Whether it’s to celebrate the New Year, Fourth of July, Diwali, or a birthday in the backyard, here are a few tips to capture those sparkly, colorful delights!
A fireworks display may seem like a challenge, but even a beginner can get some great photographs with some advance planning and a few specific camera settings. You don’t need fancy extra equipment either – just a tripod, a piece of non-stick tape, and a black piece of paper large enough to hold in front of the camera lens.
Location, Location, Location
Knowing in advance where the fireworks will be allows you to scope out a good location to shoot from. Look for a place with higher ground and an unobstructed view. You don’t want telephone wires or street lights in your shot. A backdrop with some trees or buildings or monuments in the perimeter of the shot can make effective compositions, but these need to be off to the left or right or bottom, not where they will block the fireworks. Pick a place where you can have space to set up your tripod and where the camera will be able to get the full firework in view. Think ahead to when the location will be full of people and make sure that other parked cars or people standing around won’t be in your way. Depending on your camera lens options and whether they are primes or zoom lenses, you might have to visit a few locations before you find one that will work. Plan to be there in advance, while it is still light outside so you can claim your spot!
Which camera lens?
You may not have many options. Many beginning photographers have only the kit lens that came with their camera. This is usually an 18-55mm lens and it is a good choice. Generally speaking, you will want a wider angle lens (the 18mm to 35mm range) so you can get the whole firework and sky around it in view. However, if you will be very far away, you may need a zoom, or even a telephoto lens like an 18-200mm. This brings us back to the location… it is important to scope out the location ahead of time and bring your camera, tripod, and lens with you. Set it up in daylight to make sure your lens and location combination will work.
(For more information about lens focal lengths and their uses see our blog post on this topic.)
What camera settings?
If you are using a new camera or haven’t had time to read your camera manual, you will want to find these settings and practice with them in daylight so you won’t be fumbling around in the dark trying to figure them out. No camera manual? No problem... go to this page to download your manual. Here’s the list of what you will need to know, then we will go over what to do with those settings next:
Getting Set Up and Getting the Right Settings
Set up your tripod. Legs should be open at their widest angle (and locked if your tripod has that function). Decided how “tall” to set the tripod. If you are in windy conditions, you should take care to secure the tripod and if at all possible DO NOT fully extend the leg height and definitely do not raise the center column. This makes the tripod less stable. Once you have the tripod secure (remember you will be moving around it in the dark – you don’t want it falling over), firmly attach the camera. The lens you will be using should be attached and set to the level of zoom (if it is a zoom lens) you plan to use.
If your lens has image stabilization, you can turn that off while on the tripod. If you are attempting photos without a tripod, then leave image stabilization on. A tripod is highly recommended for nighttime photoshoots.
If your camera has settings for noise reduction or long exposure noise reduction, you should turn those on. Also in the settings, change your file type to RAW (this will allow more editing options later).
We are going to be using Manual camera mode, but beforehand, while it is still in Auto camera mode, set the focus on your lens to “infinity.” You should be in location when you do this. First you have to turn off Auto Focus on your lens (a switch on the lens or near the lens on the camera body) or in the camera settings (menu) or both. This is NOT the dial that changes camera modes. Once you have Auto Focus turned off, you will manually turn the focus ring on the lens to the infinity mark* (the symbol on your lens looks like a sideways number 8). It is possible to focus past infinity. Today’s autofocus motors need room to make adjustments at higher speeds so the hard stop that you would find on a manual focus lens is not a hard stop on an autofocus lens. Look for the symbol and notice that you can probably turn past it. Turn back until you are on the symbol. Test the focus during daylight (that is why you are setting up early!). Focus on a very distant object near the horizon, like a building or a tree.* Take some test shots and then zoom in on the photo review on your LCD screen. Make small adjustments to the infinity focus by moving the focus ring on the lens. Once you have the focus locked in, you can use a piece of non-stick tape like painters tape or gaffers tape to hold the focus ring in place. That way if you bump it in the dark it won’t move. You can also use your phone to take a photo of the numbers/markings on the side of your lens once you have it set. Then if it does move while you are in the dark you can use the photo and your flashlight to reset it.
