Photographing fireworks, step by step

The right camera and the right settings for top fireworks shots

Done right, fireworks photos are dynamic and colorful, and they convey a sense of action better than almost any other kind of still image. Read on to learn how to capture some exciting fireworks photos of your own this summer.

(Almost) Any Camera Will Do

Though photos of fireworks look impressive, you don't need specialised gear to get good results. You can use almost any digital camera to capture fireworks, as long as it offers either some degree of manual exposure control (so that you can dial in the right ISO, aperture, and shutter speed settings) or a fireworks scene mode designed to do the work for you.

Even point-and-shoot cameras can meet the challenge. The Fujifilm Finepix F200 EXR, for example, hits the sweet spot for portability and simplicity — it's a superb compact camera that, when set to fireworks mode and stabilised to minimise image shake, can take some excellent fireworks shots.

Compact cameras eschew features for portability, however. If you like to tinker with your exposure settings, consider an advanced point-and-shoot like the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS. It has a convenient swiveling LCD for shooting unusual angles, such as over the top of a crowd or low down on the ground. A wealth of exposure options let you dial in the one-touch fireworks mode or take more control with shutter priority, aperture priority, and manual exposure settings.

If you have a choice, though, I recommend enlisting a true digital SLR. Digital SLRs tend to generate less noise in the lengthy exposures you'll need to capture fireworks, and they have advanced features such as manual exposure control and external shutter release to minimise shake when you're taking the photo. The Nikon D90, for example, is a favourite not just because it was the first digital SLR to incorporate high-definition video recording, but also because it provides excellent image quality, Live View mode, and face detection for those times when you're not shooting fireworks.

Stabilise Your Camera

The most important rule for shooting fireworks: use a slow shutter speed so that you can record those dramatic, colorful light trails as they explode through the sky. But no matter whether you're using a point-and-shoot or a high-end digital SLR, you'll need some sort of support to capture a sharp image, free from the blur that results when you hold a camera in your hands.

A simple, inexpensive, and lightweight tripod is all you need. Keep the tripod head loose so that you can quickly move it around to frame the exploding fireworks, while the tripod legs prevent jiggling.

If you don't want to haul even a compact tripod around, consider using a monopod — since it has just one leg instead of three, it won't be as steady as a tripod, but it can be a reasonable compromise. You could also prop your camera on a solid surface. Some photographers like gadgets such as THE Pod (essentially a bean bag with a tripod mount in the top) for steadying the camera on rocks, fences, and other platforms.

You should also avoid touching the camera when the exposure starts, so you don't jiggle it and blur the photo. You could try to use the camera's self-timer to trigger the exposure, but you would have to trigger your exposure in advance to anticipate the best fireworks moment. A better solution is to invest in a wireless remote or a shutter release cable, both of which let you take the photo without touching the camera.

Point-and-Shoot Fireworks

If your compact camera or advanced point-and-shoot has a fireworks mode, enable it. This mode automatically adjusts the camera's settings for a nighttime exposure. Want to know what's going on behind the scenes? On most cameras, the fireworks mode will turn the flash off, set focus to infinity, disable exposure compensation, and lower the ISO. For the most part, I find that a preset fireworks mode achieves good results for simple shots.

Some point-and-shoots that lack a fireworks mode may still permit you to adjust the settings. Here are some good settings to try, if your camera allows.

Low ISO: set the camera to its lowest ISO setting to minimise digital noise.

Focus on infinity: turn off automatic focus and set the camera's focus to infinity so that it doesn't search helplessly for a subject in the dark. Don't have a manual focus control? Use the camera's landscape mode, which also sets the focus to infinity; the low light will encourage the camera to shoot at a slow shutter speed and capture the light trails.

Set the aperture: dial in an f/stop somewhere between f/8 and f/16. That will help prevent overexposing the scene and avoid light "blooms" coming from the explosions in the sky.

Slow down the shutter: pick a value between one second and 16 seconds for your shutter speed. The longer the exposure, the more fireworks you'll capture in the same frame, and the longer your light trails will be. For really long exposures try covering the lens with your hand or the lens cap between bursts to avoid overexposing the picture.

Shooting With a Digital SLR

If you have a digital SLR, you'll have an easier time — and more options — when setting up your camera for fireworks.

In a nutshell, you'll want to dial in the lowest ISO, throw the camera into full manual mode, choose a small aperture opening (try starting at f/8), and pick a slow shutter speed with an exposure time of between one and four seconds. After you take your first few pictures, review them to see if you're getting realistic colour. If the bright blue, orange, and red fireworks all look kind of white, you should use the same exposure time but close the aperture a bit and try again. That means changing your f/8 setting to f/11 or perhaps f/16. If the fireworks are too dim, open the aperture to f/5.6 or f/4.

Most SLRs have a bulb mode that leaves the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter release, giving you total control over the exposure. When the fireworks launch, press the shutter release to start the exposure. Hold the button down until after the fireworks have bloomed, several seconds later. If you go for superlong exposures, you should cover the lens between fireworks.

Get a Wide Angle on the Scene

While you might be tempted to zoom in to get close-ups of the action, I recommend that you use the wider end of your lens's range — or, if you're using a digital SLR, switch to your wide-angle lens. You'll be able to capture more fireworks in a shot and even frame the action against a skyline or other recognisable objects in the foreground.

Of course, you can experiment by changing your zoom range throughout the evening. Just remember that if you zoom in too tightly, you'll have trouble knowing exactly when and where the fireworks are going to do their thing, and you'll end up missing the action.

Remember that capturing the action is often more art than science. Experiment with a range of shutter speeds and aperture settings over the course of the event. If the weather is uncooperative, take advantage by incorporating umbrella-covered spectators into the scene. And don't forget that your photo editing program's cropping tool can sometimes bring a distant fireworks blast front and center, turning a mediocre shot into a keeper.

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Dave Johnson

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