Tutorial – How To Photograph Fireworks

 

Tempus Two

Fireworks are a universal symbol of celebration. Across every culture in the world, fireworks displays are used to signify some sort of momentus occasion. Whether it be the 4th of July in America, The Queens Birthday long weekend in Australia or New Years Eve everywhere across the globe, the lighting up of the sky with a myriad of colours and sounds, excites everyone young and old. I’ve had plenty of questions about How To Photograph Fireworks from friends and the blog community lately so I decided to put together a tutorial for you to read.

Photographing Fireworks with a digital camera is really easy if you know how. Just follow a few simple tips and you will be taking prize winning photos of fireworks in no time.

Being a keen pyrotechnician myself, my love of digtal photography and fireworks has always meant chasing fireworks shows across Newcastle and beyond. In this tutorial I hope to give you some helpful tips to enable you to develop your fireworks photography.

There are no hard and fast rules to photographing fireworks, just a few guidelines to get you on your way. The main thing to remember is to have fun and experiment with what works for you. I have shot many shows and it wasnt until my 2nd or 3rd fireworks spectacular that everything really started to come together and I got some decent shots, so dont be disheartened if the first fireworks show you photograph doesnt produce spectacular results.

I hope that I can pass on some of the mistakes I made so that you dont make them yourself. Practice, practice, practice and you will notice a massive improvement in no time at all.

Equipment For Fireworks Photography

  • FireworksCamera – Preferably a SLR, either digital or film. The settings will be pretty well the same across both formats, but with film you wont be able to review your photos and adjust your settings straight away. Use a low ISO setting or film to keep noise to a minimum and your shots nice and sharp.
    If you have one of the more expensive point and shoot style digital cameras you may be able to set it to manual mode and fix your aperture and shutter speed. Have a play with its settings and give it a go, you may be surprised at what results you get. Alternatively the landscape mode may be really good as well as it fixes the focal length at infinity.
  • Tripod – A tripod is very important when photographing fireworks to keep your camera sturdy. If you dont have a tripod then use anything that enables you to hold it still, like a table or fence post. For a different effect you may want to hand hold your camera but I dont encourage you to do it all the time.
    For point and shoot camera users you might want to look into The FOZI Tripod. Very handy, take anywhere foldaway tripod.
  • Cable release or remote shutter release – older style cameras are able to use to cable releases to remotely fire your camera. With most digital cameras you can get a remote control to fire them wirelessly, completely detached from the unit. I recommend using some style of remote release to improve the sharpness of your photos. If you dont have any of these there is always the timer release function, you just have to be really good at anticipating the timing of the show.
  • Memory Cards – and plenty of them. Dont be afraid to shoot plenty of frames as every part of the show is different. Learn how to change the cards quickly in the dark as you don’t want to miss anything while changing over. I now leave a spare card in my pocket after I got caught out mid show, having to search through my camera bag to find a spare card. Keep them handy and change them quick!
    If you are using film, have plenty of spare rolls and practice changing film in the dark.
    Update: I got a 4GB CF card for christmas and I am now able to fit a whole show shot in RAW on it whithout changing mid show. This would be the only situation I would recommend using larger memory cards. I wouldnt shoot anything like a wedding with that bigger sized card because if something goes wrong you’ve lost a whole lot of photos for an already stressed out bride. Smaller cards lessen the impact.

 

Fireworks Aerial display

Focal Length

Depending on what you are trying to achieve you can use either a wide angle to capture the whole scene or a tight crop to just capture single shells. It will also be dependant on how close or far you are from the show. The closer you are, the wider you will need to shoot to capture the whole display.

Focal length is a personal preference that you will have to decide on on the night. Experiment with what works for you.

If you are in a location like Sydney Harbour on New Years Eve, where the show is spread out across multiple barges down the harbour, then a wide angle is going to suit the situation a lot better.

If you are shooting across water, then experiment with shooting as wide as you can, keeping the water in the foreground. You can get some really cool reflections doing this. Update: Check out my Australia Day Fireworks Photos from speers point shot across the water

Aperture

Fireworks against the dark night sky are very bright so an aperture between f8 to f16 is your best bet. If you use a larger aperture ( lower f stop number ) than f8 you will blow out your highlights very quickly and all the colours will become white. To maintain colour detail and sharpness of my images I usually sit on about f10 or f11. Remember that if colours from the fireworks are being washed out then use a smaller aperture (higher f stop number) to reduce the light hitting the sensor. Only use single stops at a time as each stop higher or lower either halves or doubles the amount of light you let in.