*Alternate method, works with some cameras, but not all, and can be used for lenses with no outer markings for infinity. While the lens is in autofocus mode, use a very white piece of paper that is very well lit, and hold the paper up in front of the lens, about 4 inches from the lens. Make sure the white fills the viewfinder. Then 1/2 press the shutter/autofocus button. This should set the lens to infinity focus. Change over to manual by changing the switch on the lens/body or in settings.
Photo by FocusEd Camera
A word of caution, if you get set up, and once the fireworks start your level of zoom needs to be adjusted, changing the zoom can (and often will) change the focus of the lens as you zoom in and out. Some lenses have fixed focus, but many, many more are variable focus. What this means is that your infinity focus may no longer be set properly. This is why it is important to scope out your location with your camera and lens ahead of time. Get your composition and framing set up and then don’t touch it. However, if you MUST make changes, you will need remove your tape before you zoom in or out. Then take test shots of the fireworks and use your LCD review to check the focus is still good. If not, make adjustments to the focus ring on the lens. Once the focus is set again, reapply your piece of tape to keep the focus locked.
Now we are ready to switch the shooting mode to Manual mode using the camera dial. Changing to Manual mode will now allow you to control all three aspects of the exposure triangle -- ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.
If your camera has a shutter speed setting called “bulb” or a camera Bulb mode, then that is what you will want to use, we will come back to that. Otherwise, for all manual mode users, you can start off with a shutter speed of 1/10 of a second and make adjustments from there. Set your aperture at f/8 to begin with. Set ISO low at 100.
If you are setting shutter speed at 1/10th of a second, take some test shots. If the shot is too dark (underexposed) use a longer shutter speed, open the aperture, or change ISO to 200. If the shot is overexposed, close down the aperture to f/ll.
Longer shutter speeds will capture longer light trails on the fireworks. You can set shutter speeds to several seconds or even longer and this is where a “bulb” setting comes in handy. This setting can also allow you to capture multiple firework bursts in the same exposure. With “bulb” setting once you press and hold, the shutter remains open until you release it. You can do this on camera (but it might produce camera shake) or you can use a shutter remote. Shutter remotes typically cost under $20 and can be used in many different ways for many genres so you will get your money’s worth from one of these gadgets. Be sure to get the right kind for your camera (check compatibility before ordering). Some cameras are equipped with Wi-Fi so with those you can download apps – like Canon’s Camera Connect app -- that let you take the picture from your phone.
For some camera users the "bulb" setting is a camera mode and is on the dial. For other cameras "bulb" setting is in the shutter settings if you continue to increase the shutter time past 30 seconds. In either case, when using “bulb” setting it will affect your shutter speed and allow for longer exposures. Therefore, an aperture setting of f/11 is probably a better starting point so you don’t end up with overexposed images. Start with an ISO of 100. You will need to take some test shots and since fireworks shows typically last 30 minutes you should have the opportunity to make adjustments. Try starting the exposure in “bulb” setting by pressing and holding the remote and leaving it open (continue to hold) for three fireworks bursts, then release. Check your work. You can try four or five bursts and if you start to get overexposure, adjust the aperture by closing it down to f/16 (or by one-third or ½ stops if your camera allows).
Photo by FocusEd Camera
And here is where that black piece of paper I mentioned at the beginning comes into play. When using “bulb” mode you can expose the full firework burst or multiple firework bursts. Just use the black paper to keep the lens covered (hold it in front – does not have to be directly touching) until you want to start exposure and in-between fireworks bursts. This can work with manually set shutter speeds too (set the camera shutter speed to 30 seconds or whatever length your camera allows that you want to try). The steps are like this:
If this seems complicated, take a few deep breaths… this is not beyond your skill level. Read over your camera manual and practice with making the setting adjustments while you are in daylight. In other words, know how to switch the ISO from 100 to 200 and know how to close down the aperture (smaller opening = larger f/# = less light, use when overexposed/image too light) or open the aperture (wider opening = smaller f/# = more light, use when underexposed/image too dark). Know how to set the shutter speed. Start with the settings provided of shutter 1/10th second, ISO 100, and aperture f/8 while focused far out in the distance (manual focus at infinity) on a tripod, and you should get good results!
