Wednesday, we in the United States celebrate our nation’s birth. In Philadelphia, America’s birthplace and the nation’s first capital, that means after a concert at the foot of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, more than 500,000 people will enjoy one of the largest and most spectacular fireworks displays in the nation.
I’ll be there. If you’re there too, look for me south of the Art Museum.
Here are my updated tips for photographing fireworks using your digital camera:
• Scout for a location to photograph the fireworks, and choose wisely — If you’ll be among many viewing the fireworks like me, find a position which won’t have people wandering in front of you, and accidentally kicking your equipment. Stay away from streetlamps to avoid unwanted light. Consider topography, lenses, framing, the setting, background, and look out for tree branches and other objects which might sneak into the photos when capturing those towering blasts into the sky.
Tip: Consider the forecasted wind direction to avoid smoke, produced by exploding fireworks, obscuring your images.
• Arrive early — While you’ve scouted a great unobstructed view for your fireworks photography, you better arrive early so you can claim the spot before others use your space. That will also give you enough setup time.
Tip: Take non-fireworks test photos before the fireworks’ show begins to see if there is something unexpected in the photo, such as a light or branch, so you can recompose before the fireworks begin.
• Always use a tripod — Good fireworks photography requires exposures lasting several seconds to capture both light trails and full bursts together in photos. Multiple second exposure times require camera support to ensure sharp images. Regardless of your camera, use a tripod appropriate for your equipment. If you don’t have a tripod, place your camera on a makeshift solid platform, such as a fence post, or railing.
• Use a remote shutter release — Even a minute movement of your camera can cause blurred images. If you can, use a remote shutter release to avoid camera shake when you press the shutter release.
• Bring extra batteries — It’s always good to be prepared in case your battery(s) give out during the show.
• Bring extra memory cards — I try to take photos of almost every fireworks’ burst. So my excitement at the beginning of the show doesn’t fill all my memory cards before the grand finale, I have plenty of them with me.
• Use manual focus — The fireworks, presumably several hundred yards/meters away, will be difficult to focus on due to the darkness, so if you can, use manual focus and set your lens for infinity.
Digital point-and-shoot cameras generally don’t have a manual focus mode. Set your point-and-shoot to landscape mode, if it has one, as a “work around.” It’s essentially the same as setting a DSLR to infinity.
• Use the highest quality setting for your photos — I shoot fireworks exclusively in RAW format. If you take your photos in JPG, choose the best quality and the largest size (least compression). This is especially important for fireworks photographs because JPG compression artifacts are often created when the photograph has a high range of luminance and color contrast, like the bright colored light of fireworks bursting against a black sky.
• Choose a low ISO setting for your photos — Long exposures and high ISO settings, can cause noise in digital photographs. Noise (colored pixel artifacts) will be most visible in the dark areas of your fireworks photos. Choose a low ISO for your camera (50–200).
• It’s night, it’s dark, so you might think you need very long exposures — On the contrary, fireworks are very bright lights, which cause many to overexpose their images. To control the exposure, use your camera in manual mode. I expose my fireworks photos from 1 to 4 seconds to capture the trail and full burst. Longer exposures can produce washed-out images. Use your DSLR’s B (Bulb)shutter setting to control your exposure. Try to anticipate the beginning of the burst and open the shutter, then close it immediately after it reaches its peak. Anticipating the explosion is difficult, but not impossible.
If your point-and-shoot camera doesn’t have a “B” setting, choose a fixed setting, such as 2 seconds. Shorter times may require you to open your aperture more.
• The aperture you use will be based on the ISO setting — A good starting point would be ISO 100 – f/8 to f/16 or ISO 200 – f/11 to f/22. Check your photos as you go along and adjust the aperture as necessary.
Extra Tip: Bring a flashlight — you’re going to be shooting in the dark. A small flashlight will enable you to see your camera’s controls and settings.
• Set your White Balance — Set your white balance to daylight.
•Frame your photo well — Generally, a vertical format is better, but not always, as the trail of a skyrocket is usually upward and not wide. Consider the crowd, your position, and how the fireworks are deployed.
•Use a normal to wide angle lens — Your position relative to the fireworks’ bursts will determine the exact focal length to use. Frame your image so you have a reasonably-sized foreground and “head-room” above the topmost fireworks’ bursts.
• Generally turn off your flash — Your flash is useless for photographing the fireworks themselves, but it can be helpful if you’re trying to light something in the foreground to give your photo context and extra interest.
• Consider adding foreground subjects to your fireworks photos — Consider including a statue in the foreground, or silhouettes of the crowd, a tree or bridge or building. Note how I used the museum in my photo. Watch your horizons to keep them straight, especially if you have foreground subjects in your photos.
Ned Levi is a long time professional photographer with a passion for wildlife and travel photography. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography or get more travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog.