Flashy fireworks photos

Fireworks at Canal Days Marine Heritage Festival in Port Colborne, Ontario.

Fireworks at Canal Days Marine Heritage Festival in Port Colborne, Ontario.

Photographing fireworks can be really rewarding when you capture multiple burst and the sky is lit up beautifully. For several years I have been doing commercial work for RedBoss Pyrotechnicians Inc. I have photographed several of their shows and special effects work and have found good success working with the company. There are, however, some things I needed to make sure I did photographically to ensure good results.

First off, special equipment needed. You are doing long exposures, some from one to two seconds to as much as 30 seconds and more. A tripod, a good sturdy tripod set on a solid surface is needed. You really can’t do it without and capture multiple bursts. You might need a cable release which will help cut down on camera vibration. Most manufacturers make one to go with your camera, so getting one should be easy. However, if you don’t have one, you can always trip the shutter using the camera’s self timer to reduce vibration, or, actually, just tripping the shutter will do fine. Release your finger from the shutter once you have started taking the photo though, again, to avoid camera vibration. 

Canada Day fireworks Canada Day fireworks taken with aperture f/16, shutter speed 20 seconds.

Canada Day fireworks
Canada Day fireworks taken with aperture f/16, shutter speed 20 seconds.

Choosing the exposure is one thing most people find difficult to do. The actual fireworks explosion is quite bright and you could get away with using a shutter speed of 1/60 second at f/8, and capture the individual burst as it happens with ASA/ISO set at 400. This requires a lot of luck and timing, and only results in one burst being captured, briefly, not allowing for the fireworks “tails” to drift down through the frame. This is not the preferred exposure settings for capturing flashy fireworks photos, because you really get limited results. However, if you don’t have a tripod and you do have a lot of room for trial and error, you can do it this way. 

Instead, working from a tripod, you can choose an ASA/ISO of 100 or 200 and set an aperture of f/11, f/16 or f/22. Choosing either of these apertures to work at helps achieve the overall effect of fireworks “tails.” I find that most of the times, I am choosing an aperture of f/16. The next part is choosing my shutter speed. If there was no other light source, I could choose a long shutter speed of 20-30 seconds and get the results that I want, several explosions and nice “tails.” My exposure meter will read massive underexposure because there is no other source of light in the frame for it to measure. However, the explosions are bright and brief and will be recorded in the frame. What you have to believe here is that it’ll work and not try to chase your exposure meter. Remember, that is in an instance where you have framed up your shot and there are no other light sources in the frame!

Photo using shutter speed of 30 seconds, aperture of f/22.

Photo using shutter speed of 30 seconds, aperture of f/22.

If you line up your shot and there is ambient light, again, choose an aperture of around f/16, then, choose your appropriate shutter speed to balance with the ambient light. Depending on the amount of ambient light, you will find that you are still making long exposures. For example, I photographed fireworks over the Lions Carnival one year and found that my exposure was about 20 seconds at f/16, the ambient light not really affecting the fireworks, however, with the balanced exposure, I was able to capture the carnival as well. My other example is in Port Colborne’s Canal Days. I wanted to photograph the fireworks explosions over Bridge 21. The ambient exposure with 100 ASA/ISO was 30 seconds at f/22. At that exposure, my camera meter was reading a proper exposure. It allowed me to capture detail in the bridge as well as the fireworks explosions.

There are a couple ways to photograph fireworks explosions. One is to just capture multiple explosions in the air without any other sort of compositional elements. This is kind of tough to do, however, most people doing this will have a general idea of where they are going to be set off. Find this location, put your camera on a tripod, choose your exposure and focus your lens to infinity. As you are doing this, to start with, use a bit of a wide angle lens, allowing room for mistakes. You will find that you may recompose during the show, and may even zoom your lens a little. Generally, start with the lens setting of about 18mm-24mm pointing in the general area of the expected explosions. If you can see where the company is going to set up, just look at the tubes on the ground. The sky shows are basically straight up with a ceiling of up to 400 feet from there, most explosions around 300 feet in the air.

My favourite Canal Days fireworks photo.

My favourite Canal Days fireworks photo.

The second way is to choose some sort of foreground. That is what I like to do more, giving a more natural scenic view to the fireworks. This entails some scouting around, again, locating the actual location the fireworks company is working from and “guesstimating” where the actual explosions will be based on where the tubes are pointing. This photo from Port Colborne’s Canal Days Marine Heritage Festival was one of my favourites as I chose a foreground of sailing ships masts. My exposures ranged from 2 seconds to 30 seconds throughout the show adding a little bit of movement as the ships rocked back in forth at their moorings. However, the movement was negligible. One nice feature that some of the companies do throughout the day is send up test shells looking at wind direction. This will help you scout locations and see where the explosions are going to be. Not all companies do this though.

When you are doing non professional fireworks photos at a family event, well, life can become trickier. What most people do, they set up a camera on a tripod and choose the aperture of f/16, ASA/ISO 100 or 200. As there is usually several moments between explosions, what they will do is set the camera on “Bulb” exposure. “Bulb” is opening up the shutter with the shutter release and it will stay open as long as you have your finger on the button, then when you release, the shutter closes. This way, you can do really long exposures. Best to get a shutter release cable if you plan on doing this. It will help avoid camera vibration. With the camera set up, wide angle lens pointing to the general area where the explosions are expected, the photographer trips the shutter and starts the long exposure, covering the lens with a dark piece of cardboard or the lens cap (just cover, don’t put it on) between explosions. This helps to reduce the risk of ambient light creeping in during the long exposures and allows the capture of several explosions in one frame.

With a little pre-planning and understanding of basic exposure, you should be able to capture flashy fireworks photos at local events and family outings. Remember, you need a tripod and set it on a solid surface. You will be doing long exposures and set apertures of f/16, f/22 for a lot of depth-of-field. Good luck.



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