Want to stay in touch or share your fireworks photos? Follow us on Twitter @focusedcamera and tag us in your posts!
P.S. Have you ever wanted to try “light painting” with sparklers? The process and settings are almost the same – just focus where your subject is instead of out at infinity. Set up the tripod and focus point in daylight beforehand by having your child or friend stand in the location where you will be using the sparklers then lock the focus in (use a piece of non-stick tape and keep the lens set to manual focus).
You are standing in the electronics department looking at the end of the camera lens you want to buy and it looks like alphabet soup or maybe a secret code…
EF, DX, AF-P, ED, IS, VR, USM
What do all those letters and numbers mean?
Over the years camera manufacturers have changed lens mounts and some newer models will not be compatible with older lenses and vice-versa. Nikon also makes some camera bodies that have built in focusing motors and some that do not. This article will cover general abbreviations and is not a guide to which lenses will actually work with your camera. Be sure to refer to each manufacturer's site for compatibility information before you purchase.
A short rule of thumb, except for the letters that indicate it is a crop sensor lens, generally speaking the more letters you see the better quality the lens. I am going to go through a few of the more common abbreviations and explain what they mean. After reading this, you will have a better understanding of those scrambled letters so you can buy camera glass with confidence!
Lens manufacturers build their DSLR and mirrorless camera lenses for basically two categories: crop sensor or full-frame. Full-frame lenses are considered more professional, have a better build quality, and are therefore more expensive. To make things confusing, each lens manufacturer uses a different set of letter codes to signify the “line” of lenses (pro vs. consumer) and the quality of the lens. In this article, I am only going to discuss the two most popular brands, Canon and Nikon. If you want a more complete list of abbreviations for Canon, Nikon, and third-party manufacturers like Tamron, Sigma, and Tokina, use the chart I created (link and download at the bottom of the article). Also at the bottom is a list of some recommended lenses in more common sizes. These are affiliate links, so I do make a small commission if you purchase a lens.
EF – lenses for EOS full-frame cameras
EF-S – lenses for crop sensor cameras (APS-C sensors); you can use EF lenses on a crop sensor camera, but you cannot use EF-S lenses on a full-frame camera body; EF-S lenses are less expensive and lighter in weight
L – “Luxury” lenses are the cream of the crop and have a red band of color around the barrel; usually a more rugged design and/or weather sealed
CN-E – specialty cinematography lenses; black and red like the “L” but manual focus only
EF-M – lenses for the M series mirrorless camera system; EF and EF-S lenses can also be used on EF-M camera mounts with an adapter; EF-M cannot be used on the larger full-frame mirrorless RF mount
RF – lenses for the full-frame mirrorless camera bodies; EF lenses can be used with an adapter
FX – lenses for full-frame cameras
DX – lenses for crop sensor camera bodies; DX lenses are less expensive and lighter in weight
Z – lenses specifically for the Z6 and Z7 camera systems; FX and DX lenses can be used with an adapter
S-line – lenses for mirrorless cameras; “S” means “Superior”; not to be confused with the older S mount lenses from the 1950s and 60s
Gold ring – if the lens has a gold ring around the barrel, that signifies a higher quality lens
For those who are considering buying lenses for their crop sensor camera, but eventually want to upgrade to a full-frame body, I would recommend saving up for the more expensive FX (Nikon) or EF (Canon) lenses. You can use them on your crop sensor camera body for now (with a crop factor) and later when you upgrade to your full-frame DSLR or mirrorless you can continue to use them at their maximum potential. This can save you from having to re-purchase lenses since the cheaper lenses (DX, EF-S) do not have the same quality as full-frame, and for Canon users cannot be used on the full-frame bodies. This is true of third party lenses made for Canon and Nikon as well.
