Fireworks photos pro tips

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It’s really not witchcraft to get good pictures of fireworks, even though it might seem like it.

Catching the glowing trails of pyrotechnics as they explode and arc across the night sky is a lot easier than you might think.

When I first started taking pictures dozens of years ago, I always wondered how people captured pictures of the aerial bursts along with the surroundings.

All it takes some is basic camera equipment, a lot of preplanning and a little bit of luck.

The setup

The easiest way to shoot fireworks is with a camera with interchangeable lenses and the ability to set the shutter to slow shutter speeds or, ideally, the bulb setting. In bulb, the camera shutter is locked open for as long as the shutter release is depressed.

You can use a digital single lens reflex camera, a digital mirrorless camera or even a film camera. For my fireworks photography, I use Canon 7D and a Canon 70D digital cameras. Both have a bulb setting. I use a remote shutter release to start the picture exposure, but if you are careful, you can use the camera shutter release as long as you don’t jar the camera around while pressing the button.

As far as lenses, I use a 17mm-40mm wide angle or 24mm-70mm camera lens. The wide-angle lens allows me to cover a large area of sky. With the camera held in the vertical position, I can photograph the path of fireworks as they are launched into the air.

A telephoto lens is good if you want to photograph a specific area of sky, and I have found it is the best way to photograph the fireworks finale — but more on that later.

An important piece of equipment for good fireworks photography is a good tripod with the ability to tilt the head up easily.

I use an Induro tripod with a ball head that I can quickly move and reset. Being able to quickly change the tripod head direction is going to be critical once the fireworks show begins.

Freshly charged batteries and a spare set are always packed into the camera bag.

It’s also nice to have a small flashlight to check camera and tripod settings. I keep a glowstick handy so I don’t have to fumble with turning a flashlight on and off in the middle of the show.

Game plan

The hardest part of fireworks photography takes place hours before the first fireworks shoot into the sky. It’s all about the planning.

Fireworks photography takes a lot of thought about where to place the camera and what exposure to use to capture the fireworks and how much of surroundings you want to include in the picture.

The big question is where to point the camera. Shooting at Tracy High’s Wayne Schneider Stadium leaves me with a few options. Do I shoot from the east or west side of the stadium bleachers? One side might give me a better view of the launch from the ground so I can get the trail going up into the sky. The other side is a more straight-up shot with little view of the ground, and I don’t have stadium lights in the foreground to contend with.

Fireworks photography

Setting up for the Fourth of July fireworks show at Wayne Schneider Stadium in 2015.

Once I have decided on the location, I pick the lens focal length that gives the view of the sky and as much of the ground as I want. I usually end up setting the zoom to about 30 mm.

Years ago, after checking many websites and looking at past firework photos I had shot, I came up with camera settings that work for me.

The thing you must remember is you that are photographing the fireworks burst, not the night sky. Too much exposure will overexpose the fireworks and wash them out.

I came up the following settings: ISO camera sensitivity set to 200, lens f-stop set f-9. The camera is set to bulb, and as soon as I hear the thud of the mortar launching the fireworks, I open the shutter in the bulb mode. I close it after the light completely fades out. I might leave it open for one or two bursts to get them on the same picture. Photographing more than four bursts on the same picture frame gets a little busy and could be overexposed.

Autofocus is pretty much useless during the fireworks show, so I try to set the camera’s focus near the lens infinity marking and the small aperture selected should hold enough depth of field.

With a DSLR camera, I can switch to live view to lock up the mirror and avoid camera shake in long exposures. Mirrorless digital cameras won’t have that problem.

That’s all there is to it — except for luck. You see, you never know exactly where the fireworks will burst.

Lucky shot

I’ve covered enough fireworks shows to know generally where they will explode. But even though I have the general area, the precise framing will be off. Photographing the first three or four fireworks is a mad shoot as I try to check the framing, correct my camera orientation and make sure I have a decent exposure.

This is where digital cameras have a big advantage over film cameras. I’ll check the image on the camera screen and make minor adjustments in camera tilt or direction toward the sky.

Fireworks photography

Glenn Moore’s fireworks shoot from 2017 shows the range of heights and positions where the fireworks detonated in the sky.

Those first fireworks are critical as I won’t look at the camera angle again until after the show is over.

Once I have a good framing of the fireworks, I might try to leave the shutter open for 10-20 seconds to get a variety of combinations. Since I don’t know what is coming or where, it becomes a little bit of the luck of the draw. It’s not that hard — I stand in the dark and count as the fireworks burst.

The thing you have to remember is the longer the exposure, the more detail will appear in the foreground and the night sky will lighten a bit. You can experiment and see what you like as the result.

Grand finale

The last thing to do is to shoot the show finale as dozens of fireworks are launched rapid-fire into the sky.

The simultaneous bursts will create a much brighter exposure. That means a time exposure is out, so I opt for a second camera with a 70 mm-200mm zoom.

My preferred camera settings for the finale are ISO 800 with an f-stop of f-8 and a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second.

I usually hand-hold that camera and adjust the focal length of the zoom until I get a good framing. The finale goes quick, so I usually get only a handful of shots.

Fireworks photography

The 2017 fireworks finale at Wayne Schneider Stadium.

That’s it — there isn’t any magic to taking a good fireworks picture. Just a whole of planning, a little bit of panic and several presses of the camera release. The important thing to remember is to have fun while you are taking pictures and be safe.

Have a happy Fourth of July!

Tracy Press Photo Editor Glenn Moore is a multiple-award-winning photographer who has also taught the art during his 30-year career in journalism and had his work displayed at the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts.

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