How to Capture Epic Firework Photos With The Best 5 Tips (+ Free Cheat Sheet)
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How to Capture Epic Firework Photos With The Best 6 Tips (+ Free Cheat Sheet)
Have you struggled with how to photograph fireworks? Don’t worry! You’re not alone. When I got my first DSLR I tried photographing fireworks every time I got the chance, all to no avail. Since I only had an opportunity once or twice per year, it was very frustrating. The fireworks were always blurry and out of focus, or, because I was using my DSLR on auto, the flash would go off every single time! That drove me absolutely crazy! I just couldn’t seem to catch a firework that looked like what I was seeing with my naked eye. Follow these 5 tips for how to photograph fireworks and you’ll be amazed at how incredible your photos can be!
Before you start photographing fireworks, you’re gonna need to get your camera off Auto mode! If you really wanna rock some solid fireworks photos, you’re gonna have to take control of your camera and not let it control you! If you’ve never shot in manual mode before, go HERE to get started. Once you understand the very basics of how to get your camera off manual, the rest is a piece of cake. Now let’s walk through the five steps:
Step 1 - Scope Out Your Setting
Before you can even begin to master firework photography, you’ll want to do your research. Try to find out exactly where the fireworks will display. You’ll want to get to your location early enough to get a prime spot. It’s also helpful to catch the last bit of daylight before the show begins. It is much easier to set up while you can still see. Don’t worry about getting too close, just be sure you have an unobstructed view of the fireworks. Look for power lines or random tree branches that will take away from your composition. It’s especially cool if you can find a location that allows you to see the fireworks from the location where they are discharged. It sure helps give you an overall view of the fireworks from their base to their explosion. Many of them make a light trail on their way up and that conveys motion.
If you cannot find a completely unobstructed view, then make the foreground work for you! Try to envision what you’ll see in the foreground that will help tell the story of the event. Perhaps a building or a tree… maybe a kiddo playing with a sparkler. Here is where you get to use your imagination!
Be sure and pack a comfy chair, a blanket for under your equipment, and some bug spray and snacks. Many fireworks displays take place in the summer. When there’s a warm summer night, there’s usually bugs. If you spend your evening fighting off bugs and hunger, then the whole experience becomes a whole lot less enjoyable.
Step 2 - Stabilize Your Camera
You are definitely going to need to stabilize your camera when photographing fireworks because you will be using a long exposure (more about that in a minute). There are a couple of ways you can do this. The first, and most obvious way, is by use of a tripod. I share my thoughts on what to look for in a tripod HERE, so check it out! A tripod is a very important tool for all kinds of photography and you’ll definitely want to be sure and invest in a solid model.
If you’re not able to take a tripod along, another option is to use a solid surface that your camera can rest upon. Think picnic table or the hood of your car. Anything that you know your camera can rest on and not move or vibrate. Even the tiniest of vibration can make an otherwise perfect shot a dud when you’re using a long shutter.
Sometimes a tripod isn’t an option, and there is no solid stable surface on which to place your camera. Here’s where this next tool comes in super handy. Sometimes it just pays to think outside of the box! I was so excited to add a Platypod to my camera bag. This handy tool, used with a ballhead, makes it simple to have perfect control of the angle of your view from any surface. It also works when there is no flat surface. It comes with straps that allow you to mount your camera to just about anything! Check it out at www.platypod.com. It is reasonably priced and believe me when I tell you it’s worth every penny.
Last year I was able to snap this beauty from the very edge of the water where I strapped my camera on to the railing there to get a completely clear view of the fireworks being displayed over the water. Pardon the low-quality cell phone image of me with my setup. It’s hard to see, but believe me when I tell you that baby was strapped on tight – and I had a wrist strap like this one attached, so just in case there was an oopsie, that camera wasn’t going anywhere!
Now that you’ve landed your location, determined where the view is going to be best, and have your camera all set up, it’s time to think about actually operating that camera and getting your photo! Getting excited? I sure am!
Step 3 - Timer or Remote Trigger? Auto focus or manual?
Before we get to settings, let’s first talk about the shutter button and then how to focus.
If you’ve taken any nighttime or long-exposure photos, then you know of the importance of properly planning for triggering your shutter. If you’re a beginner, then trust me when I tell you that how you press the shutter can actually make or break your photos. As you read in Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Nighttime Photography, you do not want any camera shake. You have two options to avoid shake: Use a simple remote trigger, or use the timer feature on your camera. Here is a very basic remote trigger with a cord.
