We are just a few weeks away from an American tradition of celebrating our nation’s independence by blowing up a small part of it! Yup, the 4th of July! And nothing says independence better than setting off a slew of explosives. For several years now municipalities have had their own fireworks shows for local residence. Nowadays, you can find a fireworks show nearly everywhere in the city on the 4th of July. This is a perfect time to grab your camera and try some night time long exposure photography!
Equipment for fireworks photography is fairly simple. All you really need is a camera with the ability to extend the shutter length and a tripod. I typically also take along my remote wireless shutter release just to make sure I’m not shaking the camera when I take a picture. Make sure you are familiar with your camera and can quickly and easily change settings in a completely dark environment. The last thing you want to do is miss the show because you’re hunting around your camera trying to change settings.
In addition to a DSLR, I usually take a lens that has a moderately wide angle view. Most of the time my focal length is somewhere around 35mm, sometimes a little wider, sometimes a little narrower. The typical kit lens (18-55mm) is a good choice. I typically shoot fireworks in manual mode as I don’t want the camera attempting to get a perfect exposure. It will constantly attempt to make the image much brighter than it should be. Aperture setting is a little more complicated and may take a little experimenting. You want to get a good depth of field so a mid-range F-stop number is desired (F5 to F8) but you don’t want to decrease your light gathering abilities by setting it too high (such as F11+). I typically shoot around F5. I have tried a very fast lens at F2.8 but found the shallow depth of field an issue when trying to keep the entire image sharp. Plus, keep in mind you are only trying to capture the light from the fireworks and not necessarily the ambient light of the sky. I keep my ISO set to the lowest my camera will accommodate, usually ISO 50 or 100. Again, I want a dark background – black if possible.
The last setting to consider is your shutter speed. This is where a sturdy tripod is a necessity. Your shutter will be open for a significant time so hand holding your camera typically will introduce severe blurring. Experiment with different settings. A longer shutter will give more firework trails and can create some fairly interesting pictures. Shorter exposures will give more of an ‘explosion’ effect to the pictures. If you prefer the longer, softer looking images, increase your shutter speed. Keep in mind that doing so may lighten your picture more than you want. To compensate, increase your F-stop number to a higher value (from F5 to somewhere around F8 perhaps). Take a few shots and see which images you like best. I typically like the images I get at between .5 to 2 seconds. I get a little trailing but not so much that the ‘explosion’ effect is lost. Once you get the desired images you want, start shooting away.
I simply start watching the sky and press the remote button after each shot or when I think there is about to be a good display. A decent fireworks display can yield you more images than you probably anticipate. Make sure you have a good sized memory card and charged up batteries. Another piece of advice, turn off your camera’s long exposure noise reduction feature if your camera has one. This feature will attempt to reduce noise from a long exposure image. Typically this is a good thing but it takes about as long as capturing the image as it does to process and remove any noise. You will miss several good shots waiting for the camera to process each image. Besides, a 2 second exposure typically isn’t long enough to introduce the type of noise the feature is designed to remove.
This technique is also the same technique I use to capture nature’s fireworks – LIGHTNING! The only differences are that I continuously snap away with lightning as I never know when the next strike is about to happen, and I will typically shoot with a wider field of view to get more of the sky in the frame. Otherwise, the settings are just about the same. I do tend to keep the shutter speed closer to 2 to 4 seconds as well. Unlike fireworks displays, lightning takes a little more patience. You may take close to 100 pictures to later find you only really got a handful of great lightning strikes. Because of this, I will typically stack the images of the more impressive strikes into one image. Here again, using a tripod is crucial. If the storm is close, you will have a limited time to get the pictures before the heavens open up and the rain begins to fall. Be safe though! You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to win the lottery. Don’t be a statistic that corroborates this saying.
Be it a lightning show or a fireworks display, take the opportunity to get your camera out and experiment. With so many different displays around town on the 4th, and some even a day or two before the 4th, try different settings for different fireworks displays. You don’t even really need a professional display to experiment. Try it when the kids are out setting their fireworks off in the street or in the yard. Year after year I would set up at a local display and capture image after image of great exploding fireworks. It’s relatively easy and I think you will be amazed at some of the images you will capture. In the end, simply have fun with your camera trying something new. See you out there!
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.