Knowing how to take fireworks photos that impress requires more than having a tripod and knowing how to shoot at a small aperture. The fireworks photos that really please people are the ones that tell a story. The explosions by themselves make for boring photos. When you put your photos in context with people, a place or an event – then you have an interesting photo that tells a story.
In this episode, we cover how to take fireworks photos on this show, covering how to plan your shot, prepare your gear, and we provide some best practices to perfect your fireworks photography.
Plan Your Fireworks Photography Before You Leave the House
Fireworks photography sometimes comes down to luck. The best way to improve your odds and have good luck is to know what shot you want to get before you ever leave the house.
You can do that by studying the location where you want to do your fireworks photography.
Know the Lay of the Land
When you think about it, fireworks photography is a lot like landscape photography. You need a foreground, a middle and a background. All of those elements will help provide your photo with depth, but it also helps you as a visual storyteller. You can decide what elements go where.
Photos of fireworks exploding on a dark sky alone are boring. There's no context with that kind of shot.
Use your environment to put your fireworks in context. You want to show something that tells people where you are. Use people enjoying the fireworks as a foreground element. You may need to get way back to include the crowd, or maybe shoot across a river to show a cityscape under the fireworks.
These ideas mean that you have to know what you want in your photo before you leave the house, and where you need to place your camera to include those elements.
Sometimes that means missing out on the party where all the people are. Such is the life of photography. You can get the shot, or you can participate in the event. It's hard to do both well at the same time.
Research Past Fireworks Events on YouTube
Most cities and locations tend to shoot fireworks in the same spot year after year. That gives you an advantage to research the show on YouTube.
For example, I've never been to Philadelphia before. If I wanted to do some fireworks photography there, I'm clueless about the location and where to find the best view of the fireworks.
That's when I go to YouTube.
I just entered the query – Philadelphia Fireworks Show – in YouTube. The search returned about 87,000 results. You can see how the City of Brotherly Love puts on its fireworks show year after year, from plenty of points of view. You even get drone videos to show the fireworks from the air.
Maybe you can use those videos for ideas to get a completely different type of shot. See if you can get access on a rooftop or balcony on a tall building to take in the whole show at once.
I did that with this shot on Independence Day at Walt Disney World by getting on a hotel balcony outside of the Magic Kingdom.
Visualize the Shot You Want
Does your location have an iconic building, statue or some other feature? If this is your first time photographing fireworks, there's nothing wrong with getting a classic shot for your location.
People in New York love fireworks over the Statue of Liberty, above the city skyline, or over the Brooklyn Bridge. The City of Orlando uses the iconic fountain in Lake Eola as a location for its fireworks events.
Once again, do your research and decide what you want your final result to look like. Chances are that it isn't about the specific fireworks bursts, but finding those explosions over or near a view that tells your viewers where you are and what you're celebrating.
Sometimes you may want to get an interesting shot behind the usual subject. It could give your photos a point of view that your viewers haven't seen before.
Prepare Your Camera Gear Before You Go
The dumbest mistakes I've ever made in photography were because I didn't take the time to adequately prepare my gear. Instead, I assumed that everything was in working order. I also assumed that I had everything ready to go in my bag.
That really kicked me in the butt when I was at a live performance in Cuba trying to photograph dancers as my rechargeable batteries kept dying because they were exhausted. Sure, I charged them before the show. They just couldn't hold a charge anymore. I just assumed everything was fine.
It also hit me when I brought the wrong cable release for my camera during a fireworks session at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. There I am, waiting for the show to start and I realized my mistake. I had my camera, lenses, data cards and tripod. However, it's amazing just how much blur you get from camera shake on a long exposure – just by gently pressing the shutter button.
So check everything out before you go. At a bare minimum, you need these items.
- Mounting plate
- Cable release with a lock to hold the shutter open
- Fresh batteries
- Memory cards with room to store your photos
There are a few other things we'd like to suggest.
- Microfiber cloth or lens wipes
- Small flashlight
- A cover for your camera viewfinder to prevent light leak
- A black card, cloth or baseball cap
We'll discuss some of these items a bit more later. Just make sure you test everything before you go, and you have them all in your bag. Make sure you test any new gear before you get to your location.
The main idea with fireworks photography is to spend your time watching the show and clicking the cable release. You don't want to have to look at your gear at all. Everything should be ready to go so you can concentrate on your subject.
Plan Your Arrival Time Carefully
Fireworks events are rare, which means they're typically crowded. You may find crowded roads, trains or other routes toward your destination. My advice is simple.
Be there first and wait.
How long you have to wait depends upon your location, the size of the crowd expected, the capacity of the roads, and similar factors.
I'm one of those people who would rather be there and wait instead of fighting through a crowded road and wonder if I'll get the spot I want. Then again, I'm a guy who waited outside in the July heat for five hours to get a good spot at an outdoor stage to get the photos I wanted.
Did it suck?
Absolutely, but I got the shots I wanted. That's what was important to me. Other people got photos of the back of my head.
Tips for Photographing Fireworks at Your Destination
Remember two aspects of fireworks photography:
- You need a stable platform
- You take long exposures
If you can do these two things, you can take great fireworks photos with pretty much any kind of camera. You don't need fast glass or high end cameras for your fireworks shots.
