How To Photograph Fireworks

If you’re a night photographer in the United States, you’re probably covered in drool just thinking about shooting fireworks next week. I certainly am.

Who knows how many millions of fireworks photographs will be taken on July 4, but one thing for sure is that most of them will suck. Okay, that might be a little harsh. What is certain is that most of them will fall under the “ordinary” category.

Fireworks at USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial in Wilmington

Fireworks at USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial in Wilmington, NC. Nikon D300, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, f/16, 8 seconds, ISO 160.

The reason is that fireworks look the same everywhere. Photos of fireworks from New York City look the same as ones from Peoria—if all you photograph are the fireworks and don’t include anything else in the frame. Most photographers are thrilled just to capture a good exposure of the light bursts, but once you’ve seen a dozen shots of just fireworks, they all start to look the same. Ordinary. Even sucky.

The real key to making great fireworks photos is to compose with an interesting foreground or background in the scene. Make that your first consideration, and then you can work on exposure and other factors. Making the best fireworks images is no different from any other type of night photography in that it requires a good deal of advanced planning.

If all you want is the CliffsNotes version:

Find a suitable foreground or background, mount the camera on a tripod, choose a composition and leave it set for the entire show (you can make minor changes, but you don’t want to be running around looking for new comps), set the shutter to bulb, aperture from f/8 to f/16, and ISO at 100 or 200. Fire the shutter and after a burst of fireworks occur, close it and start again.

For the detailed discussion, read on: 

Composition

As I said, this is the most important consideration. Of course, your composition will necessarily be limited according to where the fireworks are being set off. Once you know this, you can explore the landscape in every direction for a suitable spot from which to shoot. And you need to know EXACTLY from where the fireworks will be set off.

Fireworks at USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial in Wilmington

Fireworks and the moon at USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial in Wilmington, NC. Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/16, 8 seconds, ISO 160.

In Asheville, near where I live, the city advertises their Fourth of July festival as taking place in Pack Square, which is downtown. But that’s not enough information for me to choose the best vantage point, so I called the city and they told me the fireworks would be set off from the downtown parking garage on the northwest corner of the square. Ah, that’s good. Now I can drive and walk all around the city and look for vantage points, knowing precisely where the fireworks will occur.

If you are shooting in a city, be aware that if you get too close the buildings could block the fireworks. Don’t be afraid to get a good distance away from the show. Particularly if you have a good foreground, you could shoot from even a couple miles away with great results. Backgrounds work best when you shoot from a high vantage point, say from the roof of a building looking down or out on the fireworks. Usually, backgrounds need some sort of lights or else they will not show up well. A good candidate for a background is a city skyline.

You have to be careful with high vantage points, however, because the fireworks can become lost in the clutter. Typically, you want to be at ground level and looking up at the fireworks so they’ll be isolated against the sky. A low angle works best for including an interesting foreground. Foregrounds can work well without lights, provided they create a good silhouette in front of the fireworks. Subjects with graphic lines, such as bridges, sailboats, and skyscrapers make great foregrounds. As a rule, you’ll want to compose so at least some of the fireworks are isolated in the sky above the foreground.

Independence Day Fireworks-North Carolina

Fireworks at the carnival in Carolina Beach, NC. Nikon D700, 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, f/22, 3.5 seconds, ISO 200.

Another great subject for a foreground is water, which will reflect the fireworks. Reflections make good photos regardless of the subject, but with fireworks, they can really make your images stand out. Lakes, rivers, canals, and the ocean are obvious choices, but consider other possibilities such as swimming pools or wet streets. If you’re lucky enough to shoot the fireworks from your own neighborhood, you could even use a water hose to wet down your street.
 
Regardless of the composition you choose, be prepared to fine-tune it after the first burst occurs. Certainly, you need to determine ahead of time as best you can where and how high the lights will occur, but you should expect to do some tweaking once the show starts.

July 4th fireworks display over the city of Asheville, North Carolina.

July 4th fireworks display over the city of Asheville, North Carolina. Nikon D2X, Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, f/8, 3.2 seconds, ISO 100.

  
Focusing

If you know exactly where the lights are being set off, you can prefocus on an object in the same plane before the show begins. Otherwise, autofocus (or manually, if you are fast and have better eyes than I do) on the first burst and then turn autofocus off for the rest of the show. You don’t want the camera to keep trying to refocus. I go a step farther and tape the focus ring in place so I won’t accidentally move it when the action gets going.

Focusing on the fireworks assumes that you don’t have a close foreground that will require a lot of depth of field to be sharp. In that case, you might need to focus on the foreground or at a spot between it and the fireworks. The focus point will depend on the aperture you’re using, how close the foreground is, and how far away the fireworks are. 

Exposure

Proper exposure for the fireworks comes from a combination of aperture, ISO, the brightness of the fireworks, and to a limited extent, shutter speed. Shutter speed mainly affects how many fireworks will show up in a single frame, although if you have a lighted foreground or background the shutter speed will affect that as well.

