It’s that time of year again. And chances are pretty good that you’re going to fireworks this weekend… unless of course you live in Des Moines, like I do. In that case, you’re going to see fireworks tonight, because, ummm… I have no idea why Des Moines is celebrating the 4th of July on July 1.
Anyway, so you’re going to go see fireworks. Many of you will bring a camera. Many of you will come home, look at those photos and think, “Where did I go wrong?!” “How do those guys get those long arches, bright colors on black shots???” Go check Flickr, there are thousands of mediocre-at-best fireworks shots.
I’m going to dispel some fireworks myths for you. Hope it helps makes some impressive results for your obligatory fireworks post.
Myth #1 It’s night, turn on your flash.
Turn off the flash. Your on-camera flash can only illuminate the nearest 2-15 feet at most. There is no way your flash will do anything other than annoy and blind the people near you. For most of you, the flash is represented by a lightning bolt symbol on your camera. You’ll want to find the symbol with the lightning bolt crossed out.
Myth #2 It’s night, pump up that ISO.
That might be your intuitive response, but actually, you want to pull it way back. If you shoot Nikon, pull it down to ISO 200 if you’re trying to catch the nightsky only, and a max of 400 if you’re also pulling in water reflections or skyline lights with it. Canon users usually have an ISO of 100 on camera – you can try that if it’s a bright, close display or jump back up to 200-400.
Myth #3 I love good bokeh, I want a low aperture number.
While this is great for macros of flowers, it won’t make your fireworks look sharp. Shoot fireworks around f/11 for skylines and reflections and f/8 if you’re only shooting the sky. You want more in focus, not less.
Myth #4 Put the camera in auto, and let it focus.
Your camera will have a hard time focusing when the sky is all black – you will hear the motor zoom and not lock and you may miss it if you have to focus when the fireworks are firing. Click your autofocus to manual, and turn the lens to the infinity symbol to start. This usually looks like a figure 8 symbol and may be hard to see at night. Find this before the sun goes down – or put your cell phone light to good use like a dim flashlight to help you. After a few displays, you’ll be able to adjust the focus, manually, as needed.
Myth #5 You need a tripod to shoot fireworks.
Okay this one isn’t a myth. It’s a cold, hard fact. If you want the crisp clear shots the pros get, you’ll need a tripod. Even a cute gorillapod($20!) will work. This isn’t tripod envy… size doesn’t matter – stillness does. On that note, if your lens is a VR lens, turn that off while on a tripod – unless you’re going for the wiggley fireworks look. VR will look for vibrations and upon not finding them is known to misbehave.
Myth #6 Fireworks are fast, shoot fast!
And this is the million dollar tip… you want a very long exposure. This will make sure you record not only the burst, but the tail as the lights fall. Capturing both the burst and the fall is the secret of those gorgeous fireworks photos. And since you will need to leave the shutter open for several seconds… this goes back up to #5. You simply can’t handhold a camera that still for that long. Start with 2 seconds, and adjust as you’d like. If you know the finale is coming, turn down your ISO to 100 or low 0.7 or 0.3 and try a 10-second exposure! (Update: if you’re very close – that will be too bright! You’ll want to go faster at the finale if you’re close enough to see the brightness!) You’ll probably have to practice this before hand if you’ve never set your camera for long exposures. Ideally you can use a remote control to fire your shutter so you don’t have to touch the camera. Another idea is to get a hand-held shutter release that allows you to hold the release button for the duration you want. Then again, if you know about stuff like that, you probably aren’t reading my blog for advice.
There will be some things beyond your control – things that may matter such as clouds and wind direction. You don’t want the smoke lingering or blowing toward you. If you can be up-wind on a clear night, you’ll like your results better.
ISO 200 – 400, ISO 100 or low for a bright finale.
focus to infinity to start, adjust as the display plays out.
get a tripod
loooong exposures, 2 – 10 seconds.
update: My friend Kent posted a much more entertaining than this fireworks tutorial. Go check it out!