Photographing Fireworks

In honor of Independence Day, here is a photograph I took two years ago at a fireworks display in Carson City, Nevada.  If you’d like a few tips on how to photograph fireworks, please continue reading.

July 4, 2011 ISO 200 f/13 29 seconds
July 4, 2011
f/13 29 seconds, ISO 200

When photographing fireworks, a tripod is crucial.  If you don’t have one, find a flat surface you can set your camera on to keep it steady or use a bean bag.

(Point and shoot users: Your camera probably has a “fireworks” option in the scene mode.  This setting will disable the flash and take a one or two second exposure.  These cameras can mount to tripods too, give it a shot and see what happens!)

When you’re deciding which lens to use and where you’ll be shooting from, keep in mind your ideal composition.  While close-up photos of firework bursts can be fun and colorful, look around to see if there is anything in the foreground or background that could make an even more interesting photograph.  If you get to your location early enough, you can scout out the perfect spot.

It’s also a good idea to manually focus on your scene before it gets too dark.  I like to focus to infinity and take a few test shots – then I don’t have to think about it for the rest of the evening.  (If you prefer to auto focus, keep in mind you may miss out on shots if the camera ends up searching for something to lock focus on during each exposure.)

Keep your ISO low, at 100 or 200 max to keep noise at a minimum.  Set your camera mode to manual exposure and the shutter speed to the “bulb” setting.  This setting allows you to control the amount of time the shutter is open.

After the show begins, start experimenting with different f stops.  I suggest starting with f/11.  If it’s a little light, try f/16, and if it’s too dark, try f/8.  It’s best to open the shutter for no more than a few seconds at a time, any more than that and the fireworks might get blown out.  If you have a remote for your camera, use it!  It greatly reduces camera shake and allows you to pay more attention to the show instead of focusing entirely on the camera.

Another tip is to bring along something like a piece of black mat board to hold in front of the lens in between fireworks to allow multiple bursts in one frame without overexposing the image.  This is how my exposure in the photograph above got to be 29 seconds long without losing any detail.

Most importantly, experiment like crazy.  Review your images and adjust if necessary.  If you make mistakes, figure out what went wrong and you can get even better shots next time.  Have fun out there and let me know if you have any questions!

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