Tips: Photographing Fireworks

I know what you’re thinking. “I just started reading this thing yesterday. You want me to shoot fireworks already?” Relax. It’s not (bottle)rocket science. Everybody loves a good fireworks display. They also love ooh-ing and aah-ing over good fireworks pictures. So let’s run down the top ten tips for taking better fireworks photos.

  1. Test your equipment ahead of time. This is a best practice no matter what, or when, you shoot. If something’s wrong with your gear, or if it doesn’t work as advertised, you’re better off finding out before the main event than during, right?
  2. Scout your location ahead of time. You’ll want good lines of sight, but you also want to pay attention to what else will be in the frame depending on where you aim your camera. If you’re a good distance from where the fireworks are going off, you’re likely to have a flatter angle of view, meaning the potential for more clutter in your photos from surrounding buildings, people, etc. If you’re closer, you’ll have the option of shooting from a low angle, leading to fewer visual distractions.
  3. Turn off your flash. The only thing your flash will do when you’re taking fireworks photos is annoy the people sitting around you, and override your camera’s shutter speed settings, resulting in an empty black frame (I’m talking from experience here).
  4. Use a support. Full-automatic cameras (your trusty point-and-shoot, or the camera in your cellular phone) will tend to default to a longer shutter speed because it’s dark out, which means that every last vibration and jiggle will translate to fireworks that look… well, more like space creatures than fireworks. Even a camera that allows you to dial in settings will get better photos if it’s on a tripod than it will if you’re trying to handhold. Just make sure that the tripod head (that’s the bit at the top connected to the bottom of your camera) has a bit of give to it so you can pan easily to point your lens where the action is.
  5. If you have a remote or a cable release, use it. If you’re using (or just stuck with) a long shutter speed, camera motion from pushing down the shutter button can still register in the photo if you’re not careful. Using the remote eliminates the need to press the shutter button, eliminating with it one more source of camera shake. Test your remote ahead of time, both to make sure it’s working, and also to see where you need to be in relation to the camera for it to work.
  6. Use a zoom lens. Primes are great for a whole host of things, but this is one of those times when the flexibility of varied focal distances comes in handy when it comes time to frame your shot. Shoot wider (zoomed out) rather than tighter (zoomed in) at first, since it can be hard enough predicting where the action will be without adding to your troubles by shooting long. Once you’ve got a better idea of where everything’s going to be, you can zoom in tighter. Besides, you can always crop later, if need be.
  7. Use the lowest ISO setting possible. Yes, I know, you spent extra on a camera that’d give you lovely low-light pictures at a higher ISO. Good on you. But you won’t need that here, since you’re taking pictures of a light source rather than trying to pick up on what little reflected light may be available. Boosting your ISO is likely to boost chromatic noise and grain.
  8. Use your camera’s burst setting, if it has one. The first shot you get may not show the fireworks in full bloom, or may not get everything that’s exploded if a few fireworks have been set off at once. With a burst shot, you can pick and choose your best shots. A caveat here: depending on your camera’s write speed, buffer size, and the class of memory card you’re using, shooting a burst can result in long lag times between shots. The first burst may come off just fine, but the next burst might come 30-45 seconds later, and may not be a full burst (you may get one or two shots off if you’re lucky). Rather than being disappointed by missed shots on the big night, try your camera out in burst mode right now, paying attention to how many shots it takes in a single burst, and how long it takes before it can take another full burst. If you find yourself gritting your teeth between shots, skip this step.
  9. Shoot manually if your camera allows it and you’re comfortable doing so. If you can’t, or you don’t feel comfortable, don’t. If your camera has a fireworks setting, you can use that. Night Mode is also an option, though not necessarily your best one; you’ll get a longer shutter speed, true, but it also tends to boost the camera’s ISO (see number 6, above). If it doesn’t (or you’d prefer not to use it), do this instead: set your camera to 100-200 ISO, f/8 to f/16 (no higher, since some lenses are fuzzy at higher f/ numbers), a long shutter speed, focus set to infinity.
  10. Chimp. “Chimping” is the practice of checking your camera’s LCD to see how the last photo came out. You don’t want to overdo it (nothing’s worse than missing the next shot ’cause you were looking at the last one), but checking your shots from time to time will give you an idea of whether you need to tweak either your settings or your technique.

If you’ve done all of the above, or at least as much as your gear will allow, you may still have blurring, noise, or other issues. If that’s the case, don’t despair; see what you can do to work with your camera’s quirks to make photos that are interesting in their own right.

Hopefully this demystifies the process of photographing fireworks. Have any other tips to share? Pass them along!