Well, Independence Day is only a couple of days away here in the good, ol’ USA! If you live just about anywhere in our country, you can count on some great opportunities for capturing fireworks shots. A good fireworks display is one of the most fun, unpredictable and rewarding spectacles you can photograph. It’s also surprisingly easy to do, with just a few simple tips!
Opening Image ©Nicy Xu (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nickyxu/). Captured with the Irix 15mm f/2.4 on a Sony A7RII
This post will give you a few basic pointers for shooting fireworks. It’s not going to be a “set of instructions”, because 1) there are several methods for shooting fireworks and 2) you’ll have more fun if you experiment.
I’m also going to be emphasizing shooting with Irix wide-angle lenses such as the Irix 15mm f/2.4 or the 21mm f/1.4, because it’s my favorite way to photograph fireworks. Why? Because including something else in the frame, like the scenery, the crowd, reflections in the water, etc. can add so much to what would otherwise be just another fireworks shot. Alright, enough of the boring intro already! Let’s do this!
Fortunately, this kind of fireworks photography doesn’t require a lot of expensive gear. You’ll need:
- A camera that lets you control your exposure manually
- A wide angle lens like the Irix 15mm f/2.4 or the Irix 21mm f/1.4
- Tripod or other stable mount for your camera
- Something to trigger the shutter without vibrations:
- Wireless remote shutter release
- Cable release
- Your camera’s shutter delay setting
- Smart phone app and dongle or Bluetooth receiver
- Plenty of storage space
- Fresh batteries
The rest of your list will depend on where you plan to shoot, when you plan to start, etc. You’ll want to be sure you and your equipment will stay warm and dry. Bug repellent, a small flashlight, a tarp or blanket for the ground and similar items might come in handy, too.
Remember, a good place to view the show is probably going to be popular…
Find Your Spot Early
Scout your shooting location(s) a day or two ahead of time. (Today would be good!) Doing so will help you complete the gear list above and find the right viewing angles, etc. Bring your camera and lenses along and shoot some test shots to evaluate the field of view and framing options. Remember that you’ll have to deal with crowds if you get too close, but stray too far away and the images might not have the same impact.
Don’t stop with one location. Remember, a good place to view the show is probably going to be popular, which mean it will fill up fast on the Fourth of July. Have a backup location or two ready.
Check the Weather
Obviously, you’ll want to know if a storm is expected. What you may not have considered, though, is the wind. Once a major fireworks display starts, the smoke in the air will build up quickly. You want to be upwind if possible, to keep that smoke from interfering with the sharpness and clarity of your images. This is another good reason to have a backup location in mind.
Get to your location well ahead of the crowd. Afternoon is better than evening. Not only will this let you “establish your territory”, it will give you time to find the best framing, lock down your equipment and adjust if people happen to get in your way.
Working with a shorter lens gives you much more flexibility in your framing…
Framing Your Shots
Working with a shorter lens gives you much more flexibility in your framing, since you don’t have to be quite as concerned about where the fireworks will be going off. Try to include enough of the surroundings to tell a story. Get the crowd in the shot for some interesting dynamics. Work on capturing more than just pretty pyrotechnics.
If you plan to maintain the same framing for a long period of time, you might find it useful to take a few shots of the sky and foreground before the show starts. These frames can be used for blending later to bring out details.
The Irix ultrawide 15mm f/2.4 features a click stop at infinity… All Irix lenses also include a focus locking ring…
Focus: You’re going to want to focus manually. In fact, you’re going to want to set your focus and lock it. Where? Well, here’s one of the cool things about shooting with wide angle leness: they have inherently deep depth of field. If you’re using the Irix 15mm, instead of trying to find something to focus on, you can simply set the focus to infinity.
The Irix 15mm f/2.4 features a click stop at infinity, so you can find it easily, even in the dark. Both lenses also include a focus locking ring, so you can literally set it, lock it and forget it!
