As we head into the 4th of July weekend, a lot of photographers will be trying to get great fireworks shots. Night photography in general and fireworks photography in specific can be challenging if you don’t know what you need to do differently. What follows are my top 7 tips to create stunning nighttime fireworks photos:
1. Long Shutter Speed
Most photographers recommend you take about 4 second exposures. That’s fine – I’d actually consider that a starting point though. With 4 seconds shutter time, you’ll get the nice streaking of light across the frame that we are going for, but the rest of the image will be pitch black. If you go for a bit longer time, you can get multiple fireworks blasts onto one image, plus you start to ‘burn in’ the scene around the fireworks. I generally prefer something in the 15 seconds plus range. The people who are watching the fireworks and the environment around you gives a sense of place to the image, rather than just a burst of light isolated in the night sky.
I’d generally stay at f8 or above for night photography. Again going for sharpness, most lenses are sharpest about 2 stops above minimum aperture (2.8, 4.0, 5.6, 8.0) so try to stay around here. If you are going for a longer shutter you might have to dial the aperture up to f11 or above to get a reasonable exposure. Experimentation will be key.
3. Shoot in Manual Mode
Manual mode is the best way to get the settings right as you want them. You’ll need to rely on your brain to set the shutter, aperture, and ISO rather than the meter, but you can certainly use the meter as a good starting point. But don’t let it dictate what you do! Experiment! Try a longer shutter speed or a higher ISO than it suggests and you may be pleasantly surprised with the results.
4. Use Manual Focus
When it’s as dark as this even the best camera is going to search and hunt for focus. You don’t want to let it even try, because again that may mean missed shots. Set it to manual focus mode (probably on the lens barrel) and use that focus ring yourself.
5. Use a Tripod
Fireworks require a long shutter speed. Anytime there is a long shutter speed, you’ll need a tripod. I would always recommend that you get a good tripod, but I know you probably won’t. It’s ok – most of us do it too, but at least you can go in knowing ahead of time what you should be doing! One really good idea when shooting with a tripod is to use your camera bag as an added weight on the center column. This has the added benefit of keeping your bag off the ground, and making it less likely you’l walk off without it. With tripods, more mass and weight is better because it helps stabilize the unit, so it moves less and gives you a better chance at a steady shot. However, more mass in a tripod means you’ll have more to carry. The best of both worlds is a carbon fiber tripod with a hook so you can use the weight you already have with you – look for a tripod with a hook on the bottom of the center column or you can always get creative with a bit of nylon webbing or the straps from a backpack and accomplish the same idea.
6. Turn on Mirror Lock Up
When you press the shutter button the mirror that lets the viewfinder work has to flip up out of the way to reveal the sensor. That movement can induce camera shake, and that’s what we want to avoid. Mirror lock up mode means you have to push the shutter release twice – once for the mirror to flip up out of the way and once for the shutter to open up. It’s a small difference but in a game of inches we need all of the help we can get. Just don’t forget that you have to do it twice, or you may miss some shots thinking you have the shutter open while you really only flipped the mirror up!
7. Get a Cable Release
A cable release is essential for getting your hands off of the camera (which could cause vibration leading to blur in your shots). You can buy fancy ones with the ability to dial in exposures over 30 seconds, or you can stick with the basic model. Either one gets this job done, just look for one that has a locking button so you don’t have to sit there and hold it (unless you want to of course).
Happy 4th of July everyone!