Now we’ll talk focus… It seems a bit counter-intuitive to turn off auto focus on your lens when you’ve paid a bunch for it, but this is a great time to work with manual focus. A camera on auto-focus will have a very difficult time when there’s nothing in the sky to grab for focus. A great place to start is by setting your focus on “Infinity” and adjust if necessary from there. The infinity sign on your lens looks like a sideways figure 8 and you want to line up the center of the 8 on the little dash line. I shoot almost all of my fireworks photos with this setting.
If you are shooting up-close… such as home fireworks (eeek! Those scare me!) then you will likely want a closer focal point than infinity. An easy way to do that would be to shine a flashlight on the area where the firework will discharge and let your camera autofocus. Once you have a focus, carefully, without bumping the focal ring on your lens, click from auto to manual focus by using the AF/MF switch. Now, as long as you are shooting at the same area you should not need to adjust. If the distance between you and the firework changes, very quickly repeat that process: Autofocus on, shine a light, catch focus, autofocus off, discharge firework, etc….
Step 4 - Camera Settings
Finally – we’re up to the good stuff! It’s time to talk about camera settings! First and foremost, you’ll want to shoot in RAW so you have the best options for editing later… But we’ll talk about that later, too. Once you’ve told your camera to shoot in RAW, here is a basic setup to get you started:
- ISO – Start with your ISO at 100. You want to keep ISO nice and low to reduce any chance of grain in your photos. Also, you want the fireworks nice and bright on a dark background, so this will do the trick. You can always adjust it just a smidge up to 200 if the photos are simply too dark, but be careful not to go too high or you will be introducing grain, which is even more noticeable on a dark background!
- Aperture/F-Stop – Start with your aperture around 11. A middle range helps ensure that you have a nice depth of field to capture the entire show at peak focus. You can always adjust aperture a bit as you shoot, but this is a great starting point. Always remember, a wide-open aperture (smaller #) will give you the smallest slice of focus.
- Shutter Speed – Begin with a shutter speed around 2-6 seconds. This is the number with the most range of adjustment. I have taken exposures as short as 1-2 seconds and as long as 30 seconds. There is a lot of room for play here as it depends on the effect you are looking for. If you want a long trailing, sparkling photo, then you’ll want your shutter to stay open a bit longer. If you want to quickly freeze some action, then a shorter speed will do it.
A few final thoughts on settings… Remember that as the fireworks begin, there may still be some blue in the sky. As the sky becomes darker and darker, you will need to make tweaks in your settings. Also – most fireworks displays will ramp up toward the end and become much brighter. Be prepared to adjust settings again when you approach the end of the display to accommodate the brighter light of a grand finale! This is a great time to use that little flashlight you’ve packed in your bag.
Step 5 - Editing
Hooray! You’ve captured some great photos! Now it’s time to bring them into your editor and make some amazing adjustments to take them from AVERAGE to ASTOUNDING . Now is the time you will be thankful that we talked about shooting in RAW earlier. RAW files are larger than JPG files, but they also give you a whole lot more room for tweaking in the editing process.
Here’s an example of a photo SOOC (You can catch up on 10 Need to Know Photography Terms HERE) and after processing.
You can see that with just a few tweaks in the basic settings, this photo went from meh to pretty cool! You can also see that I really pumped up the exposure. I could have done that in camera while I was taking the initial shot, but it is important to remember that you won’t get everything 100% correct, especially when you’re still learning (by the way, I don’t think I’ll ever be done learning). So go easy on yourself and recognize that you can sure fix a lot in processing!
After I bumped up exposure, I pulled the highlights down to bring back some of the color in the burst. That’s pretty much all I did in this photo and you can see what a difference it makes. This level of adjustment can be attributed to that RAW file. Had I captured that shot in JPG, I would not have been able to recover so much color and pizazz. There are just too few pixels in a JPG file.
You Have Learned How to Photograph Fireworks!
Now that you have the basics down and you are ready to master firework photography, go and find some incredible fireworks and have some fun capturing them beautifully! Go ahead and pack this handy Cheat Sheet in your Camera bag so you’re ready on the run! Be sure and share your shots on my Facebook group HERE.