Tips on photographing fireworks

I thought I would try something a little different today.  Instead of the usual "I went to some place and here's the photo of it" (which I love doing, BTW) I thought I would share a few tips on taking photographs of fireworks.  Here in the US we are celebrating July 4 tomorrow which is our Independence Day, and so of course we all get out the fireworks and blast away.  

Actually, that's not totally true.  Mostly we go somewhere and watch an organized fireworks show, and that's what this one will be about.  I have shot several fireworks shows, and just have a few quick tips to share on getting the most out it, photographically speaking.

1) Get there early

It's hard to find just the right spot, and if you arrrive 15 minutes prior to the fireworks starting, you are way too late.  For the last couple of shows that I shot here in Austin, I arrived at least 2 hours before the show.  Most folks don't plan that far in advance, so it gives you time to stake out the best spot.  In every case, I have had other photographers show up and say "dang, that's a good spot".  

2) Bring a tripod

Ok, that is probably really obvious, but I think we have all seen someone aiming their camera at the show (and the flash probably goes off), hoping to get something.  The truth is that the best shots are usually 3-6 seconds (and maybe longer, depending on the light) in length, and if you can hold your arms perfectly still for that long in low light and get a clean shot, you should probably be a sniper or something.

3) Shoot in Manual Mode

I shoot almost exclusively in Aperture mode, since I am usually firing HDR brackets, but when it comes to fireworks I switch over to manual mode.  It gives me a little extra control, and I have found that the little extra control goes a long way.  The main reason is that I am going for the full rise of the fireworks, and having the shutter open long enough helps gather the entire light trail.  That makes the photo a little cooler looking, in my opinion.  Also, if you don't shoot in Manual Mode much, be sure and familiarize yourself with it before getting there.  You want to be able to quickly change things around, if need be.  Fumbling with dials in the semi-darkness is a recipe for disaster (and missed shots!).

4) Shoot at an Aperture around f/7.1

I found this to be a great aperture for shooting fireworks.  It's not too tight (like f/16 or something) that it takes forever to get the light in, but not too wide open (like say, f/3.5) that it blows out all the good light and just looks like a big lit up mess.

By the way, since you are on a tripod (see #2 above), be sure your ISO is at it's lowest setting.

5) Practice as much as possible early on in the show

Most fireworks shows only last for a little while, so taking photos of them will by definition be a limited time event.  That means you will be in full hyper mode for a little while, which is fun.  So have your camera ready to go - get what you think is the proper amount of zoom, etc and be ready to fire test shots from the moment they begin.  That way you can make adjustments once you figure out the normal height of the fireworks, since you want to catch the explosion at the top of your frame.  

Also, keep in mind that depending on what time the show starts, it will likely be getting darker and darker as the show progresses.  This means you will possibly be making constant adjustments all along, not to mention that your exposures will likely need to get longer as well.  All 3 of these shots were in the blue hour as you can tell, and were 3-4 seconds at f/7.1.  As it got darker, they were up to 6 seconds.

The other thing to keep in mind is that it's also important to shoot a lot early on for this reason - towards the end of the show, lots of fireworks are blasting off in rapid succession, which sounds cool, but if all the smoke stays in the area then your shots are not too clean, but rather filled with smoke.  So get your good ones done early in the show!

Well, that's it.  Like I said, it was just a few quick tips.  I hope this helps and if you are out photographing some fireworks this week, I sure hope you get some great shots!  Have fun, and Happy 4th of July!