Shutter Speed

In photographic terms, fireworks are a very slow effect. That means that you need to use a relatively slow shutter speed, which is why a tripod is so important to keep your camera still. If you only want to catch single or a few bursts, then a shutter speed of around 1 second will be pretty good. For multiple burst I would recommend anywhere between 5 -10 seconds but pick the part of the show where to use longer exposures.

I try to use longer exposures from the beginning to the middle of the show, when everything is happening a little slower. I watch for the change in momentum when everything begins to build towards the finale, at this point I drop back my shutter speed to prevent the photos looking like a mashup of lines with no definition of bursts. Again this is a personal thing, you know what you want to achieve and it will take a few frames to see what works and what doesnt. I prefer the old saying “Less is more” and try to keep my shots fairly simple.

Fireworks In the Vineyards

Every now and again I will do a longer 20 or 30 second exposure but I have never found one that I liked. The shot to the left is a longer exposure (only 10 seconds from memory) and is way too busy, all the ground effects just mash together. What I do like with this one is that it shows just how big some shells really are. The white dot at the bottom in the center, to the left of the launch area, is a Toyota Hilux Ute. It really gives a great persepective on the size of the show. Click on the photo to see it large at my Flickr account.

The most common shutter mode I use is the Bulb setting. For my old Nikon D70s digital camera I have an infrared remote control release. In bulb mode you can press the button once to open the shutter and press again to close it. I never have to touch the camera and all my shots are really sharp. The advantage of using this is that you can be standing there watching the show, and not have your eye to the camera, letting you watch what is happening outside of your frame.

Camera Mode

Its best to use your digital camera in manual mode for shooting fireworks so you can control shutter speeds and apertures, to save the camera from having to think. If you use shutter or aperture priority modes it is more than likely you will blow out all the colours as the camera tries to compensate for the darkness.

Once you get your settings right you will be able to just leave them as they are and concentrate more on your framing and timing. You should only have to tweak it every now and then.

I would recommend a manual focus as well so that your autofocus doesnt keep trying to fix on a focal point each frame and slow down your shooting. Try to set your focus to infinity and leave it there, check mid show and make sure it hasnt moved.

 

Fireworks Speers Point 2

Location

Get there early and scope out the best shooting location. If there is still a little bit of light in the sky you can see what will be in your foregrounds when the fireworks light everything up. Another good idea if you are really serious about getting your framing right, then go to the location the night before so you can see what other lights might be in the area to save you having to relocate mid show due to massive blowout from lights nearby. Try to be upwind so your images dont get washed out by smoke.

I was caught out by this one year when I went to shoot the Speers Point Carols Fireworks from Teralba, which was upwind on the night, but I needed to move due to all the really bright street lights on the road below me, as well as power lines running straight through the frame. I ended up just zooming in and shooting higher for a tighter crop and shot single shell bursts higher in the sky to remove all the crap from my foreground. This photo above is the result of adjusting to suit. I would have liked more foreground but this turned out OK.

You dont have to be right on top of the show to get a good photo. I think that shooting form further away gives you the opportunity to get a better foreground as well as a better perspective on the size of the show.

Timing

Timing is fairly critical if you want to just get single shell bursts, for longer exposures it doesnt matter so much. To time the shell break right, watch the launch location and you will see a feint red glow launching into the sky. When it gets to a decent height (highly technical term there, but every shells size bursts at different heights so you will just have to watch a few and see where they go off. There is no guaranteed height to use) release your shutter. If you are in bulb mode wait until it fades out of the sky and close your shutter. Success with this method depends alot on the timing of the show. If it is a really fast paced full on fireworks show then you may not get a chance to just capture a single shell so just aim for a few. You will be able to tell whats coming up as you get better at tracking the launched shells before they go off.

Final tips:

Fireworks

  • Use a long exposure of say 30 seconds and carry some black cardboard or a baseball cap and use it to cover your lens, only remove it long enough to expose selected shell bursts. Be careful though that you dont move the camera in the process and introduce camera shake. I have found this pretty hard to perfect and dont use it very often.
  • Tight zooms on the smaller ground effects using a longish exposure creates a really interesting pattern for your shot.
  • Know your camera controls inside out so that you can change aperture or shutter speed really quickly in the dark. The longer it takes to change settings the more of the show you will miss.
  • Rules schmools, if you know the rules break them, if you dont then dont worry. Play experiment and have fun!
  • Update: Make sure that the structure you are standing on is solid enough not to move with people jumping around on it. I found out the hard way when I shot the Australia Day Fireworks at Speers point and found out afterward that the solid looking jetty shuddered when people moved and introduced shake into all my photos.

