I’ve been seeing a lot of tips floating around about photographing fireworks. Many make it seem difficult and mysterious. Time to get back to basics.

  • More light = shorter exposure. Less light = longer exposure.
  • Capturing fast action = shorter exposure. Blurring long motion = longer exposure.

… where “exposure” is a combination of aperture and shutter speed.

With fireworks, the action is relatively fast, and the light is bright. For this reason, in most cases, you don’t want super-long exposures! Keeping your shutter open for 30 seconds will leave you disappointed. (The exception would be if you have opened the shutter onto a black sky and are waiting for the fireworks to go… in this case, a black sky will register little or no light onto the exposure, so having the shutter open is fine while intermittent flares are going off.)

But when the bombs really start glaring, you need faster exposures to capture them. Otherwise, you will end up with a blurry mess of overexposed shots.

With that in mind, here are my tips for shooting fireworks, using a digital SLR:

  1. Go full manual on camera and lens. You don’t want your camera trying to figure out exposures and focus in the heat of the moment. Keep in mind that in automatic modes, with a dark sky your camera will be trying to overexpose, by default. Also, make sure your flash isn’t going off on these dark exposures.
  2. Use a tripod and cable release. (If you don’t have a cable release, you might be able to get away with pressing the shutter with your finger, but the timer is useless in this situation.)
  3. Set up a composition you like, while it’s still light. For this you will need to know where the fireworks will be going off. You may need to adjust your composition while shooting – always keep your compositional decisions separate from your exposure decisions.
  4. Set your ISO to 400.
  5. Set your aperture to f/8.
  6. Set your shutter speed (tv – time value) to anywhere from 1 second to 5 seconds, depending on how many bursts there are. More bursts = faster shutter speed. Start with your shutter speed at 1 second. While shooting , time the bursts…. one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc. If you know how long they go, you will know how long the shutter speed should be. You want the shutter to stay open for the full duration of the firework’s burst.
  7. Set your lens to manual focus, on infinity. Otherwise, your camera will be trying to focus and can’t because of the low light. To focus on Infinity – on your lens barrel, there is a gauge that shows as you turn the focus ring. Line it up with the “sideways figure eight” infinity symbol.
  8. While shooting, in between action, preview a couple of your captures on the LCD. On the histogram, you want deep blacks (even totally-clipped black is fine) with slight spikes toward the midtones and highlights. If the previews look good, go with it! Don’t keep checking your LCD while you are shooting; you will miss the action.
  9. Advanced tip: if you keep your shutter open for long periods (say, 30 seconds or Bulb) you can capture multiple bursts in one exposure by using a piece of cardboard or other dark material to expose by hand. With the shutter remaining open, simply put the card in front of the lens in-between bursts, then move it away while the action is happening. With this method you can very closely simulate the effect of double-exposure on film, even on a single digital capture. Be careful not to bump the front of the lens.
  10. Important note: keep in mind that with all exposures in low light, your sensor will produce more noise. On rough preview, you may see bright spots of red, green or blue pixels. Usually, these will be eliminated during the processing of the capture. But it’s important to recognize that some cameras, in low-light situations, will produce lots of noise. This can often be corrected in post-processing.

Well, that’s it. When you’re heading out with expectations of caturing fireworks, remember the basics – composition, exposure, focus. Simple. Right?

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