All you're really doing is starting a long exposure without causing any vibration or shaking in the camera. You want to be able to start and stop that exposure on your own, which typically means using something called Bulb mode on your camera.
That's just a way of allowing you, not the camera, to determine the length of the exposure based upon when you hit the shutter and when you release it.
Fireworks Photography is a Manual Mode Endeavor
If you never used your camera in manual mode before, don't panic. It's actually much easier than you may think. You're going to do some test shots before the show starts so you can get a feel for how long to hold the shutter down to get the exposure you want.
Here's how I like to get my exposure right before the show.
- Setup my camera and tripod to get the composition I want for the show.
- Use auto-focus to lock on a building or some other centerpiece for the show
- Turn off-autofocus and set to manual so your camera doesn't start hunting for focus in the dark
- If you want to use a neutral density filter, add it now.
- Set your aperture. I typically go for f/16 or f/22
- Set your ISO to its lowest setting. Mine is typically ISO 100.
- Add your cable release and take a test shot
- Review the exposure. Add or eliminate time that you need to get a good exposure of your centerpiece subject
- Repeat steps 7 & 8 until you're happy
- Make sure you're shooting in RAW mode, not JPEG
How to Guess Your Proper Exposure
When I'm photographing fireworks, I do it by feel for the light. That may sound like a difficult concept to describe, but this is something you should practice before the show. In fact, you may want to try this before the night of the fireworks event.
Since you locked down your ISO and aperture, the only variable left is with your shutter speed. As this is a long exposure event, we're not worried about milliseconds here.
If I set up in an urban environment with low lighting using ISO 100 and f/22, my camera usually takes a good exposure at roughly four seconds. So I get everything setup, click my shutter release cable and I start counting.
One. Two. Three. Four.
Then I let go of the shutter and review my results.
If it's two bright, I have to reduce to three seconds and see how it looks. That's because I can't reduce my ISO anymore and my aperture won't close further. If I have a neutral density filter, I would prefer to add that rather than reduce to three seconds.
Why four seconds instead of three?
Because it gives me more options to capture additional fireworks bursts in the same frame. I've found that a four second exposure is my sweet spot for fireworks photography.
If the exposure is too dark, I find out how many more seconds I need to get the shot I want. If it's more than I like, then I'll open my aperture or remove the ND filter to get more light. I prefer not to raise the ISO to avoid generating noise. Modern full frame cameras are pretty good about noise, though.
A Caution About In-Camera Noise Reduction
If you have this feature in your camera, we recommend that you turn it off. That's because it causes a delay in writing your photo to the memory card and prevents you from taking other photos.
Imagine all those beautiful fireworks that you aren't capturing because your camera is busy eliminating noise. Noise that you could've eliminated much faster in Lightroom.
Keep a low ISO to reduce noise and don't sweat it. It's not going to ruin your shots and you can easily fix noise issues with software later.
The Baseball Cap Technique
I mentioned earlier that you may want to bring a black card, cloth or baseball cap with you. That's so you can take very long exposures and get multiple bursts in one frame, like this one:
This is a 22 second exposure, but it didn't have light hitting the sensor during the entire time the shutter was open. We used a black cap to cover the lens while the shutter remained open during parts of the show.
When an interesting fireworks burst went up, we removed the cap and counted the time we allowed light to hit the sensor. That allowed us to get three to four different parts of the fireworks show in the same shot. We counted until we reached the number of seconds for our correct exposure, and then closed the shutter.
You could try doing this in post processing by stacking layers, but it's easier and more fun to do it in-camera.
Be Prepared for Smoke and Weather
As fireworks are incendiary devices, they create a lot of smoke. That means your chances for a burst of fireworks on a clear sky are best at the start of the show. As the show continues, the smoke gets illuminated by other fireworks and looks like a haze in your shot.
If you're lucky, you may have a gentle wind to push the smoke aside. Don't rely upon it, though. Do your best to get your shots at the start of the show so you have some without smoke or haze.
Also, be prepared for rain. We've had some really rainy nights on Independence Day in the Orlando area, and the show goes on as long as there isn't a lightning threat. Things explode in the rain, so you may want to find a cover for your camera and lens.
Enjoy the Show
This is the kind of photography where you truly need to keep your eye away from the camera. Watch the show, enjoy it, and remember to click the shutter release at the right time.
Use your senses to detect the fireworks shells before they explode, if you can. If you're close enough, you can hear them launch. Sometimes you can see the shell flying into the air before it explodes.
Get your shutter open before it explodes, leave it open as the light expands and close the shutter when it's done.
Watch for patterns. Some fireworks shows repeat a sequence more than once. Remember your research to see if you can detect the order of the explosions, patterns or something to trigger you to open the shutter at the right moment.
Don't worry if some of the shots stink. I always have stinkers. Yet all you need is one good shot. If you plan and prepare, you have great odds of getting some keepers when you shoot your fireworks event.
Coming Up Next Week
Capturing your fireworks photos is fun, but it's not the end of your experience. In our next episode, we'll talk about what to do with your fireworks photos once you get home.
We'll help you evaluate your results, select your best shots and post process them to bring out the best results.
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