Tutorial: How to photograph fireworks for 4th of July (or any celebration for that matter)
It is vitally important that once you are happy with your composition and you have your “scene” image, you do not move or accidentally kick your tripod.
While any camera will do, a steady tripod is a must for good firework photography as you will be using long exposures to capture the patterns effectively. You can’t take decent fireworks photos without a tripod because you will be using long shutter speeds. If your camera moves while you’re taking the photos they just won’t work. I used a Hasselblad H6D100C with a collection of lenses and having a brute of a medium format camera to hold rigid, I reached out to Vanguard UK who sent me two Alta Pro 2+ tripods, one with a 3 way pan head, the other with a video head as I was filming the display also which worked brilliantly.
|Planning out your shots before the show starts will help ensure you know what the baseline scene will look like when the fireworks start to pop.|
For the same reason you need a tripod, you need a remote shutter release to keep your camera completely still. Pushing the button will move your camera despite what you might think and the shots will end up blurry. If you don’t have a shutter release, you can use a 2 second delay as a last resort, but you will definitely miss photos using this option.
Set your camera to manual. This is vital to getting good shots. You need to set up your focus beforehand. Simply, you can set your lens to infinity for the fireworks, however this depends on location. If you are near buildings you might want them to be in focus, it is best to decide based on surroundings. If you try to use autofocus, it can ‘hunt’ and you will miss photos as it tries to focus on something in the dark.
Shutter Speed – Bulb mode is going to be your best friend. With your remote release, you will be able to keep the shutter open for as long as the burst of fireworks goes for. I recommends exposure time of between 8 – 15 seconds for a large display. It might need to be longer for a smaller show. Be aware, the longer your shutter is open the brighter the image will end up, so keep an eye on your aperture – adjust if needed.
Aperture – Once you have your settings for your pre-composed photo, it is simple to set the aperture for fireworks. Because the Fireworks are so bright, I recommend dropping your aperture anywhere between 1.5 – 3 stops depending on how bright the display is.
ISO – You want to keep your ISO as low as possible (100-200) to minimise ‘noise’ in your shots
RAW – It’s important not to fuss over the camera display image, this isn’t any representation of what your finished image is likely to be. It is because of this, we recommend shooting fireworks in RAW because the files are very forgiving. While it is better to achieve the ‘correct’ exposure in camera, the ability to post produce on RAW files increases your chances of getting the shot you want.
“It’s important not to fuss over the camera display image, this isn’t any representation of what your finished image is likely to be like because you will need to process your files” Remember that photo I told you to take while setting up the composition? Here is where you use it. Because the fireworks are so bright, in order to maintain the integrity of the highlights, the foreground will become darker, if not completely black in some sections. Also the city lights are often switched off before the display.
You need to overlay the foreground of the pre-composed image over the under exposed areas of the fireworks image. This can be done using layers in Photoshop and luminosity masks for selection where you brush in (or out) the aspects of the image you do or don’t want in each layer.
Further adjustments can be made very specifically using curves and levels again targeting specific areas of each layer using luminosity masks. The resulting image is something more balanced than with a single exposure. With preserved shadow details and highlight details from both sets of exposures.
It is also worth mentioning that while the camera and settings are important, so are creature comforts. Remember to pack a chair, jacket, food, drink and a flashlight so you can enjoy the experience more. Overall it’s important to have fun, because if it’s not fun, it’s not worth it.
I hope that helps…
I believe photography teaches you how to see and fully experience life in the decisive moment and this is particularly true of photographing fireworks. Fireworks pass in seconds, but a great photograph can capture the moment for life. This in turn helps you live your life with more vitality. Sharing those photographs brings people together so we can feel connected, and bring joy to the lives of others as well.
Image credits: All photographs provided by Stewart Marsden