How do you shoot fireworks?
The answer is actually pretty simple, if you have a camera that can manually focus (to infinity), and adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (the exposure triangle).
The difference between a good fireworks photo and a great one is the amount of DRAMA, DETAIL, and colors captured.
In reality, it all comes down to how you set up your camera.
~ First and foremost, use a tripod and a remote release.
This allows you to trigger the shutter without even the slightest movement to the camera, which can help a lot. The remote shutter isn’t absolute, the tripod or steady support really is.
~ ambient lights (try to have your camera zoomed to where you only see the black sky – and fireworks). If you’re attempting to include some type of city-scape, you’ll need a faster shutter speed, and narrower aperture. Ambient lights, such as street lights, building or bridge lights, will absolutely impact your images if they are in the field of focus. There are some awesome ‘across the bay’ images of fireworks that aren’t stacked (though that is the most sure way – if you have photoshop).
~ Set your camera to “Manual” mode (not auto). You will really need to maintain complete control over what your camera is doing, because many of the best images go from the launch to the fade out of the fireworks. Automatic focus cameras often don’t see anything to ‘lock’ their focus on until the fireworks has already exploded.
~ Set your ISO low, usually as low as possible (mine is usually 50 to 100, never ever above 200). The lower the ISO, the cleaner the ‘blacks’ (of the sky & background).
~ Focusing, set to FULL MANUAL, and at INFINITY. The distance of the fireworks to you will usually be hundreds of feet, sometimes hundreds of yards. Far away is far away, and it isn’t going to change enough to really impact the focal point in your camera. The focus is always manual (infinity) for fireworks and lightning, because 99.9% of the cameras can’t focus accurately on the initial launch trail… and are hundreds of yards away.
This is even more important when you add in the “secret ingredient”: – DOF (Depth of Field). Also known as ‘f-stops.’ The higher the number, the smaller the hole inside of the lens, the deeper the depth of field (DOF). Combine the locked infinity focus with a high f-stop, and you’ll guarantee the probability of success. Frankly, I won’t suggest anything larger than f/11 (i.e., smaller number, wider opening inside lens). I prefer f16 to 22, especially if some of the explosions are massive… the bit of extra DOF can help.
In the event that you’re using a camera and lens that won’t allow manual focus, or manual settings, then sit back and enjoy the show!
~ Shutter Speed is the next thing to consider. Adjust your exposure time based on the brightest fireworks you see in your LCD (display). I set the longest shutter speed I can (usually in the 15 to 30 second range), so the center of the fireworks are not blown out, but I get the full trail up to fizzle out. Remember, an exposure time that is too fast, you will miss those long fireworks trails. You really don’t want the center’s blown out (too white, colorless, detail-less).
~ If you want to capture multiple fireworks bursts in one frame, there is an experimental way that works (with practice)… and a sure way. The sure way, take the individual images and use software to ‘STACK’ the images in post. The other way is an old school photography trick, BLOCK THE LENS (with the lens cap or a piece of black foam core). After the initial burst, hold the cover over the lens. Then, when you hear the second burst, simply remove the cover to capture it (in the same frame) along with the last image. Downside would be the bright whites being in the same place… could be more likely to cause a blown out spot if they are in the same places.
The these suggestions, toss in your own trial and error with the gear you have, and you should get some results you’re happy with.
The only variables in my fireworks images are generally the shutter speed.
I’m sure there are different opinions, but those are what have worked well for me over the years. Here are a few: take a look, and see what you think: http://photos.terrymercer.com/f571371381