How to photograph fireworks

This article is also posted on my photography blog at http://www.terebinthtreeportraits.com/blog/2010/11/how-to-fireworks-photography/

A shot from Temecula’s 2009 fireworks show

I’ve been taking photos of Temecula’s public fireworks shows for several years now, and I’m always amazed at how fun and easy it can be. There is a little bit of equipment that you need, and a few settings to know then all you have to do is wait for a fireworks display (which can be the hard part, especially if you’re anxious to give this type of photography a try!).

The equipment list

  • A camera (duh), preferably a DSLR, with the ability to go full manual on it.
  • A reasonably wide-angle lens
  • A good steady tripod
  • A way to remotely trigger your camera. I use this remote trigger with my camera, and my daughter uses this remote trigger with her Canon Rebel. There are less expensive remote triggers out there, but I haven’t used any so I’m not able to recommend any.

If you’re going to a local fireworks show, you’ll also need a good location really close to the action, and preferably one away from parking lot or stadium lights and trees. When I’m taking photos of a fireworks show, I try to get there a couple of hours beforehand to make sure I have enough light to see to set up my equipment. Since I know the location where Temecula fires off their fireworks, it isn’t too hard to guess where the bursts will be. I’ll put the camera on the tripod, attach the remote trigger cord, and angle the camera towards where I think the fireworks will be. And then wait…

Pre-Focus your lens

After getting things set up, I put my lens on manual focus and focus it to infinity “∞”. This way, the camera doesn’t have to worry about running the focus motor during the fireworks show. Just make sure that when the show is over that you put your lens back on auto-focus.

The settings to know

You will want to use manual mode on your camera. “Yikes! I don’t know what settings to use!” Don’t worry, I’ll provide the settings that I’ve used for several fireworks shows and have gotten good results with them. If you use one of the automatic modes, your camera is probably going to meter on the dark sky and wind up doing something silly, like leaving the shutter open for 15-30 seconds (which is waaay too long for fireworks).

A slow shutter speed is key, as is a decent aperture. The long shutter speed makes the exposure take longer so that you get the pretty trails of the fireworks. However, don’t go overboard, otherwise you risk getting a big clump of light (which isn’t so nice to look at). Since fireworks are pretty bright, you’ll also need to set a reasonable aperture for your camera. This shot was taken at f/8 for 2 seconds at ISO 100:

Fireworks in Temecula 2010

Shot settings: f/8, 2sec, ISO 100; Fireworks in Temecula 2010

You can see the remnants of a fading burst, a burst that was caught, and the trail of one going up. You can also see the smoke from previous launches. Smoke is something that you’re just going to have to contend with. It can sometimes be dealt with afterwards if it’s not terribly intrusive to the shot.

Lens selection

The lens that you use depends on how much sky you have available for the fireworks. If you’re far away, the fireworks will appear very small if you use a wide angle lens. If you manage to get up close, a wide angle lens will give definitely give you more sky, and will allow you to capture more bursts. For Temecula’s 2010 show, I shot using my 24-70 f/2.8L lens at 24mm. However, with settings that wide, here’s something else to be cognizant about…

Background background background

At parks, or stadiums, there can be distracting elements in the photo’s background. One of the things Temecula likes to do with their fireworks show is to have a big fan of fireworks like what’s shown in this shot. Since they time their shows to music, it’s usually pretty cool to watch. However, these shots rarely go up high, so things low to the ground are going to intrude into the shot. After lowering the angle of my camera to get this fan, I managed to get some of those lovely orange sodium parking lot lights, a tree, and part of a light for a baseball field. Since I have the benefit of seeing the actual RAW file, I can also see the roof of a building that’s also in the shot.

Fireworks in Temecula 2010

Shot settings: f/10, 2sec, ISO 100; Fireworks in Temecula 2010

Fortunately, most of these things can be edited out afterwards.

The Grand Finale

The grand Finale is usually the most spectacular part of the show, and also the brightest. The bursts are usually happening very close together during this part, and it can be tricky to get a good shot that just doesn’t look like a big blob of light.

Fireworks in Temecula 2010

Shot settings: f/10, .4sec, ISO 100; Fireworks in Temecula 2010

This shot shows the scattering of light from all the bursts occupying the same piece of sky. This photo was shot at f/10 for .4 of a second at ISO 100 and it’s almost letting in too much light. There’s also an incredible amount of smoke during the finales and with all the light, it’s going to show up in your shot.

The End Result

Even with all the challenges, taking photos of fireworks can be very fun and rewarding. When done correctly, you’ll be able to amaze your family, friends, neighbors and co-workers with your fireworks shots.

Fireworks in Temecula 2010

Shot settings: f/10, 2sec, ISO 100; Fireworks in Temecula 2010

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