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3rd November 2012
Photographing fireworks - some tips for great results
by Ian Burley
9007: Photographing fireworks - some tips for great results

Getting it right on fireworks night!

This is an updated version of an article first published in 2010.

Also see our previous fireworks photography guides in 2009 and 2004.

ISO 100, f/16, 1.6 seconds exposure. When it all comes together, photographing fireworks can result in a riot of colour and patterns.

We always like the challenge of photographing (and these days also videoing) fireworks displays. We're on the eve of the two traditional fireworks nights in England; Guy Fawkes night, the other being New Year's night, but the information in this article should be useful to anyone contemplating capture the colour and motion of fireworks at night wherever they are.

What not to do

First I'm going to cover some basics that you should avoid. Some of it's common sense, but I hope this section will save you time and unnecessary trouble on the night.

Shutter speed: 1/6th second - this is too brief. Best try 2-8 seconds.

SHUTTER SPEED Don't use too short a shutter speed. This (above) was taken with the shutter set to 1/6th of a second. In normal daylight photography that would be considered a very slow shutter speed and you would almost certainly be affected by camera shake with out a tripod. But with fireworks, you need an even slower shutter speed in order to capture longer and more attractive light trails. Normally, I would experiment with exposures of between 1 and 5 seconds.

Yes, it's out of focus! Set the camera focus to infinity.

FOCUS Don't forget to focus properly. Autofocus is completely useless for photographing fireworks, so switch it off and adjust manually, either by trial and error until you get sharp results, or if your lens has the luxury of a distance scale, set it to infinity and use small aperture for increased depth of field.

Taken at ISO 250 and with an aperture of f/3.9, this is much to bright and so much of the detail and colour has been lost, and an unwanted glowing halo has been emphasised.

Exposure

Don't over expose and wash out the delicate colours of your fireworks. Your camera's exposure system will naturally see a sky of black and expose accordingly, leaving your fireworks bleached out and lifeless. Because fireworks are extremely bright, relatively speaking, you normally only need to use the lowest ISO sensitivity setting your camera offers, e.g. ISO 100.

I prefer to use manual exposure and experiment with shutter and aperture settings until the images look perfect on the camera's screen. If your camera doesn't offer manual settings, use the +/- exposure compensation/override option (most cameras have this) and start at -2EV, and adjust accordingly. As a rule of thumb, it's much better to record pictures that are slightly too dark than ones that are slightly too bright. You can recover fireworks shots that are a bit too dark, but not ones that are too bright.

General tips

If you can, use a tripod. In this case, because you will be using wide angle views of the sky, a tripod is preferable to a monopod. After all that good advice, I'm going to throw a spanner in the works by revealing that all the pictures in this article were taken...hand held! But the underlying message is the same - you need to keep the camera steady.

I would switch image stabilisation options off. IS systems were never designed for the long exposures that you usually require for fireworks photography and in my experience they can introduce unwanted movement that spoils the smooth transition of the streaks and arcs that we look for in fireworks.

Fireworks scene mode settings

Establish if your camera has a scene mode for photographing fireworks. I find that some cameras that offer these modes benefit highly from them, especially if there are no manual modes, but the scene modes of other cameras are often very disappointing. But it's a good idea to try it so you can find out if your camera's option is worth using.

Not just fireworks

Don't forget that fireworks events offer many more opportunities than just photographing fireworks in the sky. Don't forget bonfires, the moody atmospheres of dimly lit hot dog stands at night, and static fireworks, too:

ISO 100, f/3.9, 1/500th second exposure.

ISO 400, f/3.5, 1/40th second exposure.

ISO 100, f/22 (to avoid over exposure), 1/6th second exposure.

Using flash

Flash can be a very effective tool on the night when combined with a long exposure. In the example above the flash has frozen the girl ensuring her face is sharp and properly exposed. But the camera has been set to keep the shutter open for a couple of seconds, enabling the motion of the sparklers being waved about to be recorded.

After the event - post processing

Don't be afraid to crop your images to find the best from them, as this example demonstrates:

ISO 200, f/8, 1 second exposure.

This is a nice enough example, with two bursts in the frame, but the one on the right is a bit 'scruffy' compared to the one on the left. So I cropped out the one the right and in doing so ended up with a vertical format framing of the one on the left:

There isn't a lot of very fine detail in firework shots, so severe cropping like the above isn't usually a problem.

When post processing you may wish to explore darkening the black levels if there is a lot of glowing smoke in the shot, and sharpening can also breath some life into shots. If you have a clarity adjustment (sometimes called 'definition) this can help. Also experiment with saturation to really pump up the colour.

And to round off, here are some of my own more successful firework shots, complete with camera settings for your reference:

Lens focal length 33mm (equivalent to 66mm in 135 format (full frame)), ISO 100, aperture f/16, shutter 3.2 seconds.

Lens focal length 12mm (equivalent to 24mm in 135 format (full frame)), ISO 100, aperture f/8, shutter 3.2 seconds.

Lens focal length 46mm (equivalent to 92mm in 135 format (full frame)), ISO 100, aperture f/10, shutter 3.2 seconds.

Lens focal length 12mm (equivalent to 24mm in 135 format (full frame)), ISO 100, aperture f/11, shutter 2 seconds.

Lens focal length 12mm (equivalent to 24mm in 135 format (full frame)), ISO 100, aperture f/11, shutter 2 seconds.

And last of all, good luck if you are venturing out to photograph a fireworks event, and why not show us how you got on by posting your results on the DPNow forum and galleries?

 

 

 
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