Editors Note: This is a guest post by Photographer Joe Marshall.
Hello SLR Lounge Community! I’m Joe Marshall, a wedding and portrait photographer in Wichita, KS. I’m also a bit of a pyromaniac so I love to photograph fireworks as well! Today I wanted to show you how you can take great photos of fireworks even if you’ve never tried it before.
Taking photos of fireworks is not very difficult, and you don’t need the nicest gear to create great photos. Really all you need to take photos of fireworks is a camera and a tripod. (Or anything else that is stable to set the camera on) Since we will be taking long exposures that can sometimes be 10 seconds or more, there is no hope of handholding and getting clear images.
Location & Composition:
Get to the location early to set up your camera in a good location where it won’t get bumped and people will be out of the way. You should also be deciding on whether your photos are going to have just the fireworks bursts in them, or if you are going to include a foreground or background. Sometimes adding the extra dimension of having the ground, water, trees or buildings can really make your photos spectacular. This is where it’s great to have a zoom lens so you can change your field of view easier. Plan your composition, but be prepared: once the fireworks begin, often times they are higher or larger than you expect and you will need to adjust to accommodate it. I usually frame wider and plan to crop some later to improve the composition.
T2i, 18mm, f7.1, 8 sec, ISO 200
Switch your Lens to Manual Focus. Cameras will rarely be able to find focus on fireworks itself. To focus, use your camera’s live view if it has it, and zoom in to where the fireworks are. You can then manually adjust to see when your focus is correct. If you don’t have live view, just set your lens focus right at infinity and take some test images to make sure they are sharp. After you have the focus set, you shouldn’t have to change it as long as you don’t bump the lens.
I highly recommend you shoot in RAW format so you can really play with the white balance and saturation of your photos when you are at your computer. If you want to shoot in Jpeg, you will need to try different white balances to see which one you like best. Sometimes Tungsten is a good place to start for fireworks.
5D mkII, 28mm, f8, 4 sec, ISO 200
In Manual Mode, Set your camera to f8, and a 5 second shutter speed. Start at ISO 200 and see if the fireworks are exposing correctly. If you need to go brighter or darker, adjust your ISO accordingly. If you expose too bright, the colors of the fireworks will start clipping. You can use your camera’s histogram to make sure the data is not hitting the right side of the graph.
Since Fireworks are a fast light source that is moving, it’s similar to a flash where changing the shutter speed doesn’t change the brightness of the bursts. So here’s where your personal preference comes in a lot- Adjust the shutter speed to match how many bursts you want in the photo. A longer speed, like 10 seconds, will have lots of fireworks, where a shorter speed, like 2-5 seconds will have less. Be careful not to have too many, as they can overlap and be too bright for the sensor to capture causing the colors will blow out. You can also do even shorter speeds for a different look. Shooting under a second will capture less of the bursts, and the fireworks will not trace the same patterns across the photo. Have fun with it and experiment to see what you like!
Balancing the fireworks with the surroundings is a little more difficult, but it can be done with some tweaking of the settings, usually the shutter speed. The panorama at the top was done by having a higher ISO so the ambient light could contribute to the photo as well.
T2i, 21mm, f8, 4 sec, ISO 800
Pressing the button
If your lens has it: turn off Image Stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR). (On a tripod it actually will make photos blurry) If you have a cable or remote control button for your camera, use it so you don’t shake the camera by pressing the shutter button. If you don’t have it, just set your camera on the delay timer (many have a 2 second version) so that any shake from you pressing the button will be gone before the shutter opens.
And that should get you on your way! Most of the photos in this article were shot with a T2i and the kit lens, just to show that you don’t have to have the best gear to get nice photos of fireworks. Do you have any helpful tips/tricks? Share them in the comments below!
One final note: Don’t get so involved taking photos that you miss the firework show! I was pretty bad with this so now I usually get set up, take some photos for a few minutes, then turn the camera off to relax and watch the last half of the show with the family.
Joe Marshall is a wedding and portrait photographer in Wichita, KS and the surrounding area. He loves photography, board games, hanging out with family, camping, traveling, and rooting for the Wichita State Shockers.