Photographing Fireworks: Tips and Tricks

Follow these tips and camera recommendations to get the best shots possible of this year's fireworks displays.

Capture the Excitement

There's nothing quite like the excitement of shooting fireworks on a warm summer night. Done right, fireworks photos are dynamic and colorful, and they convey a sense of action better than almost any other kind of still image. Read on to learn how to capture some exciting fireworks photos of your own.

(Almost) Any Camera Will Do...

You don't need specialized gear to get good results. You can use almost any digital camera to capture fireworks, as long as it offers either some degree of manual exposure control (so that you can dial in the right ISO, aperture, and shutter speed settings) or a fireworks scene mode. Even compact digital cameras can meet the challenge. The Fujifilm Finepix F200 EXR shown here, or any of its companions on our Top 10 Compact Cameras chart, would be a great choice.

...But a Digital SLR Is Best

Compact cameras eschew features for portability, however. If you like to tinker with your exposure settings, consider an advanced point-and-shoot like one of models on our Top-Rated Megazoom Cameras chart. If you have a choice, though, I recommend enlisting a true digital SLR. Digital SLRs tend to generate less noise in the lengthy exposures you'll need to capture fireworks, and they have advanced features such as manual exposure control and external shutter release to minimize shake when you're taking the photo. The Nikon D90 (pictured here) is number one on our Top 10 Digital SLRs chart.

Stabilize Your Camera

The most important rule for shooting fireworks: Use a slow shutter speed so that you can record those colorful light trail. But no matter what type of camera you use, you'll need some sort of support to capture a sharp image. An inexpensive tripod is all you need. Keep the tripod head loose so that you can move it around to frame the exploding fireworks, while the tripod legs prevent jiggling. You could also consider using a monopod--since it has just one leg instead of three, it won't be as steady as a tripod, but it can be a reasonable compromise.

Don't Touch That Button

You should also avoid touching the camera when the exposure starts, so you don't jiggle it and blur the photo. You could try to use the camera's self-timer to trigger the exposure, but you would have to trigger your exposure in advance to anticipate the best fireworks moment. A better solution is to invest in a wireless remote or a shutter release cable, both of which let you take the photo without touching the camera.

Prepare Your Camera

Make sure that your camera is set to its lowest ISO, which is usually about 200. If you set the ISO higher (or let the camera choose an ISO automatically), you'll get a noisy, overexposed sky, as in this photo. You should also set the white balance to tungsten or incandescent for the most accurate colors. If you shoot with your camera's RAW mode, white balance is irrelevant, and you can tweak it afterwards on your PC. But for typical JPEG photography, set it ahead of time.

Go Automatic

If your compact camera or advanced point-and-shoot has a fireworks mode, enable it. This mode automatically adjusts the camera's settings for a nighttime exposure. Want to know what's going on behind the scenes? On most cameras, the fireworks mode will turn the flash off, set focus to infinity, disable exposure compensation, and lower the ISO. For the most part, I find that a preset fireworks mode achieves good results for simple shots.

No Fireworks Mode? No Problem

Some point-and-shoots that lack a fireworks mode may still permit you to adjust the settings. Start by setting the camera to its lowest ISO setting, then turn off automatic focus and set the camera's focus to infinity. Don't have a manual focus control? Use the camera's landscape mode, which also sets the focus to infinity. Now, dial in an f/stop somewhere between f/8 and f/16 to help prevent overexposing the scene. Finally, slow down the shutter to between 1 second and 16 seconds; the longer the exposure, the more fireworks you'll capture, and the longer your light trails will be.

(Photo by Howard Meyer.)

Making the Exposure

Remember that the sky will get brighter as the show goes on. At first, you'll only see a couple of fireworks in the sky at any particular moment, but as the show builds towards a climax, the sky will be filled with more and more bright, dramatic explosions at the same time. That means you'll want to close down the aperture more as the evening progresses, or you'll end up with badly overexposed photos. If you were shooting 4 seconds at f/11 at the start of the fireworks show, you'll need to shoot 4 seconds at f/16 or f/22 towards the end.

Shooting With a Digital SLR

If you have a digital SLR, you'll have an easier time when setting up your camera. In a nutshell, you'll want to dial in the lowest ISO, throw the camera into full manual mode, choose a small aperture opening (try starting at f/8), and pick a slow shutter speed with an exposure time of between 1 and 4 seconds. After you take your first few pictures, review them. If the fireworks all look kind of white, try again with the same exposure time but close the aperture a bit, changing your f/8 setting to f/11 or f/16. If the fireworks are too dim, open the aperture to f/5.6 or f/4. Most SLRs have a bulb mode that leaves the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter release--use it. When the fireworks launch, press the shutter release to start the exposure. Hold the button down until after the fireworks have bloomed.

(Photo by *etoile.)

Get a Wide Angle on the Scene

While you might be tempted to zoom in, I recommend that you use the wider end of your lens's range--or, if you're using a digital SLR, switch to your wide-angle lens. You'll be able to capture more fireworks in a shot. Of course, you can experiment by changing your zoom range throughout the evening. Just remember that if you zoom in too tightly, you'll have trouble knowing when and where the fireworks are going to do their thing, and you'll end up missing the action.

(Photo by stage88.)

Experimentation Is Key

Remember that capturing fireworks is often more art than science. Experiment with a range of shutter speeds and aperture settings over the course of the event. If the weather is uncooperative, take advantage by incorporating umbrella-covered spectators into the scene. And don't forget that your photo editing program's cropping tool can sometimes bring a distant fireworks blast front and center, turning a mediocre shot into a keeper.

(For more advice on digital photography, cameras, and image editing, see my Digital Focus blog.)

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