Five Quick Tips For Photographing Fireworks

I happened to be photographing a local firework display last week and it occurred to me that plenty of people approach firework photography with trepidation, when in reality it is quite straight forward.
The two images in this update are snapshots taken from a hotel balcony near Lake Garda, Italy. I’m not going to pretend they are competition-winning firework masterpieces – they’re not – but they are an example of what you can achieve very quickly and easily. I didn’t know the display was going to happen… until it happened! I then had a minute or so to get the camera onto a tripod, compose the images, and choose some settings before firing off a few shots – and then the display ended. It’s easy for anyone to do this if they just keep the following 5 guidelines in mind.

fireworks over Lake Garda

1. The right kit can help you. Fireworks usually require long-ish (greater than 1 second) exposures, so consider investing in a good tripod and (if your camera supports it) a remote shutter-release button. If the remote release is not an option, see whether your camera offers a self-timer / release-delay function. A two second delay between pressing the release and the shutter opening should prevent camera shake whilst still enabling you to capture some spectacular bursts of light.
Whilst not essential, a wide angle lens can help capture foreground interest to give the display some context. This also helps with focussing. Rather than trying to focus on the fireworks themselves, it is easier to focus on something in the medium-distant foreground and dial in a narrow aperture (around f16) to achieve a deep zone of sharpness that should include the fireworks themselves. Whichever lens you use, a lens hood will help reduce the lens flare that can be quite pronounced with long exposures.

2. Experiment with different exposure settings in manual or shutter priority mode. Since the camera’s meter can make a right mess of exposure settings for fireworks, I recommend manual exposure mode. Set a low ISO (100-200) for the best picture quality, and a narrow aperture (f11-f16) as described in tip 1 above. The shutter speed will then be your main variable; start somewhere between 6 to 10 seconds and check the camera’s LCD screen or histogram view (if available) before varying the shutter speed for subsequent shots.

3. An alternative to setting a precise shutter speed is to use bulb mode. This is where you press the shutter release once to open and again to close the shutter – counting the seconds in between (or just waiting for the firework bursts to fade). A remote shutter release button is pretty essential if you want to avoid camera shake with this method. Not all cameras will offer bulb mode, but most SLRs should.

4. Your built-in flash or flashgun are not going to do anything for you here – unless you want to light something in the foreground – so turn them off!

5. Layer up! If you like to edit your images using software such as Photoshop, shooting multiple images with the exact same composition allow you to build up the bursts into a spectacular single image using lighten mode for layers you add to the first image. If the foreground becomes too light or blurry, simply mask it out from the additional layers.
You might also like to play with black and white conversations – not the most obvious approach to take with a subject that is so colourful, but personally I rather like the look it can create.

fireworks over Lake Garda - black and white

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