ISO: Don’t be tempted to crank up the ISO sensitivity because you’re shooting in the dark. The most effective fireworks photos will come with enough exposure time to show trails and those extra effects that often follow the initial bursts. Besides, you’re going to have a lot of shadow areas in your frame and you’ll want to keep the noise low. Stick with your camera’s base ISO setting.
Aperture: It’s also normal to want to use the widest possible aperture at night, to gather as much light as possible. There are a couple of good reasons not to do that with fireworks:
- You’ll probably blow out the detail in many of your shots, due to the long exposure time and the brightness of the bursts, especially if you capture multiple fireworks in one frame.
- Fireworks drift with the wind and angle of trajectory. You’ll want extra depth of field to keep your shots in focus.
For the best results, choose an aperture of f/8 – f/16.
Shutter Speed: You have a few choices when it comes to this setting:
- Set your shutter to Bulb mode. Hold the shutter open with a release while one or more explosions occur. Like lightning photography, this method isn’t consistent, but the surprises can be rewarding.
- Set your exposure to 20 – 30 seconds and trip the shutter at regular or random intervals. You can use an intervalometer or phone app for this if you like, to free yourself up and enjoy the show. Again, your results will vary, but you’ll have more fun with the family and combing through the results later will be fun.
- Use a trigger. A lightning trigger can double as a fireworks trigger. You’ll probably need to tweak the sensitivity until you get it to fire when you want it to.
White Balance: There are several opinions on what WB setting is best for fireworks. Personally, I prefer to use Daylight and shoot RAW, which allows for easier adjustment in post processing.
In-camera noise reduction will double the delay between shots…
Long-Exposure Noise Reduction: If your digital camera offers this, you have a couple of options: Leave it on and have less pattern noise to deal with when you process your images or switch it off and deal with the noise later.
Here’s what you need to know to decide: In-camera noise reduction will double the delay between shots while the camera creates and applies a dark frame to subtract the noise. The most effective noise reduction techniques, however, involve shooting a dark frame with the same exposure length at the same ambient temperature as the light frame.
If you’re prepared to shoot your own dark frames, you can capture more of the show by turning LENR off. If you’d like to understand the process better, see this article on focus stacking. If you’re not ready to take this on in post processing, leave LENR on.
JPG vs RAW: Since I brought it up in the previous paragraph, I’ll just state here that if your camera lets you save your images as RAW files, that’s the best choice. You’ll have much more latitude in processing your images, to correct white balance, reduce noise, increase contrast levels, etc.
I also recommend turning off the option to save your files as JPG in addition to RAW. Saving both file types wastes both time and memory card space. Create your JPEGs from your RAW files after processing them.
Don’t be afraid to push your editing skills a bit.
Processing Your Images
While it’s nice to get perfect images in-camera, chances are pretty slim when you’re shooting fireworks. Noise reduction, highlights and shadows adjustments, levels, contrast and sharpness are common adjustments in ACR, Lightroom or Photoshop.
Don’t be afraid to push your editing skills a bit. Luminosity masking and similar techniques can help turn a good fireworks photo into a great one.
Some Advice From the Experts
Our friends and Irix Ambassadors with National Parks at Night provided some personal tips on fireworks photography in a blog post a couple of years ago. Their words of advice are worth taking a few minutes to read. Check them out here!
Summing Things Up
Fireworks photography may be an intimidating subject for some photographers, but it’s a relatively easy project. It’s also a lot of fun and leaves a lot of room for creativity.
Shooting fireworks with a wide-angle lens provides several advantages, including extended depth of field and easier framing to catch all the action. The Irix wide-angle lenses provide even more advantages, with a click-stop at infinity and a focus lock to keep things sharp.
I hope you’ll find the quick tips in this article helpful. Above all, remember that fireworks photography should be fun, from start to finish!
What’s YOUR tip?
Have a great tip for fireworks photography? Post it in a comment below!