Ringing in the New Year with a blazing fireworks show is a time-honored tradition. Colorful explosions in the sky not only inspire a visceral awe to revel in during any good celebration, they also inspire the photographer in us to whip out our camera and start shooting. But if you are planning to run-and-gun this New Year’s fireworks display, you may find the results less than stellar if you aren’t prepared. As is often the case with photography and video, a little planning is key to getting the shot.
Over the past several months I have shot many fireworks displays for my documentary called Passfire and I’ve learned first-hand what works and what doesn’t. Here are some tips that will help you get great fireworks shots, as well as details on the key differences to keep in mind when shooting video.
1. Use a tripod. Capturing the energy and motion of a fireworks display will require longer exposures, usually 2 seconds or more. Since it’s impossible to hold a camera steady for this long, a tripod is essential. Gorilla pods and sand bags can help achieve good results, but tripods are by far the most reliable way to lock down a camera, hold it steady, and properly frame the shot.
2. Shoot in Manual mode. Manual control over ISO, aperture and shutter speed is important for getting good shots of fireworks. Keep your ISO low, between 50-200 to minimize noise, and set your aperture between f 5.6 and f 11 for a crisp image. Set your shutter speed to 2 seconds or more to help capture the streaming colors in the sky. Shutter speed is the single most important attribute to control when shooting fireworks, so if you camera doesn’t have a manual mode, shoot in any mode that allows you to select slower shutter speeds, such as Tv mode (iPhone shooters, check out an App called Slow Shutter Cam which allows you to select longer exposures!) Some cameras offer a “fireworks” mode that generally gives good results, but allows for less creative control over the images.
3. Turn off the flash. The subject — fireworks — produces light, so there is no need to further illuminate it. Using the flash may confuse your camera’s meter, over expose the foreground or highlight smoke and dust particles in the air that will distract from the fireworks themselves.
4. Use manual focus. If your camera has manual focus, use it. When you are far from the action, focus on infinity. Do a couple test shots to verify that the focus is sharp on a distant light source or object. If you are close to the launch site (in a backyard show, for example,) focus on a bright object like a flashlight that is roughly the same distance as the fireworks. Pre-focus before the show, and try not to touch the focus ring once it’s set — a piece of tape can help keep it locked in place.
5. Location scout. Knowing the lay of the land is key to great compositions. Try including water, buildings, trees or landmarks to put the fireworks in context. If there is a breeze, station yourself upwind or perpendicular to it so that the smoke blows away from you. This will keep your shots from looking foggy.
6. Shoot a lot. Take as many shots as possible to maximize your chances of getting a keeper. In a given night of shooting hundreds of photos, I’m happy if I get 5 excellent shots. Persistence is key. Bring extra memory cards and a spare battery so you don’t miss the finale.
7. Experiment. Include things in the foreground such as the audience. They may look interesting silhouetted, or you can try illuminating the foreground with light painting or even fill flash (yeah, I know I told you not to use it, sometimes rules are meant to be broken!).
Tips for video: much of the above also applies if you are shooting video, but there are a few key differences.
The biggest difference with video comes from the shutter speed. Most video cameras only allow you to shoot at 1/24 or 1/30 of a second, so long exposures simply aren’t an option. Set your shutter speed to the reciprocal of your frame rate so if you are shooting 30 fps, set your shutter speed to 1/30.
Compared to a 2 second exposure, each 30 fps video frame will be significantly darker due to faster shutter speed. You will have to compensate with a combination of aperture and ISO. Shoot with your aperture wide open, (the lowest aperture number available,) and set your ISO to the lowest possible setting that will still achieve good exposure. Depending on your camera and lens this may be between ISO 400-1600.
Generally avoid the urge to pan up and down with the fireworks. Find a framing you like and leave the camera locked down. If you have a very smooth tripod head and practice your moves, you can try following the firework shell with a longer lens, but you will probably have to try a few times before you get it right.