than 2 football fields away from the fireworks, that might be a time to worry about this–you might also want to keep a fire extinguisher handy.

Focal Length and Framing

Fireworks are a good time to have a zoom lens on your camera in my opinion. Especially if you are in close proximity. The first time I shot fireworks, I put my 100mm prime lens on my camera and was surprised when the fireworks didn’t fit in my frame–they were much larger than I expected shooting from about a quarter mile away. I ended up scrambling to change lenses.

Using a zoom gives you room to adjust for such misjudgments since you can’t tell how big the fireworks will be until they start going off.

If you like to include the landscape in the shot, you will definitely want to shoot wider. The other thing to be aware of is that you are setting up on a tripod and you will not have a lot of time to adjust between shots. In fact, my preference is to shoot wide enough that I never change the camera position once the show starts. I prefer not to miss shots by fussing with the tripod.

I do miss shots when the fireworks suddenly get fired in a different direction or the wind blows them out of the frame. But, this happens infrequently when I’m shooting wide.

Cautions

If you are firing off a series of long exposures one after another, there are a couple of things to be cautious about. First, you can fill your memory buffer in your camera. This is a little hard to predict when you are doing long exposures. For example, my camera can shoot 6 frames per second but if I fire 18 shots in 3 seconds, the memory buffer will fill and I will have to wait for the camera to catch up writing the images to the memory card. Theoretically, one would think if you are firing off a long exposure followed by another the camera would be able to write the first image while exposing the second and keep up. However, I have run my camera out of memory right before the finale and missed the entire finale while it was catching up. I was not happy.

Just pause every once in a while to see how long it takes for the busy light to go off–if it’s a really long time, you might want to space your shots a bit more.

The other thing to be aware of is that long exposures produce a lot of heat in your camera. This is why long exposures tend to be noisier than short exposures. Giving your camera a little time between shots may also help keep it cooler, keeping noise to a minimum.

Post Processing

Smoke is quite detrimental. You can use curves and levels in Aperture or Lightroom to darken the smoke and make it less obvious to the eye. However, you also loose some of the light in the fireworks in the process and can substantially change the texture of the light trails.

Here’s an example of before and after:

I like the way the fireworks look better in the before image, but the smoke is distracting and lowers the contrast.

Sometimes, a puff of smoke in the wrong place ruins an image no matter what you do in post-processing (well, what I do in post-processing; Photoshop gurus may be able to deal with this). And sometimes the smoke is positioned so that you can still enjoy the image (even if you’d like it better without the smoke):

Conclusion

Do not stress about shooting fireworks. It’s not hard and you’ll get a better view of the fireworks if you plan ahead a little bit whether your images turn out or not. Just don’t forget you’re having fun!

2 thoughts on “DSLRs: Photographing Fireworks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s