Shooting a fireworks show may seem like a big challenge, but it doesn't have to be. With the right gear and techniques, you can come away with some great stills and video. Here's a few tips you can use for this 4th of July.
Finding the Right Shooting Spot
The first thing to consider is where you will be in relation to where the fireworks will be going off. To set your shots apart from the crowd, search for a spot that provides a unique angle, or has other interesting elements aside from just the bursts of color. For a fireworks event, consider shooting across water and frame the shot so that you get the fireworks reflecting off the water. If there isn't a body of water nearby, try framing the shots with tree limbs, buildings or other interesting elements in the shot.
Use a Good Tripod
An invaluable tool for this type of photography is the tripod. In fact, shooting fireworks is usually not very successful without one, since you need to use a slow shutter speed. As you might expect, longer exposure times result in longer trails and shorter exposures result in shorter trails. A tripod also allows you to change lenses quickly. The ideal tripod is lightweight but sturdy (carbon fiber is a good choice) with a ball head, which will give you freedom to move and reframe your camera quickly.
Use a Cable Release or Remote Control
A cable release is very handy for this type of shooting, as it allows you to trip the shutter without touching the camera, which will prevent camera shake. Also note that if your camera has a remote control unit, you can use it to fire the shutter rather than using a cable release and you'll get the same movement-free results.
Use a Big Media Card
The last thing you'll want is to run out of card space halfway through the fireworks and miss the grand finale. And if you're shooting video, you'll definitely need a lot of card space.
Consider Two Exposure Options
1. BULB - The traditional method for shooting fireworks is to expose with the shutter open for a duration determined by you, the photographer. The duration is often timed by simply counting off the seconds. Using this method allows you more control over the look of the shots, as your timing will be more precise. As you might expect, longer exposure times result in longer trails and shorter exposures result in shorter trails. Most DSLRs have a "Bulb" exposure mode setting, which lets you manually hold the shutter open for as long as you want. Photographers typically use this mode when shooting fireworks or lighting bursts, where the occurrence of subject matter is unpredictable. Be sure to use a cable release or remote in this mode, or else you'll risk camera shake, even with a tripod.
2. MANUAL - You can also dial in a specific shutter speed (2 seconds, 4 seconds, etc.), which will ensure a more precise exposure. But again, remember that the timing of the exposure may not sync precisely with the timing of the fireworks streaks. Experiment with both methods and see which works best for you.
Shutter Speed First, Then Aperture Setting
Once you've determined the shutter speed you'll need to render the length of the fireworks trails, you'll then need to adjust your aperture to adjust for exposure. In most shooting situations, photographers tend to choose the aperture setting first to set the desired depth of field and then adjust the shutter speed and ISO to determine the exposure. In this case, however, where the depth of field is not a major factor, the aperture should be used to dial in the preferred exposure levels.
White Balance Settings and Color Balance
Traditionally, daylight-balanced film (5500˚K) was used to shoot fireworks with very good results. Most DSLR shooters opt for the daylight white balance setting, but it's easy to alter the color temperature however you like for the desired effect, either in camera or in post if you're shooting in the Raw mode (recommended). If you shoot with your white balance set to daylight, you'll find that the overall color shift moves towards the "warm" side, since the camera is ready to capture content at a "cooler," or higher color temperature. Conversely, a tungsten white balance setting will render the fireworks on the "cooler" side. Experiment to see which you prefer.
And that's about the long and short of it! At this point, you might be wondering, "Hey, there's not a stitch of Photoflex equipment in this! What does this have to do with lighting?" Well, we at Photoflex are photographers first, which means that we're fascinated by, and continually factoring in, the lighting conditions of a shot, whether it requires lighting equipment or not. Plus, we just like to share stuff.
So if you plan to shoot fireworks where you are this year, feel free to send along any of your results, along with the associated technical information. If we get enough submissions, we'll repost some of them here and be sure to post them again for next year! Happy shooting!