FIREWORKS PHOTOGRAPHY IN DIFFERENT FLAVOURS
Want to know how to photograph fireworks? I have searched much of the Internet, and everyone has a different take on fireworks photography. Since you, photo ninja, are here at this guide, I will assume that you are serious about getting awesome photos of fireworks.
Thus have I compiled all the methods that I know of into this guide. It will walk you through 4 different ways to shoot fireworks step-by-step, and give you a couple of good tips.
AN HONEST DISCLOSURE
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Nah. These are just things to keep the blog going, and allows me to give more good stuff to you guys - for free. So thank you if you decide to pick up my recommendations!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What You Need
WHAT YOU NEED
EQUIPMENT TO PHOTOGRAPH FIREWORKS
Don’t worry, you don’t have to splurge on expensive big guns. But some degree of decent equipment is still required if you want nice shots of fireworks… A crappy toy camera is not going to get the work done.
- A decent camera
DSLR or mirrorless camera, capable of manual settings.
- A sturdy tripod
One with a ball head is recommended. [Selens] offer pretty good ones that are affordable, or go for the good old reliable [Manfrotto].
- Remote shutter release
To keep your hands off the camera, and reduce camera shake. Does not matter if it is wired or wireless. [Nikon] [Canon] [Sony]
- Black card
If you are using the black card method. This literally means a piece of black card, large enough to cover the lens.
- [Cree flashlights]
These will come in very handy in dark places. Not for photography, but for safety and finding your way.
- [Bubble spirit level]
These cheap bubble in liquid thing can save you from unwanted slanted horizons. If not, just use your camera’s virtual horizon.
- [Portable Folding Camping Chair]
If you are expecting long outdoor waits, don’t torture yourself and just bring a chair along.
PHOTOSHOP OR LIGHTROOM
Lastly, if you do not already have a copy of Photoshop or Lightroom, click on the banner below to check out an offer. This is completely optional though – You can still do fireworks without editing software. Alternatively, you can check out GIMP, a free editing app.
BEFORE THE SHOOT
PREPARATION & HOMEWORK
Just go and shoot, we wish it is that simple. But when it comes to grand fireworks, you can expect a lot of people and chaos. If you do not want to miss the show, you need to prepare well and not go in blind as a bat.
KNOW THE TIME AND LOCATION
The captain obvious question. When and where will the fireworks go off? Shooting at the wrong time and location is an extremely painful experience that you don’t want.
KNOW THE BEST PLACES SHOOT
Do a little bit of research and look at the photos of other photographers. That should give you a good idea of where to find vantage spots. It is also good to know which areas are closed off to the public for traffic control and safety. Even better if you scout the location beforehand, and not get lost on the day itself.
MAKE USE OF THE REHEARSALS
If there are rehearsals and previews, take that opportunity to go find a “perfect spot”. Know when the fireworks go off, and time your shots properly. Increase your chances of catching good photos.
If you do not want to lose your “perfect spot”, go early and “reserve” the place with by placing your tripod on it. Seriously. Some photographers can camp as early as a few hours before a big show, under the hot sun until the fireworks go off at night.
GO PREPARED – BRING FOOD, DRINKS, AND ENTERTAINMENT
If you are camping at your chosen spot for a few hours. Bring sufficient food, drinks, and entertainment. Bring an ice box filled with beer if you must, and bring those power banks. Oh, don’t forget the barbecue pits as well.
Before you get fried like eggs under a hot sun, you will need some protection against the sun and rain. An umbrella will do the job. A portable chair will be nice too. Bring along some friends as well… just-in-case you need to answer nature’s call or take turns to go buy some stuff.
HANDHELD – FIREWORKS WITHOUT TRIPOD
No Photoshop? No problem. Rejoice, you purists! There are a few ways to taking fireworks, and Photoshop is not in the equation. Actually, for you guys who are just starting out in photography, I will recommend trying out this method first – It is easy and straightforward. No tripod needed, just a camera.
NO SHAME WITH AUTO
For the absolute beginners, I will recommend using the auto or night shoot mode – This may not give you amazing shots, but it is the most fuss-free way to take decent photos without technical knowledge. But if you want more, you have to go beyond auto.
SHOOT IN THE APERTURE OR MANUAL MODE
For you guys who are a little more advanced, turn your camera to shoot in the aperture priority or manual mode. My usual settings while shooting on handheld are:
- A wider aperture between f/2.8 to f/5.6.
- Generally ISO 400 – 1600.
- The key here is to keep the ISO decently low while maintaining a fast enough shutter speed.
