Every 4th of July people ask me how-to photograph fireworks. This year I have decided to give you some tips to photograph fireworks based on my many years of trial and error. This article is a fairly quick read so you can get back to you barbecues and beer.
Equipment to Photograph Fireworks
Tripod – A quality tripod by companies like Gitzo or Manfrotto. I prefer carbon fiber legs because of the weight savings, but you could easily choose one of their aluminum models. Aluminum tripods are typically half the price, where as carbon fiber ones are half the weight.
Ballhead – I have discovered that a well constructed ballhead is the best tripod head for outdoor photography. Again I am looking for quality as well as weight savings here too. I use an Acratech. You cannot go wrong with a Kirk ballhead either, but the Acratech tips the scales at only one pound. The ballhead allows you to move the camera quickly in any direction by twisting only one knob. This allows for speed and efficiency with your photography.
Cable Release – The cable release allows you to trigger the camera with the least amount of vibration. You could also use a wireless remote trigger like a PocketWizard setup. This would allow you to place the camera within 300 hundred feet of you. Great if you have distance boundaries against you.
Extra Battery – I always have an extra battery in my backpack. The 4th of July is no different, I don’t want get burned when I go out to photograph fireworks. Sorry that was the beer talking.
Headlamp – If you don’t own a headlamp you can use a flashlight. I prefer the headlamp because it gives you hands-free operation to adjust your camera. Petzl makes a headlamp that includes a red bulb so your eyes won’t have to continually readjust to the darkness.
Location to Photograph Fireworks
Figure out your location BEFORE darkness! Just like any other photography shoot scout. Then think about how you can get creative with your compositions. Include foreground subjects. This mission shouldn’t just be about the fireworks themselves. Elements like a classic car, the crowd, or any other element that catches your eye makes for a great foreground.
Don’t stop with just your subject though. Can you get above the fireworks location? Does a bit of distance give you a better landscape photograph? Can you get in the air or on a mountain top? All of these scenarios add a bit more creativity than your fellow photographer may be thinking about.
One last thought. Think about photographing the crowd before dark. During celebrations like this, there are typically characters within the crowd that will complete your story.
Camera Settings to Photograph Fireworks
ISO – I typically set my ISO to 3200. This is because I am looking at foreground subjects that are moving. If you are shooting more of a landscape photograph, you could leave your camera at its native ISO (somewhere between 200 – 400).
Shutter Speed – I have found that a shutter speed of 1/4 of a second to 1 second works best for my taste. You could easily use longer shutter speeds dependent of your personal preference. Longer shutter speeds equal longer trails to the explosions. Again, if your ISO is lower than mine, you will need to adjust aperture and/or shutter speed to compensate for this change.
Aperture – My aperture is typically wide open at f/2.8 or f/4. This isn’t necessary, but it does let the largest amount of light into your camera via the lens. Unlike star photography, you could use any aperture you composition requires.
White Balance – I almost always leave my white balance set to Auto. It doesn’t matter what I am photographing. I can always adjust white balance in post.
Focus – My camera has the ability to use auto focus via any button I specify. I use a focus technique called back button auto focus. This means that my auto focus only works when I press the prescribed button on my camera. By using this type of scenario you can set your auto focus using the light of the fireworks. Then your camera won’t be trying to find a focus point in the darkness when you press your shutter release.
Heading out to photograph fireworks should be no different than any other photo shoot you take on. Creativity is key. A photo of just the fireworks exploding doesn’t cut it in today’s world. Try to think outside of the box. Cover the gamut of subjects as if you were on an assignment. Then you have a story that covers the day not just the finale.
I have to go crack another beer. Have a wonderful holiday!