Photographing Fireworks

Seattle Fireworks 4th of July4th of July Fireworks in Seattle
The photo was shot from across the bay (Harbor Avenue) with a long lens.
It's almost 4th of July again. Millions will watch the fireworks displays all across the country and many of us will want to photograph the fireworks.
Photographing fireworks is actually easier than it sounds.
Two years ago I found myself in Seattle on July the 4th and I decided to give it a go and see what would happen.  
Fireworks photos are almost guaranteed to be spectacular and with a little preparation are really easy. In this article I am going to outline the process of researching locations, preparing, and taking the actual photographs.
Surprisingly, most of the effort goes into a good preparation. Once you are set up, you won't have to do much more then pressing the shutter. 

Let's start with the basic research you should do before going on a fireworks shootout.

Researching Location

Key to good photographs is often proper research. I arrived in Seattle during the early afternoon of July 4th and didn't have a lot of time to research locations.
A while ago I wrote a Tutorial on finding Photo Opportunities with Google Earth and using a GPS receiver to home in on those.
You don't really need a GPS device, but using Google Earth to find spots for taking photos is a really good idea. It has measuring tools, 3D views of Skylines and a whole lot of other tools that can help you find a good location.
I recommend that you check out this tutorial, since it has a lot more valuable information (e.g., how to export a track to your GPS from within Google Earth).
Measuring Distance in Google Earth

I took the photographs of the fireworks from Harbor Avenue Across the bay. In the image above you can see how I measured the approximate distance (2 miles) for the shots. I would recommend not going much above 2 miles, since this would require a really long lens.
I positioned myself across the bay from the fireworks, hoping to be able to capture the fireworks with the Seattle skyline in the background.


I actually found two or three potential places, so I decided to drive by each of them before making my final decision. I took my equipment and went for a drive early in the afternoon. Much to my surprise, the area around my first choice was filling up with spectators already and parking was almost impossible. When I finally found a parking spot, I decided to simply wait until nightfall for the fireworks. Unfortunately, I had left all my comfort items (warm clothes, water, and food) in my hotel room. Don't make the same mistake I did, plan ahead!

On the other hand, I was at my location early enough to secure a good position.  After what seemed like an endless wait and with still a couple of hours to go, I set up my tripod as  the place was filling up quickly with like-minded shutterbugs. I found a guard-rail and I set up against it to avoid awed spectators stumbling into my scene.

Preparing for the Photos

Tripod and Composition 

Since I was going to photograph at night, I needed to use a tripod. Without support, the long exposure times required would not result in sharp images.
I found a good even platform with benches and set up my camera on the tripod, pointing roughly in the direction of the skyline.
Then I started chatting with people, trying to find out who had been here before and where the fireworks would appear.
I wasn't able to get a definite answer, but I got a rough idea where to point my camera and where to expect the fireworks.
I started composing the shot hoping to include more of the skyline, but eventually I was going to get the space needle into the picture.
This was great news, since it would be immediately clear where the picture was taken and the needle would add a sense of scale to the scene.
I spent a few moments trying out different lenses, zooming into the scene and panning around until I was satisfied that I could quickly compose the final shot once the show started.

Focus

I focused my lens to infinity and then switched to manual focus. I often do this for night shots, since the camera will have a hard time focusing at night and I don't want to waste valuable time waiting for the camera to acquire focus. This has worked well for me for many night shots.

Remote control

Since I was going to expose for several seconds, I used my remote shutter release. A remote helps me to avoid touching the camera to take a photo. This will make sure the camera is steady and doesn't move at all.
I am using a relatively simple wired release.

Taking the Photos

Aperture

Use a small aperture (around 8 or 11) for the most appealing results.
A small aperture will make the trails a bit more distinct and lets them stand out better.
I had a larger aperture for the skyline shot, resulting in a washed out firework, but I had to keep the exposure time down to capture a series of overlapping images for stitching.
For the actual close-up of the fireworks I used a smaller aperture.
 

Exposure

In order to capture the trails fireworks cause, a long exposure is required, generally in the order of 1s to 4s.
You can either set your camera to a fixed exposure or use the "bulb" mode.
Try experimenting a little throughout the course of the fireworks display, so that you are ready for the grand finale.
Start by selecting 2s and see how your shots look like. Adjust the time up or down, depending on how your images look like.
Switch to bulb mode, press the shutter when the flares go up and hold it pressed until they start to vanish.
Compare the results and find your best shots.

Framing and Exposure correction

After taking the first shots, I checked my display to see if I had the entire firework in my frame and corrected the composition accordingly.
I was lucky enough to fit the icon of Seattle, the Space Needle in my photos, which gave them more interest and a sense of scale.

I checked my histogram to see if I had grossly over or under exposed. Some highlights in the center of the bloom might be blown out, which is o.k., but if the entire firework is blown out I would adjust the exposure accordingly.

What else

I used the lowest ISO settings of your camera, as this would give me plenty of exposure time while keeping the noise level low.
Remember the buttons of your camera. It will be dark and if you cannot use your camera with your eyes closed, you will waste valuable time with a flashlight trying to read settings and find your buttons. I just had gotten my new camera and I was not quite familiar with it yet, fiddling with the buttons too often. I should have spent the time waiting with my manual and my camera.
Also, remember where your display light button is (the button that will light up the settings display).
Bring enough memory cards. During the course of the fireworks, you will probably take more photos than you think and you don't want to run out before the grand finale.
I almost ran out of memory and I believe I had to back up once to my Image Tank. Fortunately I could use the replacement card during the backup and keep shooting, but it still did cost me valuable time. Today memory cards are so cheap, that there is really no excuse for running out of memory.
If you are photographing fireworks at a closer range than I did, watch your background. You don't want to have a streetlight showing up as a bright yellow/bluish blob (just in case, here is a tutorial for fixing blooming artifacts).
Shoot horizontal and vertical photos. Don't limit yourself to just horizontals.
Clean your lens before you go out to take photos and make sure you don't have any filters attached from your shoots during the day.

Tips for Point and Shoot Cameras

  • If you don't have manual focus, use landscape mode.
  • Most Point and Shoots have manual exposure and aperture settings. The aperture rule doesn't apply for these cameras. Set the aperture anywhere around 4 - 5.6. If you don't have manual settings, try the night scene mode or long exposure mode of your camera (study your manual). Set the lowest ISO mode. This will give you longer exposure times.
  • Use a tripod and if you don't have one, place the camera on a solid support (a wall, a stone, a bench, the floor).
  • Use the self-portrait mode, so you won't have to touch the camera (this means you will have to anticipate when a flare goes up, but during the course of a fireworks display you should get some good ones) or see if you can get a remote control (usually wireless) for your camera.
  • Most modern Point and Shoot Cameras have a histogram too, learn how to use it!
  • Turn off the flash (I see constant flashes during a show).
  • Take as many images as you can. Since you cannot time things as well as with a DSLR, you will increase your chances of a really good photograph with every image you take.
  • Bring a small flashlight so you can check the settings on your camera.

Disclaimer

I am certainly not an expert in shooting fireworks, but I enjoy giving tips anyways. I invite my readers to comment and add to the tips.

This article is part of a longer series on Photography.

You can subscribe to my newsfeed or add the feed to your custom Yahoo, Google or AOL homepage to get the latest tips and blog entries delivered directly.

worked well

I have tried some of your tips and the photos came out pretty nice.
Thanks !

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