5 tips for capturing fireworks


July is upon us and the next few week ends will be spent with family and friends at various picnics and pool sides. If you are like me, I become the honorary official family photographer. I really don't mind as it gives me something to do.

Since the Fourth of July falls on a Wednesday this year most celebrations will be held on this coming weekend. Towns and cities all across Connecticut will be hosting their celebrations including some rather spectacular fireworks. That's less than a week away so I thought I'd share some tips on how to get some of those spectacular firework shots. They're not as difficult as you might think. Here are five tips to help you get those fabulous decorative bursts of fire.

  1. Find the right location: The best location for shooting fireworks isn't directly underneath them. For one, you may be too close and you won't have the best view of them from your vantage point. Secondly, this is the typical spot most spectators have and you'll be fighting to get a clear view of the fireworks without people's heads getting in the way. Avoid areas with a lot of ambient light from buildings, street lamps or passing vehicles. Rooftops, balconies or upper floor windows work best if the view is unobstructed. If you are near a beach consider going there for the fireworks. Usually the fireworks get launched from the water so you will have an unobstructed view from just about anywhere. Although hard to predict, being upwind to the fireworks will help to or at least a side breeze. Smoke from the fireworks tend to get illuminated from the rockets as they explode. While it can create an interesting effect, too much can ruin a nice shot. Also, acrid smoke blowing into your face is no fun.
  2. Use the right equipment: Since you are taking photos in low light it is obvious that you will need a good steady tripod. You will also need a cable release to minimize camera shake. As far as lens choice is concerned, it will greatly depend on where you position yourself. If you are amongst the populace in the crowd a nice wide lens will serve you well. Typically a lens around 70mm will get enough of the sky so you can capture all of the burst from the rockets. If you are a little further away or you are capturing "home launched"fireworks that are smaller in nature a tighter lens will work. Something around 100mm will crop them all in nicely. Having a variable zoom lens will give you more choices than a fixed focal length lens. Another important piece of equipment to have on hand is a small torch (as the British call it). I think American photographers should refrain from calling them flash lights as it can lead to confusion. Let's start a campaign!
  3. Preset your camera: To properly expose for a good firework shot you need to set your camera to manual mode. Use the lowest ISO your camera can handle. Typically ISO of 100 for most Canons and 200 for most Nikons will suffice. The sky will be too dark for your camera to get a proper exposure on its own so none of the auto modes will be effective. Since most of the action is against a dark sky and you're not really moving around you can just set it and forget it. Also, because the action will take place over a large section of the sky you will want an aperture opening that will give you enough of a depth of field to get all that action in. I usually go to the smaller apertures for my shots, typically around f/16 but you can start anywhere from around f/8 to f/11 and adjust from there. Shutter speed will be the one factor that will change more often throughout the shoot. You need a slow enough shutter to get all those nice colorful phosphorous trails but not so much that you loose the darkness of the sky. It's not unusual to have the shutter open for up to ten seconds and as short as one. If you are confident in your abilities you can set the camera to "bulb" mode and manually hold the shutter open for the duration of an explosion.
  4. Preset your lens:  Because you really can't auto focus every shot you'll want to set your lens to manual focus. So how do you focus? Turn your focus ring to infinity (the sideways figure eight symbol) then back it off just a hair. After you have taken a few shots you can preview the images to double check. You'll also want to turn off any anti-vibration compensation if your lens has it. Since the camera is going to be planted on a tripod you won't need it and it can actually introduce movement. Aim the lens to the area where all the action will take place. Once the fireworks start you can aim it more precisely. Keep your lens open enough to get the whole of the action in. You can always crop appropriately later.
  5. Anticipate the action: Obviously you can not hand hold firework shots, therefore you have no choice but to rely on your tripod. This means you have to point the camera up into the sky where the rockets will be exploding and lock the camera in place. Since most firework shows start of fairly slowly you can use the first few volleys to get the camera pointed in the right area. If you have a variable zoom lens open it up enough to get a wider area than the explosions since not all the explosions will appear i the same spot in the sky. Having a wider area of coverage will guarantee that you get all the shots. Once the camera is set all you have to do is release the shutter at the appropriate time. You want to press the shutter cable just before the rocket explodes. That way you can also capture some of the launch trail. A little practice and you should get it within a couple of frames. Don't wait until the rocket explodes before taking the shot. You'll only get the end part of the explosion and they'll look like a flower with a black hole in the center.
If you're heading out this weekend for some firework fun, enjoy yourself and I hope these tips help.
Happy Shooting.

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