Fourth of July Fireworks Photo Primer

Fourth of July Fireworks Photo Primer

On the Fourth of July, legions of photography enthusiasts like you will head out with their tripods to make images of firework displays. To minimize your failures on location, here is a quick primer to insure that you are in the ballpark to make successful images when the explosions begin.

The Gear

A good sturdy tripod is essential for stabilizing the camera for the long exposures that will be necessary to transform the bursting rockets into willow-like flowers. A solid tripod head with three points of control, one that can be manipulated very quickly, is an ideal tool in the event that you want to vary your composition from horizontal to vertical.

A nice long cable release is key to enabling you to trip the shutter while keeping the camera/tripod combination locked down. In the event that you don’t have one or you forget, you can use the camera’s timer to mitigate any chance that your movement will blur the image capture. Some camera timers can be programmed to capture more than one frame so this can be an ideal way to capture multiple images without a chance of camera shake.

Location

You will need to identify the point of origination for the fireworks display. Pinning down this location will provide you with an opportunity to establish your best vantage point to make a memorable image.  If the spot you’ve claimed is likely to be popular, it will be essential that you set up on location prior to dusk. I like to preset my focus manually as autofocus can get confused in the variable lighting. Another often looked, yet critical factor, can be wind direction as fireworks will fill the sky with smoke. If it drifts in your direction, it can ruin your shots or, at the least, limit your success rate to your first initial exposures.

An easy way to make your images stand out is to try and incorporate some existing, recognizable iconography when possible.  Fireworks with background elements like a city skyline, famous bridge, beach pier can be far more powerful than simple pictures of bursting light on an empty horizon.

 

jcgamble_fireworks

ISO 200, F16, 30 seconds

Camera Settings

It is entirely your choice as to what settings to use on camera but you’ll need to have the shutter open for a few seconds so the camera captures the rise of the rocket and the burst of the fireworks. You also want an exposure that will capture elements of the surrounding scenery without overexposing the pyrotechnics.

jeremyallen_fireworks

ISO 100, F16, 15 seconds © Jeremy Allen / jeremyallen.500px.com

A good starting point would be to shoot in Manual mode, Auto white balance, F16, ISO 100 with shutter speeds ranging from 4 to 30 seconds. I’ve found that engaging the shutter when the rocket volley is headed skyward will usually work perfectly but this is truly a matter of feel based on the frequency and duration of the fireworks display. Shooting digitally allows you instant feedback so you can refine your exposures while on location. Be careful not to overexpose.

Good luck and don’t forget to post your best shots to the Fstoppers Facebook group.

 

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7 Comments

Cool info...

Always a helpful reminder.
In 2002, I photographed the Fourth of July fireworks display on Lake Murray (South Carolina, US). I didn't have my tripod on solid ground, but rather on a pontoon boat, so there is some motion in the fireworks from the waves. I used a 80-205 zoom at 205 since there were no reference points like structures. I set the shutter speed at 30 seconds, used my ball cap to cover the lens between bursts, and canceled the exposure when I thought I had enough in the frame. I used Kodak Gold 400 film.

I am the WORST fireworks photographer in the world. I tried, and I tried, and I am done trying! LOL I'll just watch y'all do it.

Don't give up! You can do it :) Just set your camera on a tripod, set it to bulb, wait for a few fireworks and stop the exposure!

@Rastarafi: Thank you. That's sweet.

I did try again, but I am still far from it:
http://commercialphotoservices.com/4thfireworksatdisney
I am having a hard time timing the length of the exposure from when I press the cable release until I "should" let go of it to "NOT" overexpose. Once I press the shutter in Blub mode, I am not sure what to use to count the seconds of exposure.

Its hard to put a tripod down at Disney with so many people, we lucked out that some friends were at one of the resorts, and I gave it another shot....

I think you got pretty good exposures, maybe a bit of cropping and you have good pictures at hand :)
Knowing when to let it go, it's simple - set the camera with the slowest shutter speed, let's say 45 sec. Now switch to bulb and you know you have roughly 45 secs of exposure - but you can block the camera while there are no fireworks to shoot. So just let the light in when something is happening, and for every segment count the total time the camera has been exposed to light - until you get roughly 45 secs :)
Another way is to use multiple exposures - I think most cameras have this feature, it's basically the same but instead of manually blocking the light, the camera stops recording light every time, and then adds all of the exposures to one image.

Thank you.
Yeah, I agree on the cropping...
I will try that next time. Thank you. I have the 5DMKII, so mine doesn't have the multiple exposure option.