How to photograph fireworks

Equipped with these tips -- and one of these cameras -- you can take stunning photos of fireworks.

Summertime evokes timeless images of fire hydrants spraying water into the air, ice cream trucks rumbling down neighbourhood streets...and Fourth of July fireworks illuminating the night sky (if you're in the right country...). This year, you can capture a slice of summer forever with your digital camera by photographing a fireworks display.

It's not hard to do: Equipped with a few photo tips and the right camera, you can take amazing fireworks of your own.

Fireworks Photography Basics

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The secret behind capturing fireworks: Use a slow shutter speed, so you can record those dramatic, colorful light trails as they explode through the sky. That also means you'll need some sort of camera support to capture a steady, unblurred shot.

The best way to stabilize your camera is with a tripod, where it can sit motionless through a long exposure. In a pinch, though, you can always try to brace yourself against a tree or a building, or hold the camera atop a monopod or walking stick.

If you have a digital SLR, here's another trick to avoid camera motion: Consider buying a shutter release cable (usually a $50-to-$70 option); this will allow you to snap a photo without physically touching the camera.

If your point-and-shoot or advanced point-and-shoot camera has a fireworks mode, go ahead and enable it--it will automatically adjust the camera's various settings for long-exposure night photography.

For the most part, I find that the preset fireworks mode achieves good results--it turns the flash to off, sets autofocus to infinity and exposure compensation to off, bumps down the shutter speed and aperture, and lowers the ISO.

Advanced photographers are better off going with long manual exposures for more creative control.

Some point-and-shoots may lack a fireworks-specific mode, but may still allow you to manually adjust the settings. (Most digital SLRs lack a preset fireworks mode entirely.) In those cases, set the camera to its lowest ISO setting, which will minimize the camera's tendency to generate distracting digital noise during the long exposure.

You should also turn off automatic focus and set the camera's focus to infinity, so it doesn't search helplessly for a subject in the dark when you're trying to start the exposure. No manual focus control? Try using the camera's landscape mode, which also sets the focus to infinity; the low-light environment will encourage the camera to shoot at a slow shutter speed by default.

If you can control the aperture setting on your point-and-shoot, dial in a low f/stop, somewhere between f/8 and f/16. That will help prevent overexposing the scene during the long exposure and avoid light "blooms" coming from the explosions in the sky.

And finally, choose a slow shutter speed--anywhere between 1 second and 16 seconds can work, depending upon the amount of ambient light and how many fireworks are in the sky. The longer your exposure, the more fireworks you'll capture at once, and the longer your light trails will be. So you might want to start with a shutter speed around 1 to 4 seconds and see if you like the results. For really long exposures, try covering the lens with your hand or the lens cap between bursts to avoid over-exposing the picture.

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Digital SLR users have an easier time, or at least more options, in picking the right settings for fireworks. Throw the camera on full manual mode, preselect your lens's focal length (unless you're using a prime lens that has only one focal length, the aperture will change every time you adjust the focal length), dial in a low aperture opening, and pick a slow shutter speed. Most SLRs also have a "bulb" mode, which leaves the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter release. You can use it to take exposures as much as 30 seconds long. If you go for super-long exposures, you might want to cover the lens between fireworks.

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Cameras for fireworks shots

As the preceding page indicates, you can use almost any digital camera to capture fireworks, as long as it offers either some degree of manual control (so you can achieve the appropriate ISO, aperture, and shutter speed settings) or a fireworks scene mode. The least expensive cameras typically lack manual controls but usually have a fireworks scene mode that automates the process.

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Among your top choices for point-and-shoot models appropriate for fireworks shooting: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2. This 10-megapixel camera uniquely captures pictures in a variety of aspect ratios, such as 3:2 (DVD), 16:9 (HDTV), and 4:3 (traditional). It also has a fireworks mode among its 18 scene modes, as well as aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and full-manual shooting modes.

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Nikon's COOLPIX L10 clocks in with half as many megapixels as the Lumix DMC-LX2, but at current prices it's quite a bargain. In keeping with the camera's low price, it lacks advanced features--it has no exposure bracketing, spot metering, or manual focus, for example. But this model has 15 scene modes--one of which is for fireworks. And it has a face-priority mode that optimizes focus for human faces.

The 10-megapixel Canon EOS 40D boasts amazing image quality, but it lacks a scene mode to simplify setting up a fireworks shot. This model would be a great choice if you also want to photograph sports: It can shoot at up to 6.5 frames per second and up to 75 large/fine JPEGs or 17 RAW images in a row.