Save your 4th of July fireworks memories.
Fireworks, shot off in the towns and cities across the U.S. on July 4th, Independence Day, has been a U.S. tradition since 1777. And, photographing fireworks has been a passion since the invention of the camera.
Historians have found a letter written by John Adams, second President of the U.S., that he sent to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, the day before independence from England was publicly declared. Adams said that the occasion of America’s independence should be celebrated “with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
The first Independence Day commemoration occurred in Philadelphia in 1777. The Pennsylvania Evening Post stated, “The evening closed with the ring of bells and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks (which began and concluded with thirteen rockets) on the Commons and the city was beautifully illuminated.”
Photographing fireworks is making images of extremely bright light against a black background, which persists for just a few seconds. You have to anticipate each burst. Determining your exposure settings and focus isn’t straight-forward. Here are my 18 tips for photographing fireworks using a digital camera:
Scout for a location and choose wisely —
Fireworks draw large crowds. Photographing fireworks means finding a position which won’t have people wandering in front of you, and accidentally kicking your equipment. Stay away from streetlamps to avoid unwanted light. Consider the setting, background, and look out for tree branches. Make sure you’re upwind to avoid fireworks smoke, which can obscure your images.
Arrive early —
Claim the spot you scouted by arriving early. When photographing fireworks, you need the time to set up your gear.
Make test photos —
Make test photos before the show begins to ensure there will be nothing unexpected in your photos, such as a street light, building light or tree branch which can ruin your images.
Always use a tripod —
Good fireworks photography requires exposures lasting several seconds to capture full bursts together with their light trails. That requires camera support to obtain sharp images.
Use a remote shutter release —
Pressing the shutter release on your camera can move it slightly and blur your fireworks’ photos. A remote shutter release allows you to trip the shutter without touching your camera, eliminating camera shake from you.
Start with a fully charged battery —
You don’t want to run out of power before the end of the show. The finale is usually the best part.
Use an empty memory card with enough capacity for the entire show —
I take photos of every fireworks burst to ensure I’ll get some great shots. I use a 64GB memory card for my 21 megapixel sensor based camera.
Use manual focus —
The fireworks you’ll photograph are likely several hundred yards/meters away, but it will be difficult to get an accurate focus in darkness. I manually focus my camera and set it to infinity. For cameras that don’t have manual focus, use landscape mode to approximate it.
Use the highest quality setting for your photos —
I shoot fireworks exclusively in RAW format. If you save your photos as JPG, choose the best quality and the largest size (least compression) to avoid JPG compression artifacts. They can occur when shooting fireworks which have high luminance and color contrast.
Yes, it’s night and dark, but you don’t need extremely long exposures —
Fireworks are very bright lights. Set your camera to manual exposure mode. I expose my fireworks photos from 1 to 4 seconds to capture the trail and full burst. Use your DSLR’s “B” (Bulb) shutter setting to control your exposure. Try to anticipate the beginning of the burst and open the shutter. Close it immediately after it reaches its peak.
If your Point and Shoot camera doesn’t have a “B” setting, choose a fixed setting, such as 2 seconds. Shorter times may require you to open your aperture more.
Base your aperture on your ISO setting —
A good starting point would be ISO 100 – f/8 to f/16 or ISO 200 – f/11 to f/22. Check your photos as you shoot and adjust the aperture as necessary.
Bring a flashlight —
You’re going to be shooting in the dark. A small flashlight will enable you to see your camera’s controls and settings.
White Balance —
It may be counterintuitive, but set your white balance to daylight.
Frame your photo well —
A vertical format is generally better, as the trail of a skyrocket is usually upward and not wide.
Use a normal to wide angle lens or zoom —
Your position relative to the fireworks’ bursts will determine the exact focal length to use. Frame your image so you have a reasonably sized foreground and “head room” above the topmost fireworks bursts.
Turn off your flash —
Your flash is useless for photographing fireworks themselves. Only use a flash if you’re trying to light something in the foreground to give your photo context and extra interest.
Consider adding foreground subjects to your fireworks photos —
Including a statue, silhouettes of the crowd, a tree or bridge or building in the foreground for context or interest can add greatly to your fireworks photographs.
Have a blast on July 4th.
(Image: New Years Fireworks – Copyright © 2017 NSL Photography. All Rights Reserved.)
After many years working in corporate America as a chemical engineer, executive and eventually CFO of a multinational manufacturer, Ned founded a tech consulting company and later restarted NSL Photography, his photography business. As a well known corporate, travel and wildlife photographer, Ned travels the world writing about travel and photography, as well as running photography workshops, seminars and photowalks. Visit Ned’s Photography Blog and Galleries.