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How to Photograph Fireworks

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

With 4th of July in the Unites States coming up as well as other celebrations all around the world, I’ve written this tutorial on how to photograph fireworks.

Taking pictures of fireworks is a relatively easy process, and you can get some amazing photos. While it does take a small bit of experimentation to get the settings just right, once the camera is all set, you can just sit back and enjoy the show.

For the best photos of fireworks, you’ll want to use a tripod or rest the camera on something steady. To really capture the impact of the streaks of light, exposures of a few seconds are required, and that’s too long to hold the camera steady in your hands. If you have a shutter release cable that triggers the shutter, you may want to use that too so you don’t have to touch the camera with your finger to take the picture. Touching the camera can result in blurry shots. That being said, I’ve also included tips on how to photograph fireworks without a tripod at the bottom of this post.

One of the most important tips I can give for fireworks photography is to use manual focus. Autofocus doesn’t really work on fireworks and will often give you totally out-of-focus pictures. To set the focus of your lens for fireworks, temporarily use autofocus to focus on the farthest object from you (for example a distant building). This will set the focus on your lens to infinity. Then simply use the switch on the lens barrel to switch the lens to manual focus, and you’re all set. All of the fireworks will now be in focus. Note: Once you’ve switched to manual focus, it’s important to avoid accidentally touching the focus ring on the lens as you move the camera around, or all your photos will be out of focus. Periodically double-check the sharpness of the fireworks on the camera’s LCD screen.

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

Make sure the flash is off for all photos. Flash will have no impact on the fireworks, and will only illuminate the backs of the heads of other spectators, making the fireworks appear darker.

Once focus is set and the flash if off, it’s time to aim the camera toward the fireworks and pick the best focal length. Point the camera in the general direction of where the fireworks will be exploding in the air. Turn the camera vertically if all the fireworks are coming from one launch spot, or keep it horizontal if the fireworks are being launched from more than one location. Check to make sure that there are no nearby streetlights or other light sources in the picture, or they will overpower the photo. For focal length, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just choosing the widest angle on your lens so you capture everything, but you may wind up with photos of a lot of black sky and very small fireworks. It’s better to zoom in a little on an area of the sky where the fireworks are going off, so that they’re larger in the frame and fill the photo with light streaks. Just be sure to double-check now and again that the fireworks going off are in the frame. One exception where a wider focal length works is if the fireworks are over water – the wider lens may allow you to capture the fireworks as well as their reflection in the water.

When you’ve successfully set the focus and the camera is pointing in the right direction, it’s time to set the exposure. You may need to experiment a little during the first few fireworks bursts to pick the right camera settings. Every situation is different, depending on your surroundings. Set the camera to Manual (M) mode since you want complete control of the exposure. Start by setting the ISO to its lowest setting, usually ISO 100 or 200. Then set the aperture to around F16. Set the shutter speed for about 2 seconds.

Now you’re ready for some test shots. When the fireworks begin, take a few test photos of the bursts. Remember to use your shutter release if you have one. Take a look at the framing of the shots and ensure the fireworks are in the photo where you want them. Look at the brightness of the fireworks and the overall photo. If the fireworks are too dark or the streaks are not long enough, increase the shutter speed to 3 or 4 seconds, or more. If the fireworks are too bright, try closing down the aperture even more. Narrow apertures (higher numbers) such as F16 and F22 will darken the fireworks to ensure they’re not overexposed. Wider apertures such as F11 and F8 will brighten the fireworks and the overall photo. Take a few test shots at various settings to see what looks best. Periodically check that the camera is still focused properly and the fireworks are sharp.

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

If you find yourself at a fireworks display and you don’t have a tripod or somewhere to rest the camera, it’s still possible to take photos to capture some of the action. Try these settings and experiment until you like the results: Set the camera to Manual (M) mode. Set the ISO to 800, the aperture to F5.6 or F4, and the shutter speed to 1/20th second. You should be able to get sharp shots with a shutter speed of around 1/20th or 1/30th of a second if you use an image stabilized lens at a fairly wide focal length and you hold the camera very still. If the photos are too dark or you want a faster shutter speed to ensure sharp shots, try raising the ISO even further (to ISO 1600), or if your aperture goes wider, set it to F2.8. Press the shutter at the peak of the action – that is shortly after the burst where the long streaks are still visible in the sky.

That’s all there is to it. After just a few test shots, you should have the settings exactly as you want them, and you can sit back and enjoy the show. Simply press the shutter release during particularly nice fireworks bursts, and you’ll come away with some amazing photos of the celebration. If you have any questions, please let me know.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

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Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app


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