Five tips for better fireworks photography.

New Years Eve is just around the corner, and I don’t know anybody who doesn’t become swept up amongst the festivities, including the fireworks shows. It’s very likely that in your own town or city, there will be some form of fireworks celebration to welcome the New Year, and most people will want to take some photographs to preserve those memories.

Fireworks photography may seem difficult and intimidating, but it shouldn’t have to be – it only requires a bit of planning and preparation prior to the clock striking midnight. Here are five tips to shift your fireworks photography skills in the right direction to capture the silkiest and vibrant images.

fireworks photography

14th July fireworks in Paris

1) Research your location

More often than not, we return to the same fireworks location year after year, so we should already have a fair idea of the where to be located for the best views.

Take your camera down to the location prior to the show, preferably when there is still some light and look through the viewfinder to determine what kind of composition you want in the shot. Capturing only the fireworks can be boring and it won’t tell much of a story; so try to incorporate some of the surrounding landscape for a bit of context. If anything, its better to leave more space between the fireworks and the edge of the image, than it is to have parts of the fireworks trail cut off.

If you are in a new location, try to get to there a little bit earlier than usual as it may take more time to find the right position. If this isn’t possible, use Google search to find any other blogs or images that may give up clues on where to find the best location.

new years eve fireworks in sydney

Sydney Harbour on NYE. I wanted to capture the Sydney CBD as well as the Harbour Bridge in the frame.

2) Have the correct gear

A camera with manual mode

You don’t need a huge professional DSLR,  just a camera that with manual mode where you can control the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings. Most modern point and shoot cameras all have these features built into them. If you’re uncertain whether your camera has manual features, consult the camera guidebook or the camera manufacturer website which usually have the features listed.

A tripod to keep the camera steady

Images that you see with a fireworks trail, resembling a smooth and multi colored light saber are most likely shot on a tripod and with a shutter speed of at least a two seconds. If you want photos worth bragging about, then you need to use a tripod in order to keep the camera steady.

I’m a bit of a tripod nerd and own two tripods. For the majority of my photographic work, I’ve been using a MeFoto travel tripod.  When fully extended , it stands up to chest height, or the legs can collapse down and spread out so that it can sit on a ledge. Folded away, it can fit into a small daypack along with my DSLR.

If I need to be more discreet, I use a Joby Gorilla Grip tripod which has much shorter legs that can wrap around objects such as poles and tree branches. They come in all different sizes and can come with a camera phone holder as well which can come in handy if taking photos with your smartphone.

tripod setup

Because two tripods are better than one, right?

If you prefer a tripod that is much smaller, the Benro PocketPod Tabletop is be a suitable option. It’s very small and can live inside a small daypack or a handbag without being noticed, and it’s sturdy enough to support a DSLR. It’s a stealthy option if you you’re in a location that cracks down on tripod use or you just don’t want to bother with lugging around anything bulky. I am considering adding (because who doesn’t need a third tripod right?) it to my kit for future use.

Use a remote trigger and enjoy the view

You will want to minimise any camera shake when taking the shot, otherwise any sudden bumps will result in blurry images. Remote triggers allow you to fire off a shot without having to press the camera shutter button. I use a Vello Wireless Shutterbug remote system that has both a cable or can be used remotely up to eighty metres away. With this method, I can focus on enjoying the show and pressing a button on the remote, rather than worry about doing two things at once. If you don’t want to fork out money for a remote trigger, you can set a camera or a camera phone on a two second timer delay.

For a camera phone, the best way of avoiding camera shake is to use your headphones as a remote trigger. Simply plug the headphone into the headphone jack and press the volume button to trigger the shutter. This feature works natively for iPhone users but  for Android users, apps such as Camera Touch-Free will allow you to do the same thing.

