With the 4th of July upon us, I figured I would touch on a topic appropriate to the occasion. Who doesn’t love Fireworks? Well maybe there are some who don’t like the loud noise, but you have to admit they sure are beautiful and mesmerizing.
So mesmerizing in fact, that anywhere you see people watching fireworks you also see plenty of people photographing fireworks. Unfortunately, for various reasons most of those fireworks photos never come out the way people hoped they would. They may be too blurry, or too dark, or just not have the same sense of awe that they had when they were bursting above your head. So what can we do about it?
I present to you some excellent tips to make this 4th of July the one where you capture your best fireworks photos ever! Ok, maybe not the best ever, but certainly better than last year 🙂
The first tip I have is to TURN THE FLASH OFF! I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been at a night event of some sort (fireworks, a ball game) where people are taking photos and all you see is *FLASH* *FLASH* *FLASH*, come on, you guys who are guilty of this know who you are, don’t deny it. Maybe it’s because you didn’t realize you had the flash on, perhaps it’s because it’s easier just to leave the flash on, or maybe you never learned how to use all the buttons on that shiny new camera you bought? Don’t worry about it, whatever the reason I won’t tell on you, because I know after reading this you’re going to make sure to turn that flash off next time you’re photographing those beautiful bursts in the sky and you’ll be well on your way to making those photos better.
Now, some of you may be saying, “but Scott…I’m taking photos at night time, and the flash makes things brighter and light up, so shouldn’t I use it when taking pictures of fireworks, since they are shot at night time”? Allow me to explain… the effective distance of a standard pocket-sized digital camera’s flash is about 10-15 ft depending on your exposure settings (aperture and ISO). Basically what this means is that when you take a photo in the dark with your pocket-sized digital camera it will only light up objects and people that are 10-15ft away. Most fireworks shell bursts occur between 300 and 1200 ft up in the air. As you can see your camera flash, which can only reach a couple of yards at best won’t do anything for a burst of light in the sky (or at a pitcher throwing a ball while you’re sitting way up in the stands for that matter).
Once you’ve turned your camera flash off it is extremely important that you follow my next tip, or your fireworks photos are guaranteed to come out blurry if shooting with your camera in a full auto mode. You must find a way to steady your camera. The absolute best way to do this is to use a tripod. However, some of you may not have tripod’s available, so then what do you do? Leave the camera at home and don’t shoot the fireworks? Of course not! Find useful objects nearby that can help you. If you’re in a park for example, find a nice bench with a bit of an angle, or a trash can, or lamp post, that you can rest your camera on while you shoot. This will help to steady the camera and will undoubtedly sharpen those fireworks photos right up.
For those intermediate readers that have ventured beyond the “automatic” mode on your camera, I have some tips for you as well. For those that are happy with the camera making the decisions, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. When photographing fireworks you want to use a slow shutter speed. You may think that you want to use a fast shutter speed as fireworks seem to burst in an instant, but in reality it is the long trails of light that give fireworks their awe. These trails of light are around for a bit of time after the initial burst of the shell. This is why if you want to capture the full beauty of fireworks you must use a slow shutter speed, so that you can get all those gorgeous light trails in the photo as well. I recommend a shutter speed anywhere from 1/2 second to 4 seconds. You should experiment a little bit to find the shutter speed that works best for the types of fireworks they are shooting at your display. Incidentally, this is why it’s important to turn the flash off on your camera. When the flash is on it typically sets your shutter speed much higher than 1/2 second, usually a minimum of 1/30 – 1/60 of a second. This is much to fast to adequately capture the beautiful light trails of the fireworks.
Don’t forget your aperture while shooting fireworks. Ideally your aperture should be set anywhere from f/8 to f/16. Why do you want to use such a small aperture while shooting at night? Typically at night we would want use a large aperture to let more light into our camera for a better exposure, but now when shooting fireworks. Here’s why, the light from fireworks are actually quite bright, even though they only last a few seconds at most. In addition, as I mentioned before fireworks bursts can occur quite high in the sky, nearly at infinity distance. With that type of range you want to have the greatest depth of field possible. In other words, you want the greatest amount of focus you can get in the scene. Choosing a small aperture of f/8 to f/16 will allow you to have a very large depth of field. Combined with a tripod or other steadying technique I talked about those fireworks are guaranteed to be crystal clear and perfectly sharp.
Now I know there are some of you out there who would love to take better fireworks photos, and follow my advice, but feel it seems like a lot of work. Good photography often is, but there is a shortcut… most digital cameras today come with a “fireworks” mode. By setting the camera to “fireworks” mode the camera will automatically turn off the flash, set your aperture to a the right range, and the shutter to a slow speed all with the touch of a single button. You’ll still need to find a way to steady the camera though. For more information you should check your cameras user guide. You remember the user guide, it’s that thick book that came with your camera that you’re probably using to balancing your table leg 🙂 Well replace it with a stack of napkins and take it out and learn a bit about your camera.
I would like to wish everyone a great 4th of July, stay cool, stay safe, and have a hamburger for me. Most importantly though, go take some amazing photos of those fireworks tonight! Feel free to comment on this post, ask questions, and share some links to some of the photos you have taken.