I’ve been shooting various Independence Day celebrations for my entire career. Our community, Ada, Oklahoma, has a big day-long party in Wintersmith Park. It starts at 7 am with the Fireball Classic 5k/10k run, and ends 14 hours later with a fireworks display over the lake in the park. Many Adans set up tents and make a day out of it.
One slightly vexing problem for a lot of would-be photographers is the formula for photographing fireworks. Complicating matters is that many of today’s cameras have a not-very-effective “fireworks” mode on the exposure mode dial.
But I’m here to make it easy. You need…
- A rock-solid tripod
- A digital SLR or other camera with the ability to make manual exposures for up to 30-seconds.
- A lens, probably a zoom, that can be focused manually and has either a focus distance scale or a hard stop at the infinity setting (some lenses focus beyond infinity, which is a place for another, more philosophical discussion.)
- A spot about as close as you can get to the source of the fireworks.
Find your spot early enough that you don’t have people sit or stand in front of you. On top of a wall or at the edge of water might work. With the camera on the tripod, focus to infinity. Make your shutter speed “B” or “Bulb,” which allows the shutter to stay open as long as you hold the shutter release down. Make your ISO about 200, and your aperture somewhere around f/11.
Be ready to tweak these settings if they don’t give you what you want.
As the fireworks show starts, watch the floral shells lift into the air. Anticipate when they will burst, and try to open the shutter just before they do. Hold the shutter open as more shells burst. The longer you hold the shutter open, the more bursts will accumulate on the image. I find that two or three is enough, but your taste may vary.
Be aware that longer shutter speeds also accumulate more smoke and haze that is illuminated by the fireworks themselves.
There are other tricks of the trade. Some shooters will bring a black card (or a black hat or other black object), open the shutter, then move the card out of the way during the period of the motion of the fireworks that he wants to capture, then covering the lens again and waiting for the next chance to add to the image.
The true essence of photographing fireworks is to let your creative self have fun, both in the process and at the destination.