Summer has arrived here in the northern hemisphere, and in most places that means fireworks shows arrive soon. Having a DSLR gives you a chance for great fireworks photography, and I describe some keys to capturing fireworks with your camera beautifully in this article. This link has a video demonstrating these techniques.
While you can use virtually any camera can take photographs of fireworks, you need a camera that gives you manual control over your exposure — manual ISO, manual aperture, and a bulb mode — to get the truly beautiful shots. The bright lines of fireworks streamers also mean you need a stable tripod to avoid wiggling streamers. Since you often view fireworks on beaches or grassy areas, you need to tamp your tripod into the ground as solidly as you can, and try not to touch it or your camera during an exposure. To do this, you’ll also need a remote shutter release. A simple one-button one will do fine.
You also need to turn off auto-focus (thanks to Kanal von un1qu3ger for this tip). Your camera’s attempts to focus on fireworks will have no predictability, so having your camera auto-focus on every shot will give you lots of out-of-focus shots. You can alternatively turn on back-button focusing on your camera. I use this mode exclusively because it makes focusing in every situation more predictable.
Fireworks give off a lot of light, so you need a low ISO and a small aperture to get a good exposure, at least as a starting point. Before the show starts, I usually set my camera to ISO 400 and an aperture of f/9. That leaves the shutter speed. To make fireworks appear as beautiful long streamers, a slow shutter speed makes sense; as long as several seconds. But setting a slow shutter speed on your camera will just frustrate you.
How do you set your shutter speed then? Most DSLRs and some compact cameras have a “bulb mode” setting. In this setting, the shutter stays open as long as you hold down the shutter button, and closes as soon as you let go. You want this for fireworks photography, and during a fireworks show the amount of time you hold the shutter open has two aspects: the artistry of the fireworks, and the amount of light you capture.
Fireworks Photography Technique
As you hold down your remote shutter release button during a show, keep a preview in your mind of what your camera’s sensor has recorded. Too many fireworks from too long an exposure leave a confused mess. Too few leave a boring photo. Collect as many explosions as you think will look beautiful in your photo, then close the shutter.
Keep in mind how much light your sensor has collected too. If you see plenty of bright explosions in one spot, you might want to close the shutter to avoid having a big blown-out spot in your photo.
And chimp; yes, chimp away — I urge you, at least until you get the hang of it during a show. You need to see how well you’ve captured the artistry of fireworks, and how well you’ve exposed them. Based on your camera’s display, you might find you need to adjust your ISO or aperture or both early in the show. But once you have the technique down and your exposure nailed (and this probably only takes minutes), you’ll find you can just sit back and capture the rest of the show without looking at your camera. See the video I linked above to see my technique during a simulated fireworks show.
Lastly, if you have a choice, find a location where the prevailing winds don’t push smoke towards you (thanks to David Pugh for this tip).
Trick: Multiple Exposures
Nearly every fireworks show has a grand finale where they unleash volley after volley of fireworks, and capturing that with your camera by taking shot after shot gets you some incredible shots. In some cases, you can get shots like that during a show. You can do this by simply holding your shutter open for a very long time, but that can cause other parts of your scene to expose too brightly — things in the scene with lights, or twilight on the horizon.
To avoid this, you can bring something black that’s not shiny to quickly cover your lens — a black piece of foam from a craft store, or what I’ve used: a black glove. After you’ve captured some fireworks on one frame, cover the lens with the black card and wait for the next volley. Then uncover it as that starts. Keep doing this until the preview in your mind completes.
This technique often gives you a blown-out mess because a lot of fireworks shows launch all their fireworks from the same place, so all the explosions you capture on that one frame overlap. This technique best works for shows with multiple launch sites that go across your scene. Even then it might not work. The San Francisco show in front of Crissy Field, for example, has two launch sites — but they’re synchronized with each other, launching the exact same kinds of fireworks at the same time. This technique takes practice; possibly more than one show can give you.
Trick: Focus Blur
Want to make your fireworks photos look like…nothing else in the world? Give this technique a try for a few shots during a show. Start with your camera in focus, open your shutter as a fireworks explosion starts, gradually move your lens’s focus ring to close focus as the explosion spreads, then close the shutter. Alternatively, start with your camera at close focus, then gradually move it into focus as the fireworks spread.
This means changing your camera’s focus during a show, so you have use care getting it back in focus again. Canon lenses can focus beyond infinity, so you have to take special care with that system.
Getting your camera out of focus enough for this effect means you’ll likely have to open up your lens’s aperture too, and reduce your ISO to compensate, or be sure to keep your shutter open for a shorter time than usual. That gives you an awful lot to change during a show, so you can take advantage of the preset modes of your camera if it has them. Make sure you set up your presets before the show.