You need to use a tripod. There’s no getting around this. As you can probably tell, exposures for fireworks are somewhat slow (meaning the shutter stays open longer). You don’t want to freeze the action here. Instead, you want the cool streaks of colored light as the shells go up, burst and then drift back down. However, you want to capture motion, not create it.
There is no way to hand-hold your camera absolutely still during the long exposures needed for capturing the streaking light of fireworks. Because each exposure will be several seconds long (an eternity in photography), any camera movement will be emphasized, and the images will turn out blurry and shaky-looking. You have to have your camera firmly mounted on a tripod.
What you need
- A view of a fireworks display
- A camera with a Manual mode for setting exposure
- A sturdy tripod
- A cable shutter release
I used a wireless shutter release remote once but didn’t care for it. It felt like there was a slight delay between when I pressed the button and when the shutter opened. Real or imagined, I didn’t like it and have always used a cable shutter release since then. You need the cable release because you don't want to hold the shutter open with your finger on the camera. Even on a tripod, this could wiggle the camera a little bit.
You want some wind, and you want to position yourself anywhere except downwind of the fireworks. Smoke from the show can ruin the whole thing, photographically speaking. If there’s no wind, the smoke from the first few bursts will build up. Each successive burst makes this worse until the display is completely occluded by the smoke. Instead of fireworks, you get glowing clouds of smoke. This actually looks kind of cool but doesn’t photograph well.
- You’re already pre-focused on infinity-minus-a-bit, and this won’t change because your camera is set to manual focus
- You’ve already composed your shot in an effort to maximize the frame while still getting all the bursts
- The cable shutter release is in your hand, with your thumb poised over the button
- You hear the first cannonade go off and can see a streak of light going up into the sky
- Press the shutter release button a half second before the shell explodes and hold it down until the descending light streaks start to fade away
- Quickly review your LCD and make adjustments for the next burst
- Repeat until the show is over
The main key is to hold the shutter open for the correct amount of time. You want a bright, vibrant burst that is not overexposed and washed out. Unfortunately there are several vagaries that preclude knowing exactly how long to expose for.
Multiple bursts are going to be much brighter than a single one, and you never know how many shells will be bursting at the same time. If the smoke isn’t blowing away very fast, that’s going to make the scene brighter as well. The more smoke there is, the more the light will reflect off of it. You want to hold the shutter open long enough to capture streaking lines of light but not so long that you get one big blob of whiteness (which was my nickname in high school).
You have to pick your battles and realize that only a fraction of your shots will turn out awesome. When they start sending up 6, 7, or 8 shells at a time I just forget about it. There’s no way it’s going to be exposed well with nicely defined lines. You want clearly-defined, full explosions, not a mass of half-open bursts.
My rule of thumb is this – I hold the shutter open (with my thumb) for between 4 and 8 seconds , depending on those aforementioned vagaries. I watch the trails as the shells go up and try to time the opening of the shutter to just before the explosion. Usually my timing gets better as the show goes on and I settle into a rhythm with the bursts.
Bursting the Bubble
Aficionados of fireworks photos say that the best images capture the moment of the burst in the center of the streams. You can scroll back up through the images on this page and count how many bursts you see. Some pictures have them, and some don’t. The all-green one up above has no center bursts, but many of the other pictures do.
Did you notice whether they were there or not before I mentioned it? If not, then don’t worry about it. I try not to worry about it, but every time I get them I feel like I achieved something that will impress people I’ve never met or will ever hear from.
This isn’t rocket science (or, is it?). I even have a Fireworks preset in Adobe Lightroom that I usually start with because I tend to do the same things to each image. Here are the things I normally do in post:
- Increase contrast
- Decrease blacks (make the darks darker)
- Maybe decrease whites a bit if I don’t already have nice color
- Increase vibrance
- Increase sharpness and mask out the solid bits of dark sky
- Add 25 units or less of noise reduction
After doing those things, I play with the White Balance and Tint sliders until I get something I like. I’ll start by trying to replicate what I think it really looked like and then move things around until I like it the best. One challenge I've had over time is getting the reds to look red instead of pink.
Don’t forget that these shooting techniques can be used for land-based fireworks as well. This isn’t reserved for the huge aerial shows.
And if you want to get crazy and incorporate flash, you can really get some creative images. Here’s my super-cool, extra rad, smarty-pants step-daughter (who edited this whole thing and inserted those descriptions and actually used the phrase “extra rad”) from some years back playing around with a sparkler.