Moving on to focal length, all lenses use the same methodology. Focal length is measured in millimeters (mm). This number is the distance between the camera’s sensor and the lens’ convergence point. The focal length tells us how much of our subject or scene will be captured (angle of view) and the magnification. Short focal lengths have wider angles of view and do not have much magnification, whereas, longer focal lengths have smaller angle of view and a higher level of magnification. Some lenses will have just one number, such as 50mm. This is a fixed focal length which is called a “prime” lens. Prime lenses provide higher image quality and are more compact and lightweight. Additionally, they often have better apertures for low-light.
When you see a range of numbers, such as 18-55mm, it means the focal length is variable, or has a “zoom.” A zoom lens allows you to switch between subjects and different shooting scenarios without changing lenses as often. For a more in-depth look at focal lengths and the differences between wide angle, standard, macro, and telephoto lenses, read my blog post “FocusEd on Focal Lengths.”
The next set of letters and numbers is typically the aperture or aperture range indicated by the letter “f” and then some numbers, such as f/2.8. This means the maximum aperture setting is 2.8, the iris is more open, and lets in more light. An aperture of f/22 would mean the iris is less open and would let in less light. Aperture numbers are harder to remember, they don't go in nice even increments of whole numbers like ISO 100, 200, etc. The reason these numbers appear to not follow a pattern is that they are ratios related to the focal length and the diameter of a circle. When we close down an iris we are making the circle that allows light in smaller and smaller. Think of it this way, it is similar to the iris of your eye. If you were in a dark room and there was only one small light bulb, your iris would open to its widest to let in more light. But if that same dark room had 22 light bulbs burning, your iris would become more narrow to let in less light. You can also think of f-stops as fractions. One fourth (1/4) is smaller than one half (1/2); therefore, f/4 is a smaller, narrower aperture than f/2. The full f-stops from wide to narrow are 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, and 22 (some lenses have f/stops more narrow than f/22, but also typically suffer in image quality).
KoeppiK / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
If the camera lens you are considering for purchase is a prime lens, there will be just one f/. That is the maximum (widest) aperture the lens is capable of using. Lower numbers are better because they allow shallower depth of field and you can get those soft, blurry backgrounds behind your subject in your portraits. If a camera is a zoom, it usually has a range such as f/4-5.6 which means that at the smaller focal length you have f/4 and at the longest focal length you have f/5.6. The more you zoom, the narrower the aperture becomes. Whenever possible, choose a lens that has a low f/ and keeps that throughout the zoom instead of a range, such as a 24-70mm f/2.8. A few things to keep in mind, sometimes the f/ is not included and you will see 1:4-5.6 or 1:4-1:5.6 instead. Additionally, most lenses will shoot at their sharpest when at a medium aperture. So if your lens has a maximum aperture of f/2, your photographs will most likely have fewer aberrations and maximum sharpness at f/4 or even f/5.6.
Some lenses might also have Roman numerals I, II, III to indicated the generation of the lens. A lens with III is newer and probably has some upgrades compared to the same lens generation II. However, be aware that Tamron, and others, may also use similar markings for other purposes. Tamron lenses marked Di-II indicate a crop sensor lens and Di-III lenses are specifically for mirrorless.
Lenses may have markings for magnification such as 1:1. True macro is considered 1:1 where the lens allows the photographer to focus up close and get a life-sized reproduction on the image sensor. A lens with a 1:2 magnification will reproduce the subject at ½ life-size on the image sensor. Macro lenses will often say “macro” on the lens, but be cautious. The label “macro” is sometimes used on lenses that do not really produce a 1:1 ratio, so be sure to check the specifications of the lens if that is something you want.
