Expert Guide to Photographing Fireworks - Kyotographer

Expert Guide to Photographing Fireworks

Most agree upon differentiating categories in photography, such as landscape, macro, travel, portrait, underwater, and other. Most of these fields have at least one feature that is unique. Telephoto lenses are rarely used in landscape photography, wide-angle lenses are seldom used in portrait photography. Macro photographers have a dedicated lens ready most of the time, and a whole setup is needed for underwater photography, which you hardly ever use on other occasions.

Fireworks, what’s different?

It is safe to assume that you will take photos of fireworks at night, or at least dusk. There are a few things that make it seem equivalent to nighttime photography, and many articles I have read seem to suggest so.

However, firework photography should be distinguished from nighttime photography for two reasons: anticipating the composition and timing the shutter in BULB mode.

Biwako Fireworks
The balance in color and composition of these explosions are no accident from the organizers, either.

The How

Tips that most guides won’t tell you.

How-to guides to take pictures fireworks will usually get into tripod, aperture, cable release, etc., but leave out three things that in my opinion make the picture: anticipated composition (not framing), timing of the shutter in BULB mode, and judging the firework’s brightness.

Biwako Fireworks
Provide context in the foreground, making the size of the event evident.

Also, you often don’t have much influence on your location (you’re with friends, some areas are too crowded, some parts are restricted, etc.). It is helpful to have some information about the location (or locations) of the fireworks. Are there some obstacles (buildings, trees, mountains) that you have to include in your composition? After the first few shots, you get an idea of the scope, size, and structure of the firework.

Biwako Fireworks
A lake in combination with fireworks is always nice. If possible, include the reflection in your picture.

The crucial part is to form a mental image of the final composition of the firework. For this, count the number of explosions and add them together (compose an image in your head). A good number to aim for is 10 explosions per photograph.

Timing the shutter in BULB mode is important for the first press-down and the release. Try to minimize halfhearted fireworks (cut-off streaks, left-over streaks).

Biwako Fireworks
While I was taking this picture, I realized the dominant colors blue and yellow. Be determined with timing to stop your exposure.

Fireworks are very bright (that is compared to passively illuminated objects, like buildings or city scenes at night). To be able to see colors properly, and not only have white light streaks, here are some rough guidelines:

  • - ISO 100—200 (forget high ISO)
  • - f8—f16
  • - BULB setting with exposure time between 4—20 seconds
Biwako Fireworks
Capturing only a fraction of the firework also works. To make it even more interesting, add other elements like foreground, reflection, buildings, trees, etc.

Surroundings

To balance the surrounding light and fireworks, use a smaller aperture (larger f-number) to dim the firework relative to the background, and larger aperture (smaller f-number) brighten the firework relative to the background.

Biwako Fireworks
This picture stands fine on its own. Slightly illuminated blades of grass provide some depth.

Setup and technicalities

Now for the remaining setup:

  • - Set focus to manual (remember to refocus, if you use a zoom lens)
  • - Use tripod
  • - Switch off any image stabilization as these systems can oscillate micro-vibrations and blur the image (only an issue on tripods)
  • - Use cable release to have instant control over the BULB setting without having to touch the camera
Biwako Fireworks
This picture wouldn't benefit from additional elements, as the nature is more abstract. The helix-shaped trail of the launch sparks enough interest.

What to do about that Finale

A final word to varying brightness during a firework spectacle. Like a good story, (professional) fireworks have one or several arcs, depending on the length and dimension of the event. A typical sequence is a slow start, followed by more rapid fire, and a semi-finale and/or finale. Fireworks with different colors have similar brightness. Some magnesium based, mostly white, firework in comparison is extremely bright. These moments are less about esthetics and more about bombastically announcing “the end” (and making sure that everybody understood that). I usually don’t take pictures of these firework conclusions and just enjoy by watching.

Biwako Fireworks
Some center elements are actually blown out highlights. In this particular picture, it even underlines the brightness of the firework. Critical is usually the surrounding smoke.
Biwako Fireworks
Another finale. One can guess the brightness from the illuminated surroundings.

Taking things further

Some artistic freedom can be misused to distract from imperfection. The following techniques only make sense if all the above sits perfectly.

  • - Zoom while shooting
  • - Focus while shooting
  • - Out-of-focus fire, works (see what I did there :D)
Biwako Fireworks
Fluorescent toothpaste? Manually off-focused firework.
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