With Halloween approaching the opportunity might present itself to attend a function where fireworks are being let off. And as we all know, taking photos of fireworks can either be one of the most exciting or the most frustrating exercises you can ever experience. However, help is at hand and we would love to share a short tutorial on how you can successfully capture these fantastic explosions of light and colour.
If you have any experience with photography you will know that modern cameras are not like the human eye and cannot adjust as readily in limited light, nor can they focus easily on objects in extremely dark areas, especially when those objects are fast-moving and of limited duration.
If there is one big tip I would like you to take on board today it is this: be prepared well before you go out of your house for a number of eventualities. Don’t just rock up to the event and hope to get a decent shot or two. You may, or you may not, and a little preparation beforehand will leave you ready for many different circumstances. Try and get out before it gets too dark, and where you have a light source so you can see how your camera works under different settings. The more practice now, the better later.
So, let’s look at five considerations for taking good photos of fireworks.
Camera and lens
If you have any type of modern DSLR camera you should be good to go. You do not need the latest or most expensive brand available on the market. The photos in this tutorial were all taken with an entry-level Canon 650D. The type of lens you use is a personal choice and is probably more important then the camera in our mind. If you know exactly where the fireworks are going to explode and want close-cropped shots, or you are shooting from some distance away and want better photos, you may prefer a longer telephoto lens, say around 200mm. If however you are closer to the action and would like to capture a wider field of view, and much sharper photos you might like a smaller prime lens. These photos were all taken on an 18-55mm lens and still did a great job.
Tripod, monopod, or handheld
I swear by my sturdy tripod which fits on my backpack and would highly recommend you have one when taking photos of fireworks, especially if aiming at long exposures. If you have very steady hands you may be okay with a good monopod, but I would definitely advise against taking them without any support. For just the occasional single shot at a reasonable speed you would be okay with the camera in your hand, but if at all possible get a good tripod. And if its windy, weigh the tripod down with your bag or backpack to steady it. We are still amazed by how many people try and take really good photos at night without using a tripod and then become disillusioned when they don’t get the results back they wanted. Do yourself a BIG favour and buy the best tripod you can afford that suits your particular photographic purposes. You won’t regret it.
This is where the prior preparation and experience will come in handy:
- do you want single shots of fireworks bursting in the sky?
- would you prefer a long exposure showing numbers of star bursts?
- would you like to take several shots in quick sequence and stitch them together in a software program like Photoshop when you get home?
- do you want everything in focus or would you like to blur the background?
- does your camera and lens work better with manual or auto focus in the dark?
The photos in this post were all long exposures and it is probably my favourite way to photograph fireworks, but that said there is no one way. As a starting point you might like to set your camera to an ‘auto’ program like Aperture mode on say f8 and see what results you get. Because firework events normally occur so quickly, a lot of these settings need to be worked out in your preparation before going. Maybe then try putting the camera in Shutter mode and try for anywhere between 1 to 10-second exposure. Compare the difference and see which you like. If confident, then try Manual mode and make some fine adjustments based on both the previous settings. I like to keep a low ISO of around 100 – 200 if possible to reduce noise. I like to adjust my aperture to create different effects but normally settle somewhere around f8-f11. I generally keep my time settings quite low, around 2-5 seconds, giving me plenty of time to recompose and take different shots before they end. Please remember to use a remote or trigger cord to operate your camera on the night to avoid any movement. My camera works well on auto focus so unless absolutely necessary I leave it on that.
On the night
As written previously, try and get to the event early so you can work out the best place to sit or stand, and to see what else you want, or don’t want in the photo. If by a body of water you may prefer a distance shot where you can also catch the reflection. There may be some stunning architecture you would to include with the fireworks. If the foreground is boring however, you can get closer and just capture the fireworks exploding in the sky. Be aware of where you set up in relation to other people. I am amazed how many folks wander around while the fireworks are on – and walk right in front of my camera! Set up the tripod, mount the camera and have either a spare camera and lens close by, or have an alternate lens ready in case you are not getting the shots you want. Test your remote shutter release, and if possible take a very small light with you (which will not distract others but will allow you to see and adjust your settings). I have an old fishing cap which has built-in LED lights in the front and I can either have one, two or three lights turned on.
Take some test shots to work out your composition, most suitable lens, shutter-speed options, manual or auto focus, and aperture. If you have an ND filter you might want to trial that as well, as it can darken the sky more completely allowing for some great shots too. Be aware that when that first firework explodes the clock is counting down and any adjustments you make will need to be done quickly. Don’t try to get ‘that’ perfect shot, just try to get as many different ones as possible so that you can work out what you like and what you don’t. If using auto focus, wait for the first explosion and using your remote shutter release, allow the camera to focus on that star burst and start shooting. If using manual focus, set it to the area you believe the explosions will occur and be ready for the shot. Check quickly after the first photo to see if you are getting what you want and adjust where necessary.
The photographic world seems to be made up of two camps: those who like what the camera takes and don’t like to do much post processing afterwards, and those who think any amount of post processing is okay afterwards. Whichever group you belong to, let me say this. I understand and appreciate both views and suggest that you go with whatever you are comfortable with. I use Adobe Lightroom to manage my photo collection, and Photoshop to do more extensive editing. I used Lightroom to brighten these fireworks a little and darken the background and remove a few boring distractions. But as I said, whatever you like to do, do it.
Please let me know how you go with your attempts at taking photos of fireworks, or even how you have gone in the past. And if you have any questions please drop us a line and we will get back to you.
Living each adventure,
Chris and Trev Barre
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