Even with all of those letters and numbers explained, there may still be a mind boggling amount of remaining letters to decipher. Here are a few of the more common ones for Canon and Nikon. Again if you want a more complete list, use the chart I have created (at the bottom of the article).
IS – Image Stabilization; good for slower shutter speeds because internal mechanisms (gyros) help stabilize camera movement
USM – UltraSonic Motor; faster focus, but quiet
Micro USM - cheaper version of USM for kit and budget lenses and it is not as quiet
STM – Stepper Motor; fast focus, and the most quiet
SC or SCC – Spectra (or Super Spectra) Coating; coating on the lens to decrease reflections and flaring
SWC – SubWavelength Coating; coating to minimize ghosting and flaring; newer version of SC/SCC
DO – Diffractive Optics; lens will have a green ring on the barrel; fewer glass elements so the lens is lighter and smaller with improved optics
AF – Auto Focus; allows focusing from the camera; you may also see AF- followed by D, I, P, or S, which stand for Distance, Integrated Motor, Stepper Motor, and Silent Wave Motor respectively and are all improvements over AF alone (check compatibility carefully some consumer level camera bodies require AF-S lenses for full functionality)
SWM – Silent Wave Motor; very quiet, high speed auto focus
NIC or C (or SIC) – Nikon (or Super) Integrated Coating; to minimize ghosting and flaring
ED – Extra-low Dispersion Glass; used in high-end lenses to reduce aberrations
HRI – High Refractive Index; only used on the very best lenses to reduce aberrations
N – Nano Crystal Coating; labelled in gold; reduces flaring and ghosting
FL – Fluorite – superior lens glass and lighter weight
G – no conventional mechanical aperture ring; aperture set by the camera body
IF – Internal Focusing; focusing is accomplished with internal mechanisms
E – Electronic Aperture; aperture is controlled by electronic signals; not to be confused with the old 1970s E-mount (check compatibility carefully most older bodies and film cameras cannot use E lenses)
Micro – Macro
VR – Vibration Reduction; image stabilization to reduce camera shake
Okay, so let’s put your knowledge to the test by following along. You are considering the following lens:
Nikon AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G
This lens will have Auto Focus with a Silent Wave Motor (AF-S). It is for a crop sensor camera (DX). It is a prime lens with a focal length of 35mm. The maximum opening of the aperture, or iris, is 1.8 so you can get some shallow depth of field with blurry backgrounds (f/1.8). You have no manual aperture ring (G) which makes this lens compatible with cameras that allow setting the aperture from the camera body.
Let’s try another one. You have two lenses to choose from:
Nikon AF-P DX 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR
Nikon AF-P 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR
The main differences are the first one is for a crop sensor camera (DX), has an aperture that lets in less light when zoomed (f/6.3), and no mechanical aperture ring (G). The second lens will be the better quality lens for a full-frame camera with a better f/ range and electronic aperture. The first lens costs approximately $400, while the second one costs approximately $550. (Note that some camera bodies are not compatible with AF-P and E type lenses).
Let’s try one final example and this one should be easy. You have two lenses to choose from:
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM
The one with the “L” for Luxury is the better lens. It has the f/1.4 aperture and the added image stabilization (IS). However, the prices might give you sticker shock - $350 vs. $1500. Whenever possible, it would be my recommendation to save up for better lenses, but sometimes the price is so much higher that the difference in quality might not be the most important determining factor. In this case the small difference in aperture would probably only be a factor for the most discerning of professionals and if you use a tripod and shutter release the added image stabilization may not add any benefits to your photography.
Buying a lens can be confusing, but by doing your research, checking the specs, and knowing a few key abbreviations, you’ll be able to buy camera glass with confidence!
Lens Abbreviations and Lens Recommendation Charts:
Feel free to print or download the lens abbreviation guide (PDF files below).
Below I have also included a link to some recommended lenses. You can always find more recommendations on our Buy Camera Gear page.
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. Please read the full version of my disclosures for more information. If you make a purchase through one of these links, we make a small commission (at no cost to you).