Here in the States the Fourth of July is a holiday when you know there is going to be an amazing light show as we celebrate Independence Day together. With modern cameras getting less and less expensive and smart phone cameras getting better all the time there is no shortage of people trying to capture the wonder that we all feel when we see that first trail explode in the sky. No matter what your camera of choice, there are a few fundamental tips that will really help you make the most of your images and put your blurry, grainy and shaky pictures from last year to shame.
Step 1 - Prepare The Day Before The Shoot Shooting in low light requires a little planning, so don't wait till ten minutes before the fireworks start to grab your camera bag and run out the door and expect to get the amazing shots you see other photographers get. Here are some steps to take the day before to make sure you are prepared for your shoot.
Don't forget to clean off your memory cards and make sure your batteries are charged beforehand. Few things are as heartbreaking as hiking twenty minutes to that perfect location and realizing you forgot your memory card in your computer at home, or you forgot to charge you batteries. Trust me - I have been there!
Pack a Flashlight (Always a good thing to have on night shoots). If you have a tiny keychain flashlight these are always great to check your settings between shots without ruining your night vision with your big flashlight.
Bring a tripod - A tripod is your best friend for night shoots and low light situations. How your eye sees light and how your camera sees light is VERY different so bring your tripod to make sure you get the clearest possible shots that you can.
Find a good location - Find out ahead of time where the fireworks in your area will be set off and find a place where you will have a good vantage point of the action that isn't obscured by power lines or lots of lights. That doesn't mean that you want an entirely clear sky either because a notable landmark or something like a river could really add some style to your shot, so put some thought into it.
Step 2 - The Shoot
Get to the spot you selected the previous day an hour or so before the fireworks start to make sure you have time to get your camera set up and calibrated before the show starts. Frame up your shot as close as you can and once the action starts take the first shot or two to make sure the shot is centered up as you cant it to be and your focus and everything is functioning properly.
Make sure your tripod is set up solid and level and that your camera is mounted properly to it. You also DO NOT want to extend your tripod all the way up because it will make your tripod less stable. Keep your tripod set up lower will help it to be more stable. (There's no rule saying you can't sit on the ground and take pictures so go for it!). You want your camera solid to get your best chance for a great shot and "I'll hold really still" or just leaning against the car or tree will NOT work.
If you have a remote shutter trigger for your camera use it. Even with your camera on a tripod pressing the shutter button can give a slight amount of shake, so using a remote release will help to totally get rid of the shake. (If you plan on buying a remote trigger MAKE SURE it is for your specific brand and model of camera).
Manually focus your camera (I can't stress this enough) - You want to turn your camera to manual focus mode and set it to infinity. (If you're not sure how to do that here is a super quick four minute video below that breaks it down pretty easily). Bright fireworks and hazy smoke will really freak your camera's auto focus out so save yourself some missed shots.
Turn OFF your flash! The fireworks give off more than enough light on their own. If you can't turn off your flash (mainly for point and shoot cameras) put a piece of black tape over it or something.
Set your camera to Manual mode and use the following settings to get you started (each shoot is slightly different and you may need to make some adjustments on the fly):
ISO - Set your ISO to 100. This will reduce the noise you see in your images and make sure the bright bursts don't blow out your image.
Shutter Speed - Set your shutter speed to ten seconds as a starting point. This will make sure you get those nice long firework trails that characterize firework shots.
Aperture - Set your Aperture to F12 set your focus to manual and dial in your infinity point that you found using the video above. This will make sure you are not letting too much light in and that you have a proper depth of field without the fireworks being out of focus (Depth of field is the distance between the closest object in focus and the farthest object in focus in your picture). If your shots are too bright move your aperture up (higher number) one stop at a time until you find the sweet spot.
Timing - Shooting fireworks is all about timing. A second too early or too late and you could barely miss an amazing shot. To minimize this take a LOT of pictures. With digital cameras it doesn't cost anything extra to shoot ten shots or 1000 shots so get as many as you can to maximize your chances of getting a great shot. As you shoot more and more then you can work on refining your shooting style and timing and going from "spray and pray" to the more refined "capture a specific moment" shots you see.
White Balance - What white balance you use depends on what looks good to you and what effect you are trying to go for. When in doubt use the cloudy option on your camera, but if you are feeling adventurous and want to experiment check out this article on Fireworks and White Balance to get some ideas.
The Grand Finale tends to be a good bit brighter than the rest of the show because of all the extra fireworks getting set off at once. If you notice your first picture being way brighter than the rest turn your Aperture two or three clicks and try it again as this will let less light to your sensor and make your picture less overexposed. If it's still too bright, repeat as needed to get things better under control.
Have fun! The whole reason you are doing this is to have fun and get cool shots so once you get a few great shots try something crazy for fun if you want, it's totally up to you. Do you run the risk of missing a really cool shot by doing this? Yep. Do you also have a chance of finding something really cool and unexpected - absolutely! Rules are made to be broken so play around and remember any practicing you do with you camera helps you to learn. Sometimes you have a great shoot and learn what to do next time, and sometime you have a rough shoot and learn what NOT to do but either way never stop learning.
When packing up make sure to take your flashlight and do a thorough sweep of the area before you leave. it is extremely easy for something to fall out of your camera bag and become lost as you are setting up. (The flashlight on your phone will be sufficient for this).
Need some inspiration? I have collected some great shots here on my Pinterest board for you to check out. Check out how some of them use obstructions (trees, buildings or people) as part of the image itself. Also I included a couple neat shots that you can only get by breaking the rules to get your gears turning.
Shooting fireworks with an iPhone For you iPhone photo fans out there here are a couple things to make sure you aren't left out of the fun. I have rounded up a few really good articles to check out about how to shoot fireworks with your iPhone so if that's your thing here you go. They have some great iPhone specific tips, tricks and apps to use to get the most out of your iPhone.