Fireworks might be illegal down under, but that makes getting pictures of the big public events where they are permitted even more important enough. But photographing fireworks is tricky. You'll either wind up with immensely rewarding photos or frustration that makes you wish you'd left your camera at home and just enjoyed the show. The outcome has everything to do with the preparation and knowledge you take to the event. Before you go, arm yourself with a few tips and tricks that will prepare you to capture fireworks in all their brilliant glory. Photo by jonrawlinson.
Stabilize Your Camera
Foremost, when photographing fireworks, stability is key. Like butterflies and lightening strikes, fireworks are fickle subjects. An absolutely stable shooting platform is a must. Whether you use a full fledged tripod or you clamp the camera onto a solid fence with a mount, the camera must be steady. Leaning against a tree or trying to grip the camera on the top of a post just won't cut it. You can further increase the stability of your tripod by hanging weight from the cross brace. Without a stable platform to shoot from you are nearly guaranteed blurry photos. Photo by matter=energy.
Right behind stabilising the camera with a tripod or mount is keeping your hands off the camera while shooting. The most common way to go hands-free is a shutter release cable. Many modern digital cameras have the ability to get triggered by an infrared remote. If you have neither, check the manual of your camera to see if you set a shutter delay. Setting a delay on the shutter will achieve the same vibration-reducing effect as a remote release, but unfortunately it gives you less control over the timing of the exposure since you have to predict the best time to shoot by a few seconds. A cable or remote release is ideal.
Control Your Exposure
The length of the exposure is pivotal to capturing fireworks. Fireworks are large bright distant light sources that "bloom" over the course of several seconds. To capture the the full effect of the firework's burst it is necessary to use a longer exposure. One to four seconds is usually enough to capture the most beautiful moment of the bursts. Shorter than that and you end up with dark partial bursts, longer and you often end up with an over exposed picture without much focal interest. Photo by mandj98.
Location, Location, Location
Firework displays draw large crowds, so it isn't always possible to secure a perfect location to shoot from. Arriving early and scoping out the scene is well worth your time. You want to have as clean and unobstructed a view of the skyline as possible. Make sure to reference the skyline through the viewfinder of the camera to make sure you and the camera are seeing things the same way. Shooting from much higher or lower than the rest of the people watching the show can yield interesting results. If possible select a location that is upwind of the fireworks display. Fireworks generate enormous amounts of smoke and if you're upwind your pictures will have a hazy quality like you were taking them through a fogged up window. The picture at left highlights the effect smoke can have on fireworks photography. Photo by ahisgett.
Don't Flash The Fireworks
Turn off your flash. If you can't turn off the flash, black it out with electrical tape. If you've ever seen photographs taken from the 78th row at a rock concert with the flash left on, you know exactly how poorly low light long distance flash exposures turn out. If your camera doesn't have a manual mode that allows you to turn off the flash, try out Landscape mode which almost universally turns off the flash to avoid washing out the foreground in landscape photography. The only exception to the no flash rule is when you want to expose the foreground to highlight objects or people. In the photo above, the young women in the corner are properly exposed because of a flash. Without the flash they would have been dark blurs against the background. Photo by Jon Åslund.
Focus On Infinity
Pre-focus the camera. Don't let an overzealous auto-focusing system ruin good shots; the brightness of the fireworks and the haze of the smoke confuses many auto focus systems. Set the focus manually on the infinity setting to guarantee that the fireworks bursting on the skyline will be in focus. The only time the focus-to-infinity trick wouldn't work is if you were close enough to the fireworks explosion to have bigger problems to worry about than blurry pictures! If your camera doesn't allow manual focus, set it to landscape mode which will have the same effect. Photo by Shermeee.
Cut Out Noise By Controlling ISO
You don't want the nice crisp black skyline to come out looking like a pixelated camera phone picture. If your camera allows you to do so, set the ISO setting as low as you can. Turn it off auto and set it to 50 or 100 if possible. Left to chance, your camera may well try to shoot the fireworks at 200, 400, or higher. Lower ISO, less noise.
Handy Odds And Ends
Have a small light handy for checking and altering settings on the camera and tripod without having to fumble in the dark. A small red LED key chain flashlight is perfect for this task. Red light is less disruptive to your night vision than white light.
Once you've covered the basics of using a tripod, setting your exposure, and so forth the next best thing you can do to ensure capturing that magic moment is to shoot tons and tons of pictures. Make sure your memory cards are cleaned off and ready to go. Remember not to get too carried away early in the event, the grand finale of every fireworks show always yields large and colorful displays. Photo by sfmine79.
With the following tips under your belt, snapping some frame worthy fireworks photos should be no problem at all. If you have more tips to help your fellow readers make the most of their fireworks photography, share them in the comments below.