Firework photography presents some technical challenges,learning how to photograph fireworks successfully needs quite a different approach to most other subjects but follow these few steps carefully and you will be successful. What are we photographing? Basically we are photographing streaks of light that develop over a period of time against a black background. The great thing about a black background is that it makes no impression on the film, or sensor in the case of a digital camera. So we can leave the shutter open as long as we like, the black will still be black.
So, in short, the way to photograph fireworks is to set the camera to manual exposure, set the aperture to a suitable f-stop and the shutter to 'b' or bulb. Open the shutter just before the firework bursts and close it after it's finished. Easy!
The first thing we need is a sturdy tripod. The alternative methods of support that I mentioned in the photographing buildings tutorial won't cut it here. Here we are talking about seriously long shutter times of several seconds so nothing but a good sturdy tripod will do. The second piece of kit that would be very useful is a remote shutter release so you don't have to touch the camera at all. In the old days this was a cheap piece of kit called a cable release but nowadays it is more likely to be an electronic gizmo with a higher price tag. I, personally, don't use one but that's because I'm a cheapskate.
I'm afraid all the modes and settings that you paid all that money for are all useless when photographing fireworks and auto focus is one of them. If you leave your camera set to auto focus the lens will whir backwards and forwards in a demented fashion trying to find something to focus on in the black sky.
Set the focus to manual and then focus on something in the far distance. Don't just wind the focus ring around to the end of its run, check it against a distant object if you can.
Aperture & Shutter Speed - The Technical Stuff
The exposure is going to be determined by the intensity of light from the firework which, as it bursts will spread across the sky. So we can only be guided by people who have been successful in the past as there is not way to measure the light at the time. There is TTL metering which can measure the light during an exposure, as it does with a flash exposure but, in the case of fireworks, there is far too much contrast to give a useful reading.
The aperture you set depends on the ISO rating (basically the sensitivity to light) for the film or the ISO rating set on your digital camera. At ISO 100 you will need to set the aperture to between f8 and f16. So a good start would be f11 at 100 ISO but be prepared to vary this a little for very bright fireworks.
For an explanation of ISO film speed rating see my tutorial - ISO rating for Film Speed
As I mentioned above, the shutter speed needs to be set to b or bulb (bulb refers to the old fashioned type of remote shutter release, on which you literally squeezed and rubber bulb and triggered the shutter with a burst of compressed air). At this setting there is no set time for the exposure, when you press the button the shutter opens and when you release it the shutter closes. So the shutter may be open for several seconds. There is no significant build up of light on the film or sensor as the sky is black and the firework is only lit for a short time at any one spot before it spreads out.
For more details about shutter speeds and apertures have a look at my shutter speeds and apertures tutorial.
Framing a picture you can't yet see is always going to be a challenge. What are you going to aim for? I think there are basically three shots to consider, there is a wide shot that includes a bit of foreground - a building or monument, especially if they are floodlit, or just silhouettes of the crowd. This can be really great when it all comes together but there are quite a few problems. Will the fireworks go off in the right place in the frame? Will everything be properly exposed? Will any movement on the ground be too blurred?
Another way to work is to shoot all the elements separately then combine them in Photoshop. Shoot the whole scene without any fireworks then shoot the fireworks separately and drop them into your main picture in exactly the position you want them. Because the sky is black this is really easy to do (I'll explain later).
If you're planning to do this it's important to make sure you get the whole firework in the frame like this one on the left.
Thirdly you can go for maximum impact with a tight shot where the firework fills the whole frame and spills out the edges. This can be a bit hit and miss, literally, as you may end up pointing your camera in the wrong place entirely.
Lastly a very interesting option is to leave the shutter open while several fireworks explode building up patterns in your picture.
The safest way though, if you are a Photoshop fan is to build your picture from elements photographed one at a time. Go to page 2 and I'll explain some of techniques involved.
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What you need and what to watch out for.
All the settings you need.
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For when you need extra depth of field.
How to get those ultra close-ups in focus.
Shooting a panned sequence of shots and stitching them together to make a panorama.
Techniques to help you capture those golden moments.
Getting the exposure right in all that white.
Tips on how to capture fast action.
Take better holiday photos without losing your sanity.
A complete 'how to' for weddings, with an accent on crowd control.
Bribing people to sit for you.