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!
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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).
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