These few tips should set you well on your way to getting some great results from photographing fireworks with your digital camera. If you have any questions about how to photograph fireworks then feel free to ask me questions and where I can, I will update the post. Good luck and share your results. Happy New Years!!

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments

  1. Great tut Tim, I’m going to write a bunch of it down so I dont forget it after the 6th beer on NYE! Hahaha!!

  2. Hi Its cool to find a pyrotechnician thats into photography. I’ve been a pyrotechnician for a couple of year and have got a Nikon D40 and a 18 200mm vr lens. What is the best way to take photos when your standing 50m away. So far its been hand held and some luck. If I am 200m plus then I use a tripod and blub setting. My next display is Edinburgh new year a huge display in 3 min from 5 locations I’m at the castle. Can you help me please I so want to get it right. Thanks

  3. Hey John,

    Thanks for your question about how to photoraph fireworks. Its great to see that other pyros are into photographing their shows as well.

    Being so close to the show I would still use a tripod as it doesnt take much to make the trails all squiggly. VR will help bit it wont eliminate it especially if your all hyped up about the show. Adrenalin really makes your camera shake.

    I have only experimented a couple of times photographing fireworks from so close to the launch point. With your 18-200 I would be using the wide end (18mm) and most probably stop your aperture down to about f16. I had real problems with highlight blowouts being close, so f16 will really help. Still stay with your bulb setting and just begin with a few shells in the frame and see how it goes. Try to build from there.

    For such a short new years show I would be guessing it will be really intense so if you want a time based trial start with a second and adjust from there. 1 sec is quite a long time in a full on show.

    The other hard thing you will have to overcome being so close is that once the show builds to its finale you will find that 18mm might not be wide enough to get the whole thing, especially if there are any shell bigger than 4″ in the finale. Ah, just remembered 5 locations. Getting your launch site might be hard but the other 4 shouldnt be a problem though. Getting the full break is really hard from so close. With the 18mm you should be pretty right, that is pretty wide, but just remember with the 1.5x conversion its only equivalent to about 27mm in 35mm format, which isnt so wide anymore.

    For something really cool, what about trying to shoot from within the castle if it has any open air courtyards or even shoot from about 20m or 30m behind it. The sillhouette of the castle will give you a great foreground for your shots!!

    Good Luck and I hope this helps you in your quest to photograph fireworks!

  4. John,

    I hadnt realised you mean THE edinburgh fireworks. Damn their big I just saw a video of last years show

    That makes things a whole lote harder. Ignore the 1 second thing. That show is insnely quick and if this year is the same I would stick with bulb. I wouldnt open up any more than f16 and maybe try f18. There is so much going off at once.

    Watch a single shell and only open for its break time. By the time it has finished 50 other shells will have gone off around it.. the photos will be really busy but you should jag one ripper at least. Good luck and share some result with us.

    Cheers

  5. Hi Tim, Thats is such a good idea would never of thought of that one. The show is 3mins I going to try what you said I guess if I get it wrong the last min switch to program and click away. I will give you a shout when there up on my site. And again thank you

  6. Hi Tim . Just to let you know how it went. Well it was mad 22 hours with out a break in the rain so the photos sort of went out of the window. I had picked 2 places to take photos one the bbc nicked and the other was to open to the rain and wind. So I found a wall and sat/hid there and did my best no tripod that was in the hotel room. Well I have a break for a couple of months then I’ll have another try. Thanks for all your help the photos are on my site under fireworks2 ..

  7. I understand John, its a big day and your head just isnt in photography mode by the end of the day, the rain makes it worse.

    You did well especially without a tripod. I will keep an eye out for your photos in future.

  8. Great tutorial Tim.

    Need to get myself a cable release, but I think mine was acceptable even without it.

  9. Carl Moses says:

    I did some more fireworks displays new years eve and I am very impressed with my results
    I would be interested in your advise as to how far away from the fireworks do you find most effective

Trackbacks

  1. […] the best ways to photograph fireworks and being the great guy he is he’s gone and written a tutorial on how to photograph fireworks! Talk about good […]

  2. […] those of you who have been following my How to Photograph Fireworks Tutorial, technical specs are that all of these were shot at 5 seconds, aperture f10, and 100 ISO. I was […]

  3. […] I was really grateful for the advice I received in advance via the Digital Photography School and Tim Christie’s blog. I had the lens pre-focussed, the camera in bulb mode and used a remote trigger to achieve shutter […]

Speak Your Mind

*