There are two general approaches to exposing fireworks. The first exposure method allows you to determine which and how many light bursts are recorded, but the second method may be necessary when the composition includes other lights.

Fireworks at USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial in Wilmington

Fireworks at USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial in Wilmington, NC. Nikon D300, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, f/16, 8 seconds, ISO 160.

 
First method: If you don’t have a lighted foreground or background and the only significant exposure consideration is the fireworks themselves, the best approach is to set the shutter to bulb and manually fire it during the show, leaving it open until one or more bursts occur. Close the shutter and then start again. For aperture, start with a setting between f/8 and f/16 and for ISO start at 100 or 200. After the first burst, quickly check the LCD and make any needed adjustments and then leave it set for the rest of the show. Some of the brightest bursts (particularly the white ones) might blow out and some of the fainter ones might be a bit underexposed, but you can’t change exposure for every burst. You have to pick something and go with it. Just be careful that your setting doesn’t overexposure the majority of the bursts, which is the biggest problem I see with fireworks images. It’s okay to have some of the core blown out of the brightest bursts, but you definitely want to see color in the rest of the lights.
 
Second method: If there is a lighted foreground or background in the composition, you have to consider that when determining exposure. Right before the show begins, when the ambient light most closely matches the lighting during the show, determine the proper exposure for the scene based on the same starting point of ISO 100 to 200 and f/8 to f/16. The goal is to end up with a shutter speed from about 4 to 8 seconds. Set the shutter to continuous and let it rip while the show is going on. A locking cable release comes in handy here. Just as with the first exposure method, you still need to check the first burst to make sure the fireworks are exposed properly with the chosen settings, but you have to be a little more careful to make sure you do not adjust the settings so much that you severely underexpose or overexpose the rest of the scene.

If you have two cameras, a good approach is to use both exposure methods. Set up one camera using the second method and leave it alone, letting it take continuous exposures throughout the show while you use the first method with the other camera. I can tell you from experience that it is very difficult to use the first method on two cameras at once.

Fireworks in Wilmington North Carolina

I used the technique described in the text to capture a starry background for the fireworks.

Another exposure technique: A third technique might be helpful in some situations. Set the aperture and ISO as needed for the fireworks and set the shutter to bulb. Using a cable or remote release, fire the shutter and leave it open, but hold a black card or something similar in front of the lens so it doesn’t record anything. When a firework goes off, remove the card, allowing the camera to record the burst, then put the card back in front of the lens and wait for another burst. You can do this as many times as you like.

This method is a good way to record several bursts of fireworks on a single frame without overexposing the overall scene. It’s also a good method to use when the ambient light in the foreground is too bright to allow a long shutter speed, because it records light only during the main blast. It does require a lot of attention, though. You can use a simple black card, black hat, or even a gloved hand. Or if you want to get fancy, line a box or a plastic bowl with black fabric. This will work well to prevent any ambient light from entering in from the sides.    

Special Considerations and Techniques
 
Fireworks create a tremendous amount of smoke, which may or may not benefit you as the photographer. Most of the time, the smoke generated from one burst acts a distraction for the burst following it, but sometimes it will enhance the scene if the next burst illuminates it well. Wind speed and direction play a pivotal role here. Using a quicker shutter speed might help a little to keep the smoke from recording as much, but other than that, there is nothing you can do about it.

Want to shoot fireworks against a sky full of stars? Well, you can forget it in a single frame. Actually, you can pretty much forget it altogether if you’re shooting in a city because the overall light pollution is too great for a night-sky scene. But if you are shooting the works in a setting that doesn’t have a lot of light pollution, you can make it work by shooting multiple exposures. Leave the camera set up after the show is over and wait until the smoke clears and everyone takes their flashlights and headlights with them. Then shoot an exposure for the sky and stack this exposure with one of the fireworks shots using the Lighten blend mode in Photoshop. 

You can use the technique above for other special affects as well. For example, with the camera still mounted on the tripod and everyone gone, try light painting with a flashlight shining into the camera, maybe spelling out some words or shapes. One idea for words is “July 4, 2013.”

A Final (Important) Thought

Emergency rooms fill up on Independence Day, with many of the patients being inebriated males who just finished shouting, “Watch this.” And the sad truth is that it’s not just the nuts who suffer. Several times I’ve been in a crowd where some bozo set off a bottle rocket and it flew in the wrong direction, endangering everyone in its path. A bottle rocket once nearly hit my tripod-mounted camera. One year, I thought I was going to have to call the police because a man kept giving his young kids firecrackers  to set off— in the middle of a crowd of folks waiting for the show.

Even when used responsibly, most fireworks are extremely dangerous and, in fact, are illegal for consumers in some states, including my state of North Carolina. Leave the fireworks lighting to the experts and if you find yourself in a group of bozos, walk away.

Unless you hear, “Watch this”, at which point you should run like hell!

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