There is no right or wrong setting

There’s no magic formula or setting for fireworks photography, because not all fireworks shows are the same.  A lot is dependant on the the level of light and even that will vary throughout the show. As a rule of thumb, you should put the camera on manual mode so that you have full control over your shutter speed, aperture and ISO levels. As a starting point, I use the following settings:

For DSLR with tripod mounted setup:

  • TURN FLASH OFF
  • Aperture: f5.6 ensuring enough light can reach the camera sensor.
  • Shutter speed: Four seconds shutter speed ensures that you will get a smooth and silky burst from the moment it starts until the end of that burst.
  • ISO 100 (or as low as it will go) ensures and less noise (grain) in your image.
  • Turn off image stabilisation if your lens has this.
  • Turn off autofocus: This is possible if you use a dSLR as a autofocusing in the dark causes delays in the image being taken. I’ll show you how to set the focusing further down in this article.

 For a camera phone:

  • Turn on the HDR feature in your camera settings. This ensures that more details are preserved from the overexposed areas and also recovered from the shadows.
  • If you are using a gorilla grip to stabilise your phone, try downloading an app such as Long Expo for iOS or Camera FV-5 for Andoid which allows your to manually set the shutter speed of up to 2 seconds.
paris fireworks

Not all of the photos will be great but the more you shoot and review, the better understanding of the lighting and what adjustments are required to the aperture and ISO levels in order to obtain a properly exposed shot.

Taking the shot

I’ll be honest here; the first few shots won’t resemble anything you’ll be happy with, but you will want to use this opportunity to test the exposure and make refinements in your camera settings before the fireworks finale. You want to be exposing the image for the highlights or the bright areas in the fireworks. Once you have the correct settings, you will want to shoot the hell out it and take a lot of shots, because in fireworks photography, ‘more is more’.

For a DSLR

  • Once you have established your composition, find your focal point prior to the fireworks show commencing. The reason being is that it will be difficult for the camera to autofocus once the fireworks are exploding. To do this, find a well lit object to focus on about a similar distance away to where the fireworks will be – this could be a light in a house or a street lamp. Once it is set, take a test shot and review the image by zooming in on the preview. If it looks sharp then turn off the autofocus which means you can’t accidentally knock it out of focus.
  • If you’re taking the shot with a remote trigger, then you will want to take the shot a fraction of a second prior to the main firework explodes outwards. This gives enough time for the firework stream to expand out and for your shutter speed to capture the motion in one shot.
  • During the show, review the first few shots on the back of the camera. If it’s too dark then increase the ISO level or reduce the aperture number i.e from f5.6 to f3.5 or lower.
  • If by some chance you aren’t getting any decent results and want to make life easier, then there is usually a fireworks setting in the Program mode on the camera. Switch over to this and see if there are any improvements, but use it only as a last resort as you won’t have much control over the settings once switched over to this setting.
paris fireworks

An example of a shot that has been over exposed. Notice in centre of the fireworks, it’s pure white white with no colour or detail.

Camera phone

  • To properly expose for the fireworks, wait until the first lot of fireworks explode and hold the camera up so that you can see it onscreen. Hold your finger down on the screen on top of the fireworks until an AE/AF alert flashes. This means that the camera has locked onto the exposure as well as the focus point.
  • From here on, all there is to do is fire away at the shutter button. Do not to touch the screen again or it will reset the exposure and focus, meaning you will have to go through the above steps again.
  • Avoid zooming in with smart phones as this will affect the overall image quality and sharpness.
  • Don’t use third party app such as Instagram to take your photos as it won’t shoot in the highest resolution that your camera will allow.

Editing

When it comes to fireworks photography, I don’t know anybody who claims to have gotten it right, in camera first time. I use Adobe Photoshop/Lightroom to process my images, but it’s not important which program is used, you just need to know which aspects of the image to enhance. The main parts of the image that you need to edit are the highlights and shadow areas, followed by the contrast and saturation.

If you don’t have Photoshop or don’t want to pay for it, then it’s possible to upload images into mobile apps such as Snapseed to edit them. I find the the HDR Scape effect works well (don’t go beyond 50%) to bring out detail in the shadows. Then finish itoff with an increase in contrast and saturation which will deliver a well balanced image.

paris fireworks photos

[Left] Before editing in Lightroom. [Right] After editing. Adjustments were made to bring down the highlights. Notice the additional definition and detail in the fireworks streams. Slight adjustments in the shadows were made to properly expose the boat and park to give context but also scale.

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