How to Photograph Fireworks Like a Boss

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INTRODUCTION
SMARTPHONE TO PHOTOGRAPH FIREWORKS?

Want to learn how to photograph fireworks? While the easiest way is to just pull out your smartphone and snap away, smartphone camera technologies are just not quite there yet.

Since you are reading this, I am guessing that you are serious about getting awesome photos of fireworks. So I have written this guide to help you go “heavy guns” on fireworks.

Shoot? Too easy. Now own it like a boss.

 

CONFESSION
AN HONEST DISCLOSURE

Quick, hide your wallets!

There are affiliate links and advertisements on this page! Whenever you buy things from the evil links that I recommend, I will make a commission.

Nah. These are just things to keep the blog going, and allows me to give more good stuff to you guys. So thank you if you decide to pick up my recommendations!

 

 

NAVIGATION
TABLE OF CONTENTS

Section A
Gear Requirements

Section B
Homework

Section C
Preparation

Section D
How to shoot

Section E
For the purist

Section F
Closing & Gallery

 

 

SECTION A
WHAT YOU NEED TO PHOTOGRAPH FIREWORKS

Smartphone cameras are pretty good, but technology wise, they are not quite there yet. So if you want nice shots of fireworks, you need to invest in some pretty serious gear. Not to worry, you do not need big guns, but I will still recommend having some decent gear.

 

A1) REQUIRED GEAR

To shoot fireworks, you will need to have at least the following.

  • A decent camera
    DSLR or mirrorless camera, capable of manual controls.
  • 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].

 

A2) OPTIONAL GEAR

The following are not required, but will make your shoot experience a lot better.

  • Remote trigger
    To keep your hands off the camera, and reduce camera shake. Does not matter if it is wired or wireless. [Nikon] [Canon] [Sony]
  • [Cree flashlights]
    These will come in very handy in dark places.
  • [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 a long outdoor wait, one of these get you comfortable.
My trusty fireworks setup. Nikon D800E, Manfrotto tripod, spirit level and Phottix trigger.
 💡 No tripod? No problem. As long as you can find something stable to put your camera on, even a rubbish bin will work.

A3) PHOTOSHOP & 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.

 

SECTION B
DO YOUR HOMEWORK

What homework?

What has it got to do with fireworks? A lot, and these are the things that you should know before going for a fireworks photoshoot. Know what to expect for the fireworks, and don’t go in blind as a bat.

 

B1) 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.

 

B2) KNOW THE BEST PLACES SHOOT

Do a little bit of research and look at photos of other photographers. That should give you a good idea on where to find vantage spots.

It will also be good to know which areas are closed off to the public for traffic control and safety. Even better if you can go scout the location before hand, and not get lost on the big day itself.

 

B3) MAKE USE OF THE REHEARSALS

If there are rehearsals and previews, take that opportunity to go find a “perfect spot”. Know when the fireworks will go off, and time your shots properly.  Increase your chances of catching those pretty explosive blings.

 💡 Do not discount doing homework. Not knowing where to go, not able to find a good spot, not arriving on time? These are terrible mistakes that can be prevented with some simple homework.

 

 

SECTION C
PREPARATION

Just go and shoot. We wish it is that simple.

But for the big events, you can expect huge crowds and heavy traffic. If you do not want to miss the show, prepare well for it.

 

C1) GO SUPER EARLY

If you do not want to lose your “perfect spot”, go there 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.

 

C2) BRING FOOD, DRINKS AND ENTERTAINMENT

You will be 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.

 

C3) GET COMFORTABLE

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.

Food, water, portable chair and power bank. Not Gordon Ramsay standard, but they will make your life happier.
 💡 Fireworks are best enjoyed when you are not hungry, thirsty and tired. Just bring along a few “good stuff” that will help your photography.

 

SECTION D
FIREWORKS, HOW TO CATCH THEM ALL

Please note : This is how I shoot.

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 – Skip this part and I will discuss a few “camera only” methods later.

 

D1) START EARLY, TAKE MORE PICTURES, NOT LESS

People usually start taking fireworks only when they pop. But not for me. Before the fireworks start, I will always take some shots during sunset and blue hour.

stay true to the Singaporean “kiasu” (afraid of losing out) spirit.  Even if my fireworks photos fail, I still have some sunset photos.

 

D2) FIX THE FRAME WHEN IT’S STILL BLUE

This is the other reason why I start shooting during blue hour – I like cityscape during blue hour instead of night. I love the blue color cast, and it still has a little light to bring out some details in the landscape as well… While night is just a patch of boring black.

This, however, is my own preference and you don’t really have to follow… take the base photo during the night if you want to. I will guesstimate 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, pray hard that your framing is right where the fireworks pop.

SG50 Blue Hour. Nikon D800E, 16-35mm @ 16mm / f11 / 6s / ISO100

 

D3) 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 again.
 💡 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.

 

D4) CATCH THE RIGHT MOMENT

A small tip is to be quick on the first couple of shots, or smoke will ruin the rest of the show.

Another thing to note, is to shoot the fireworks as they go off, and not to wait until they “sag”, or get carried away by the winds.

f4 / 0.8s / ISO 100, take plenty of fireworks shots. Catch them when they are not sagging.

 

D5) 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 stack, 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.

Do stay after the show has ended, and wait for the smoke to clear sufficiently. Take another “base photo” to replace the earlier one.

 

D6) 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.

 

D7) STACKING MAGIC IN PHOTOSHOP

Base photo done. Now to add the fireworks on top of it, and this is what we call “stacking”.

Simply stack your fireworks on top as new layers and set to “screen” blend mode.

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)

The fully stacked SG50 Fireworks

Well done. That should get you an award winning fireworks photo.

 

SECTION E
FOR THE PURIST

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 these methods first – They are much more straightforward.

 

E1) SHOOT IN BULB MODE

There is an easy way to shoot with bulb mode, but requires a bit of guessing with the exposure settings.

  • Set to bulb mode, set your ISO and aperture.
  • Sit the camera on the tripod, and frame your composition.
  • I don’t fully agree with manual focus. It seems that in the video, auto-focus could have worked on the Eiffel tower… so why not? You already know that fireworks are going to pop behind anyway.
  • Trial-and-error how much time you need for a proper exposure, adjust settings on the fly.
  • Use the raw photo straight out of camera.

As easy as it may seem, there is a critical flaw with this method. The longer you expose the photo, the messier it becomes with fireworks and smoke. So remember to time your exposures accordingly.

 

E2) BLACK CARD STACKING

This method is practically the same as above, but with the use a black card to control the exposure.

Basically:

  • Set your camera on very long exposure. I.E. bulb mode.
  • As the fireworks go off, put a black card in front of the lens, and jam that shutter open.
  • Lift that black card whenever you see a nice explosion for about 1 second.
  • Cover the lens again as the fireworks disperse.
  • Repeat the lifting and covering action.

That’s it for this long long guide, hope that it serves you well. Now for a little bit of homeland promotion.

 

SECTION F
CLOSING & GALLERY

So we have come to the end of this guide. Whichever method you choose to pick up, I hope this has been helpful to you.

No lesson is complete without hands-on. It is time to go out, and try these methods for yourself. There is nothing more satisfying when you catch that grand display of fireworks on photo.

If you need some inspirations, here are some of my own. Go shoot and have fun!


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