- Do not sacrifice too much aperture. It can be very difficult to get good fireworks with a paper-thin depth of field.
- Use the reciprocal rule as a general guideline – To prevent blur images, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/focal length. For example, if you are shooting at 50mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/50 sec.
That said, I have seen some kung-fu masters who are able to remain absolutely still for one second while on handheld… If you have that kind of “inner strength”, feel free to drop the ISO and recover some image quality.
DO NOT FLASH
Firing the flash at fireworks… A common newbie mistake that I hate to the core. Now that you have read this, please don’t do it for very good reasons. Firstly, the flash will not light up the sky but only annoy other people. Secondly, it destroys the shots of other photographers. So please, no flash.
If you need some extra stability, try using a chair, rubbish bin, or railing as a substitute tripod.
Autofocus can be rather tricky at night, especially with a mess of fireworks. My usual trick is to use manual focus – Turn the focus ring to infinity, then dial back a little bit. Use your own eyes to judge the sharpness. A smaller aperture will ease the focusing with a deeper depth of field.
For you guys who are looking for a little more, try out this method with the use of a tripod. But be warned, this method is not really “newbie friendly”, and will require knowledge of the exposure triangle. If you are uncomfortable with manual settings, this might be a challenge for you… But the results are totally worth it.
STEP 1) DEPLOY, FRAME, COMPOSE
Hopefully, you have taken my advice to go to the location early. You will have more time to prepare and more chances to look around for a good vantage point. Estimate where the fireworks will go off, mount the camera on the tripod and frame your winning shot.
STEP 2) FIX FOCUS
Manual or auto-focus, it does not matter which one you use as long as you get a sharp photo. But remember, once you have framed up and focused, switch to manual focus and not shift the camera around anymore.
STEP 3) SHOOT IN BULB MODE
Set your camera to shoot in full manual mode.
- Start with a small aperture of about f/5.6 to f/8.
- Keep the ISO as low as possible – 100 to 400.
- Use “bulb” for the shutter speed.
- Shoot in RAW if possible.
What is the bulb mode? For you guys who are newer to photography, bulb mode simply means “keep the shutter open for as long as I press the button”. This is extremely useful in photographing fireworks, as it gives you the complete control over the timing.
Start taking a photo before the fireworks go up, and stop after it fully pops open. Lastly, a long exposure is prone to camera shakes, and it is essential that you use a remote trigger to get your hands off the camera.
STEP 4) TEST AND ADJUST
It is a good idea to take some test shots before the actual fireworks. The goal is to get a slightly underexposed photo without the fireworks, and take a mental note of how long your exposure took.
For example, you used ISO 100, f/8 and 3 seconds got you a slightly underexposed test shot. Holding the shutter open for about 3-4 seconds during the fireworks will probably get you a nice and well-exposed photo.
STEP 5) TIMING YOUR SHOTS
Take photos as the fireworks go off. The key to success for this method lies in the timing and exposure. If the exposure is too long, you will get a mess of smoke and fireworks. If the exposure is too short, you will get a boring “single pop” photo. Catch the fireworks too early, you get nothing. Catch it too late, you get smoke and sagging fireworks. Readjust your timing, the ISO, and aperture on-the-fly if you must.
There is a critical flaw with the bulb method, and that is, it gets messy if you expose the photo too long. Thus, creative people came up with a simple solution, that is to use a black card to control the exposure. Yes, the black card method is literally a follow up of the bulb mode, but with the use of a black card/paper.
STEP 1) COMPOSITION AND FOCUS
As usual, start with your composition, mount camera to tripod, then get the focus right. Once your frame and focus is correct, set to manual focus and not move the camera anymore.
STEP 2) THE SETTINGS
Start with an aperture of f/8 or more, and “bulb” for the shutter speed. The key here is a long exposure, so be sure that you are using a remote trigger to reduce camera shake; A remote trigger that can be locked will help you greatly here.
STEP 3) TAKING THE POPS
- As the fireworks go off, put the black card in front of the lens, and jam that shutter open.
- Whenever you see a nice firework that you like, lift the black card to “include” it in your photo.
- Cover the lens as the fireworks start to disperse.
- Repeat the lifting and covering action a couple of times.
- Keep a small mental note of how many times you have uncovered the black card.
STEP 4) REVIEW AND RE-ADJUST
Release the shutter after you have “cover-uncovered” the black card for 3-5 times. Quickly review the photo, and determine if you need to tweak any of the settings – is it under or overexposed? Do you need to change the aperture or ISO? Re-adjust the settings accordingly, and repeat the cover-and-reveal cycle again; Take as many photos as you like.
