National holidays present photographers with opportunities for capturing great images of fireworks, along with the usual challenges of night photography, compounded by crowds, moving targets and weather conditions. With Independence Day (US), Bastille Day (France) and the Swiss National Day all fast approaching, this is a good time to consider how to take high-quality photographs that capture the beauty and excitement of the moment.
In Basel, Switzerland, where I live, fireworks displays are on the Rhine at New Year’s and on the eve of the August 1st National Day. From my experience, following a few simple guidelines can ensure a fun and rewarding time photographing fireworks.
Choose your vantage point
As in many things, Location, Location, Location matters. It is important to position yourself where you will not be shooting over heads of people, or have a crowd bumping you and your camera. It is equally important to know where the fireworks will explode and how much of the explosions you can get in the frame. In Basel I have photographed fireworks from two locations, and the second time, I was a little too close. With the breeze, the spent paper was landing on my head and the highest burst were too high to fit in the frame with the camera on the tripod in landscape orientation.
- Arrive early to scout out your location.
- Consider the wind from your vantage point. A crosswind is best; this blows the smoke away and presents great streaks of fire and smoke.
- Look at the foreground and background. People in the foreground or significant architecture in the background can add depth.
Plan for long exposures
Fireworks are shot in the evening or at night; it is a good idea to preset your camera before going out. I also take a small flashlight with me so I can easily find knobs and dials on the camera and items I will need from my camera bag.
- Turn off the flash, as you will be beyond the range of the flash and the fireworks create more than enough light.
- Set your camera in Manual. Don’t be afraid of this, it will allow you to get great shots.
- Set a low ISO, using the lowest your camera supports, normally ISO 100 or 200.
- Set the f stop between f11 and f16.
- Set the focus mode to manual and focus on infinity ( ∞ ).
- If your camera has a Bulb shutter speed, use it to keep the shutter open while you press the shutter release button or the cable release.
- Use a cable release or a remote release to reduce the chance you will create motion in the camera.
Vary your shots
Now that you are ready to photograph, try to vary your shots to increase the interest. Remember the fireworks will not go on forever, and have a plan to incorporate your ideas.
- For some shots, zoom in close to really fill the frame.
- For others, zoom out to show the firing location and the explosion.
- Switch from landscape to portrait.
- Mix up the length of exposure, one time try to capture just one explosion then try to capture a series of bursts.
- Don’t just concentrate on the colorful explosions, include other elements in the environment.
- As in any other photography (it is very hard in fireworks because you are never exactly sure where the explosion will be) work on your composition, set the focal point off center (for example rule of thirds).
Review your shots and modify your approach
After the first dozen or so photos, check one on the LCD display. How does it look?
- Are the bursts mostly in the frame? Fireworks do not all explode in exactly the same spot, so you may need to zoom out to be sure to capture the full explosion. If you watch the explosion patterns, you may be able to plan where a series will explode and set your camera for that. Don’t change the focus, leave it at infinity.
- How is your exposure–are the fireworks clear and colorful? If the fireworks were colorful to your eye, but show white in the LCD display, you may need to reduce your exposure, i.e. don’t leave the shutter open quite as long.
Digital Photography School’s How to Photograph Fireworks Displays provides an in-depth discussion on photographing fireworks, amplifying several of these tips. You might also enjoy a tutorial, How To Photograph Spiky Fireworks With Long Exposure from DIY Photography.
Do you have additional tips for photographing fireworks? Please add them as a comment.