Portions of this article originally appeared in July, 2009. I will someday update these photos.
Every year, communities around this great land of ours celebrate the birth of our nation not with a whimper, but a bang. It's also a time of year when everyone and their mother who is interested in photography comes out with a guide to getting great photos of fireworks on the Fourth of July (for those of you in the UK it's known as "Ingrate Day"). I will join them.
Some time ago I had the misfortune of covering in the town of Wareham's fireworks display. It wasn't from a lack of effort that things didn't go off with a bang, the Fireworks Committee worked hard to raise money and get things organized and there was a real town-wide effort to make sure that the display came back so everyone could enjoy it.
The problem was that even after it was delayed the first night because of crappy weather, the weather didn't get the memo that it was supposed to have cleared up. So the rockets' red glare was mostly obscured by low flying clouds and fog banks that were clearly too big to fail.
Hopefully there's a town or city near you that will be celebrating Independence Day with a light display (or a crazy neighbor) so you can try out these skills (which I stole from around the Internet last year). One note, these instructions are based on aDSLR, if you don't have one of those or a camera with a good manual mode then you're gong to have to play around and experiment (or check your manual).
Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance:
As always before you go out to take photos you have to make sure that you have all your equipment in proper working order. Since you're going to be shooting in the dark you might want to have all your settings ready ahead of time, or bring a small light so you can change them on the fly.
You will also want to bring along a couple of zoom lenses, depending on how close you can get you might want simple wide angles or telephotos. Don't worry about the speed of your glass, because you'll be taking long exposures around F8 anyhow.
You will be using long exposures to soak in the light and lines from the fireworks so you'll also want to bring along a tripod (no matter how steady you think your hands are). A remote release will also help to minimize any jiggle.
The next part of preparing (once you have your batteries and cards, and everything ready to go) you want to go scout out a location. Some displays are very popular so you may want to get there early so you can get a good spot. The best spot is downwind so that smoke is blown away from you and won't get in the way of subsequent shots.
You also want to consider what else you can put in the frame with fireworks, are there any local landmarks or bodies of water? If the answer is yes then get yourself into a position to include those in any shots, making your photos unique and immediately identifiable.
The Money Shot:
Since fireworks are exploding balls of light, it's different from most other kinds of night photography. You want to have your gear set up ahead of time so you're not fumbling while bombs are bursting in air. You're not capturing fast action, but blurs and streaks of light so don't be afraid to take it slow.
- Frame your shot ahead of time, thanks to smoke those first few shots will be the cleanest so it helps to get it right the first time.
- Set your camera to manual, sure it's a pain in regular shooting but your settings will stay the same for most of the shoot so don't worry about it.
- Keep your ISO low, you want to keep your images clean.
- Keep your aperture toward the middle. I shot my photos with a Canon 10-22 at f10, it has a nice wide focal plane and you're not worried about super fast shutter speeds for photographing fireworks.
- Set your shutter speed to "bulb" mode. This allows the camera to keep the shutter open as long as you hold the exposure button down (which is part of why you may want a remote release) and this is where you'll be doing all your work.
- Click the button as the rocket is going up and let it go when the light begins to fade.
- Experiment, if you find that something isn't working for you then mix it up and see what happens. If you're shooting with a digital camera it isn't going to cost you any more to play with the settings?
Some Final Words:
Don't forget that it's a celebration, so don't get too wrapped up in just the fireworks since there's generally a lot of other action going on. Use the light from the fireworks to get pictures of people's reactions, or those little moments in the semi-darkness that convey the emotions of the evening. Keep your eyes open because the most interesting shots aren't always up in the sky on the Fourth of July.