This is my preferred method of photographing fireworks. It involves taking a “base photo” before the fireworks start, and blending many fireworks photos on top it in Photoshop. If you are a “purist” and hate Photoshop to the core – Feel free to skip this method.
STEP 1) START EARLY, TAKE MORE PICTURES, NOT LESS
For this method to work well, you need to start earlier, before the fireworks start. Camp at your vantage point, and start taking pictures during sunset and blue hour. This also makes your trip worth it – Even if the fireworks show is somehow canceled, you will still have nice sunset photos.
STEP 2) COMPOSE, FIX FRAME, TAKE YOUR BASE SHOT
As for the composition, just guess where the fireworks will pop, and leave sufficient room in the sky. When you are happy with your base photo, set your camera to manual focus, and don’t move it. Remember that fireworks will be added on top of this base photo, and it is important that the camera stays fixed on the tripod, on that spot. Any slight movement will probably destroy the entire shot. 🙁
Lastly, take a couple of base shots and pray hard that your framing is right where the fireworks pop.
STEP 3) SPAM, CHIMP, RE-ADJUST
Take plenty of shots as the fireworks go off. My usual settings for the fireworks are :
- About f/2.8 to f/5.6. Since I already have a “base shot” during blue hour, I am only interested in getting the fireworks right. No need for small apertures to capture the landscape again.
- Anything between ISO100 to ISO 800. This depends on the shutter speed and the wind… if the fireworks disperse too fast, you will probably need a higher ISO and shutter speed.
- Shutter speed is anywhere between 0.2 sec to 2 sec. Depending on the type of fireworks and wind.
Do remember to chimp on your shots in between to confirm the settings, or if the fireworks are nicely in the frame. Adjust your settings on the fly if you must.
STEP 4) COOKING THE BASE PHOTO IN PHOTOSHOP
The final stage, start by editing the base photo in Photoshop. Nothing too fanciful, just your usual “camera RAW stuff” at this stage – adjust the exposure, color balance and removing dust spots.
Sorry guys, since everyone is going to have different photos and settings, I cannot give a “one size fits all” camera raw adjustment setting. But a general rule that I always follow – keep the skies slightly darker. That has always made the blended fireworks look nicer.
STEP 5) STACKING MAGIC IN PHOTOSHOP
Base photo done. Now to add the fireworks on top of it, and this is what we call “stacking”.
Simply select a few of the nicer looking fireworks.
- Open up the fireworks photo.
- Select, copy-and-paste the firework into the base photo as a new layer.
- Set the blend mode of the fireworks to “screen”.
That’s it. If you want, you can add a small curve adjustment to correct the contrast of the fireworks layer. (Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Curves)
Well done. That should get you an award-winning fireworks photo.
TIPS & GALLERY
Here are a few more general tips on taking fireworks photos, and how to deal with a few of those unexpected situations… Also, a small sharing of my own fireworks photos over the years.
TIP 1) WHAT TO DO WHEN THE FIREWORKS ARE OUT OF FRAME
Don’t panic and decide for yourself quickly if you can afford to “miss out” those fireworks in the final photo, or your composition needs to be changed. If you decide that you can live with a little fireworks being clipped out of frame, just continue shooting and ignore. If you decide to recompose, just do so quickly and continue with the fireworks.
TIP 2) BEST TAKEN WHEN FRESH
Try to take the fireworks as they go up and pop. Don’t wait until they sag, smoke, and get carried away by the winds.
TIP 3) WATCH THE WIND
Strong winds can cause the fireworks to “deform” faster – If you are using a long enough exposure, you will catch some pretty funky light trails. So before the show, judge for yourself how long of an exposure you need.
TIP 4) WHICH FOCAL LENGTH IS THE BEST?
Use a wide angle to capture a nice landscape, use a telephoto to get nice close-ups. There really isn’t a single “best lens” for fireworks photography.
TIP 5) TUNE DOWN THE NOISE REDUCTION
For you guys who are using the bulb mode or black card method, remember to turn off, or at least tune down the noise reduction for long exposures. An overly aggressive noise reduction will result in soft blurry photos.
We have come to the end of the guide. Whichever method you choose to adopt, I hope this guide has been helpful to you. Nothing beats actual hands-on, so go out and try these methods for yourself. There is nothing more satisfying when you catch that grand display of fireworks on a photo.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below. Go shoot and have fun!