Ten Tips for Photographing Fireworks
Happy Fourth of July! This holiday, I plan on taking a break from wildlife photography to focus on photographing the night sky filled with bursts of color from the fireworks display here in Estes Park.
Our show starts at 9:30 p.m., a great time just as the blue hour is finishing up and nautical dusk is starting so the night skies will be pretty dark but not completely black.
1. Tripod, tripod, tripod. You must have a tripod to capture tack sharp images of the fireworks display.
2. Remote shutter release. Although not a must, a remote shutter release is a great device to use to help reduce any camera movement caused by your hand pressing the shutter button.
3. Pick your spot prior to the beginning of the show. If the fireworks display near you is anything like the one here in Estes Park, there will be crowds of people — lots of large crowds. Getting your spot early is important so you have the vantage point you envision. In Estes Park, the Lake Estes 9-Hole Golf Course is considered the best location to see the show since it is the closest spot to the launch point at Fisherman's Nook. Although I have photographed the fireworks from this location with great results, I am always looking for a different perspective and one with an interesting composition that gives a sense of place. Last year we spent time with friends out on a boat near the marina. This wasn't a good option for photography as the rocking boat — even the slightest rock — won't help with getting sharp photos. This year I'll be heading to a higher vantage point for a couple of reasons: fewer people, view of the valley and a different perspective to combine with the photos from two years ago close to the launch point. Having water in your foreground is also a great option to capture the reflections of the fireworks in the water. And those crowds of people? Those heads can make an interesting foreground silhouetted against the colorful bursts. Check your local newspaper (wait, what's that?) or town/county website for the locations and times of the fireworks displays in your area.
4. Shoot to the east. As mentioned earlier, most fireworks displays start just as the sky is starting to get dark. Directing your camera to the west will mean the sky is lighter and will potentially obscure the vibrant bursts of color. Shoot to the east and the sky will be darker, preferably a dark blue to really set off the color of the fireworks.
5. Stay safe and comfortable. In addition to your camera gear, you should also make sure you have other items to keep you safe and comfortable while outdoors in the dark. In Estes Park, the temperatures during the show may get as low as 50 degrees. In places like Florida, you may only reach 70 or 75 degrees during the show. Dress appropriately. Bring an extra bag with a sweatshirt, snacks, flashlight or headlamp and something to sit on while waiting for the show to start, like a blanket or chair.
6. Camera settings. The camera settings are pretty simple and straightforward. The goal is to blur the movement of the sparks as they fly through the air while maintaining the quality of your photo. I prefer to shoot at a low ISO to keep the noise at a minimum (ISO 50-100), turn noise reduction off, an aperture of f6.3 to f11 depending on the composition, and a slow shutter speed (1/4 to 1/15 sec). No flash is needed. Remember to shoot in RAW with an auto white balance (you can adjust this in post processing) and to turn off your vibration reduction (this can actually cause a shot to not be sharp when on a tripod).
7. Camera gear. The best option is a DSLR camera and a couple of lens options. The DSLR will allow you to adjust your settings as needed, reduce the noise levels in your shots and should have a manual shooting mode. For lenses, I like the 80-400mm lens for the tight shots of the bursts and a wider angle, such as a 24-105mm, for the sense of place if I am sitting close to the show. If I am further away from the action but still capturing a scenic, then I'll stick with my 80-400mm lens. And of course don't forget extra batteries and memory cards.
8. Time to shoot. Although you can certainly photograph the fireworks throughout the show, the best time will be at the beginning before the smoke from the fireworks starts to fill the air. This will reduce sharpness in the photos. Of course, the finale is always a fun and exciting feature but might be better captured as a video. An evening with a slight breeze will help with reducing the smoke too.
9. Focus challenges. To overcome your camera from "searching" for a focal point with the moving bursts and dark skies, pre-focus your lens before it gets too dark to a point you think will be best for the scene (remember the 1/3-in rule when shooting a landscape) and then turn off AF. You can also allow your camera to focus on the first firework explosion and then turn AF off for subsequent shots.
10. Enjoy the show. Remember that you are there to spend time with family and/or friends and enjoy the celebration. Don't spend the whole show looking through the viewfinder and missing out on the experience.
Keywords: fireworks, fourth of july, independence day, landscape, night, night photography, nighttime, photo, photography, tips, travel
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