Do you remember that feeling when you were a child and fireworks started bursting in the sky? As a photographer, I think I have that same child-like joy reaction—because I know I am going to get some amazing photographs. Since Fourth of July is right around the corner, I thought I’d share some of my habits, tips and processes when shooting fireworks. Most people try to capture a few pretty fireworks shots when they shoot. I aim for about 50.
Below is a poster of a single fireworks shoot, incorporating all the images I took (and didn’t discard)—about 57 on this occasion:
This is something I don’t think we emphasize enough in Remember Forever workshops. Our classes are very much about what to do with the camera. But just as important is what you do beforehand.
Find Your Location – GET THERE EARLY.
To get the best photos, you need the best vantage point. The photos in the poster above are of an Australian event called Riverfire. Every year, the city of Brisbane lights its river on fire with a fireworks display which I personally believe rivals New Year's Eve in Sydney. The show starts around 7:30 p.m.
Every year that I am in Brisbane, I get there at about 5:30 to set up.
Real photographers get up at 3 a.m. If anyone asks you whether sunrise or sunset is better for shooting, you know the answer is sunrise—you just don’t like getting out of bed that early! With a fireworks display like Riverfire, I know that by 8 a.m. photographers are picking out the best vantage points. That's why I establish my territory early. I go to these events with a cooler of soda, a bag of snacks, a book, my iPad, and if I’m extremely persuasive—a friend.
There is nothing worse than a fireworks photo with someone's head in the way. Or a photo where you can barely see the fireworks because of a building or crowd, or because you’re behind trees. Do your research. Find the best spot. Set your alarm!
Take what You Need
Not just snacks—we’re now into the photography portion of the article. What lens are you going to use? Is your tripod sturdy and steady enough? How about height? Can it reach over any fences in the way?
Here is my usual kit for fireworks photography:
• Two cameras (one is PURELY BACKUP). Personally, I'm shooting with a Canon 5D MKII, and have been for a number of years now.
• Lens: Canon 16-35mm f2.8L USM. If it's a location I haven’t shot before, I will take my 24-70mm as a backup, in case I'm further away than I’d hoped. But as a rule, my 16-35mm is my buddy.
• Cable Release/Remote Trigger. Please, if you’re shooting any sort of landscapes—especially at night—and you haven’t got a remote trigger or cable release, then do yourself a favor and get one.
• A black card
…and your snacks.
Bring a Friend
Fireworks and photography are more enjoyable with company, but more importantly, you need someone to watch your gear when you go to find a restroom. Fourteen hours and a cooler of sodas… you do the math.
When the fireworks are about to start, you essentially need to be ready to shoot. No more fussing or playing with exposure settings, focal length or angle. The idea is to shoot as much as possible, without touching the camera again.
What I love about the 16-35mm lens is that the wider angle and 82mm focal width let me take in much of the cityscape when fireworks are firing away.
Another great thing about this lens is that I get the best of both worlds. If fireworks are everywhere then I get the cityscape, but if they are only over a portion of the city, the lens quality is good enough that I can crop 80% of my photograph, and it will still look awesome and be printable.
So, when you’re in your setup phase, get your focal length to where it can be the most effective for as many photos as possible. You don’t have time to adjust or refocus when the pretty lights start.
• Find your focal point
It’s not necessarily the fireworks themselves. What is the eye drawn to? In the photos above, you can see that I chose Brisbane’s Story Bridge. If you do everything correctly, the fireworks will still be in focus.
• Set your exposure
Really simply: f/8, ISO-100, BULB.
Oh, and if you’re not shooting in RAW, then at this point you need to hand your camera to someone else, and take up fishing.
Hopefully, I shouldn’t need to go into a lot of detail as to why I’m selecting f/8 or an ISO of 100—if you would like to learn more about why those are my preferred settings, both Remember Forever’s Landscape Photography course and Night Photography course go into a lot more depth.
BULB isn't a comfortable setting for many people. Digital photography has made us too reliant on both the light meter and the camera telling us what to do. BULB means that the shutter is open for as long as the shutter button is depressed. Hence the need of a remote or cable release.
On my camera, BULB is found by turning the dial to B. Commonly, if you take your shutter speed all the way down past 30” (“ means seconds), you’ll find BULB as the next exposure after that.
• Shutter release in one hand, black card in the other—get ready…
Taking the Photographs
Because our focal length and focus are already set, and we’re not wasting valuable seconds moving things around, we can now be more creative with the actual exposures. Being on BULB means that you have far more control over your shutter speed than by merely turning a dial; though, unless you’re a super hero, you’re not going to get faster than perhaps 1/20. But that’s okay. Great fireworks photos all happen after one second anyway.
Capturing a Single Burst
For a single burst of one rocket, you’ll be exposing between two seconds (a lot of ambient light) and ten seconds (not a lot of ambient light). You want to make sure you’re not getting all the smoke and too much distraction, so when you see the rocket in the air, press down your button. The rocket will explode, the fireworks will look pretty, and then they'll start to dissipate. Let go of the trigger. This will probably be about six seconds. That should work just fine.
Don’t wait too long to let go. You don't want all the smoke trails—just the pretty lights.
That’s the easy photograph to get.
Capturing a Multiple Burst
You know that black card you’re holding on to? Time to put it into play. With the black card in front of your lens, hold down the shutter. When the rocket starts to explode, uncover your lens. As the firework begins to dissipate, put the card back in front. Lather, rinse, repeat.
You’re going to get multiple fireworks bursts in one exposure this way.
Warning: Don’t go overboard with this. I once saw someone determined to get every burst of the night in one exposure. I tried to caution him, but he didn’t listen. Do you know how many photographs he got? Zero.
Too many bursts and you’re going to seriously overexpose your image, even using the black card. Two to four bursts is more than sufficient.
Hypothetically, supposing that your photograph didn't overexpose, if you captured every burst it would still look bad because all of the fireworks would blend into each other. Part of the luck (there’s always an element) is that the bursts spread themselves out over your cityscape.