Fireworks on the Fourth of July

Photographing Fireworks in Tippecanoe County

As the 4th of July holiday approaches many people will go out to watch fireworks. I of course go out with the intent of photographing them. Last year on the 4th we made a trek down to the Wabash to watch the fireworks over the river. We braved the mud and the bugs to see them up close and personal. I was having some fun trying out some techniques to make the smooth lines that I love to see in firework photos. The photo above was one of my favorites from the night. Photographing fireworks is a lot about camera and settings, but luck also plays a part. The right firework needs to be shot without smoke and other fireworks to disrupt your view of it. I love the challenge of photographing fireworks, and tomorrow night I will try and find a spot to make an interesting photo from.

10 Tips For Better Firework Photos

Last year I posted ten tips for making better firework photos. These are not the only ten things that you need to do, but they are a good start. You can find that post here. I will also post the tips below again since they may come in handy tomorrow. 

  1. Use a tripod – This is probably the most important tip on this list. You can get good results without a tripod, but it is very hard to do so. A tripod lets you keep your shutter open longer, and therefore get the long trails of the fireworks. A couple of quick tripod tips here. Always keep your tripod as low as possible. Remember when the fireworks start it will be dark where you are. Keeping your tripod low reduces the fall if it is tripped over. If you are in a crowded area make sure that you are not putting someone in danger with your tripod. Your eyes will be in the sky so get some help here.
  2. If your camera has one set it to bulb mode – Setting your camera to bulb mode allows you to control the length of your exposure. You can start the exposure when the mortar is in the air, and end it when you want. This gives you the flexibility to shoot one blast or several. If you do not want to be in bulb mode you need to be in manual mode. Your camera will try and expose for the dark sky blowing the fireworks out.
  3. Use a cable release or the self timer to release the shutter – If you are using bulb mode you will want to use a cable release. You will introduce movement into the photo if you try and press the shutter button twice during the exposure. A cable release will allow you to get your hands off of the camera.
  4. Use the lowest ISO that you are comfortable with (ISO 100) – Using a low ISO at night will give you a longer shutter speed and also reduce noise.
  5. Before it gets completely dark focus on an object very far away and then switch your lens to manual focus (If you have tape you can tape it down here as well so that it doesn’t accidentally get bumped).
  6. While you are there early you can pick out a good spot to photograph the fireworks from. You can always just photograph the fireworks, but the shot may be much better if you have something of interest in the foreground as well. Local buildings or landmarks give your pictures place and scale.
  7. Shoot multiple bursts – A single shot can look great, but multiple shots look even better. If you don’t want to let your exposure blow out too much you can cover your lens in between shots. As the next burst is going up remove the cover to capture the next one.
  8. Look around you – The fireworks are putting off a great colorful light. They may be illuminating those around you. Bring a second camera to capture this moment. If you are there with family after you have found your settings you can run the controls with one hand. Stay in the moment so that you are not shut out from your loved ones.
  9. Basic settings – As a starting point I would say that you should start with an f-stop of f/8 or f/11. With an ISO of 100 you can leave your shutter open longer. That is where you must experiment. The sky is very dark, but the fireworks are super bright. Once you blow out the highlights they cannot be brought back. Depending on the size of the burst and your distance from it I would say that anywhere from 3-9 seconds is a good starting point. The photo above was taken for 21 seconds. That is where the fun can be is coming up with the right shutter time for your situation. There will be a lot of bursts so you have plenty of time to practice. When the finale starts and you have a good settings close down your aperture to a stop or two to account for the added light.
  10. Have fun! – This is a holiday after all. Don’t let your need to get the perfect fireworks shot get in the way of time with your family. This can be an exercise that everyone can get involved in.

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