What exactly are we trying to accomplish when photographing fireworks? Simply put we are trying to capture a semi controlled explosion along with the brilliant streaks of light that they produce.
1. Use a Tripod
The most important tip that I can impart to you when it comes to photographing fireworks is use a sturdy tripod. Capturing fireworks requires long shutter speeds and therefore we need to reduce as much vibrations and movements as possible. I know what you are thinking My lens has IS (Image Stabilization) why can’t I just hand hold the camera. Remember you are going to be using exposures of up to 30 seconds. Don’t let this lead you astray use a tripod. Canon recommend that if you are using a tripod that you turn off the IS on the lens.
2. Hands Off
The use of a remote release or self timer is also very important. This will also help to reduce vibration. Some of these sensors are extremely sensitive and can pick up even the most minute vibration.
3. Mirror lock up
If you camera has a Mirror lock up function, this is the time to use it. What Mirror lock up does is lock the mirror up when you pres the shutter release but not capture the image until you press the shutter release the second time. This eliminates the vibration of the mirrors movement.
4. Shoot in Manual Mode
Manual Mode will give you the most creative capabilities of all the settings. This will allow you to pre set the focal length, aperture, and shutter speeds to obtain the best possible image.
5. Shutter Speed
I am asked often what should my Shutter Speed be set to. The best answer I can give you is none. Set your camera on Bulb. This setting will keep the shutter open as long as you hold the shutter release down (now after reading #2 above I am assuming that you are using a remote release, right). Now here is where you need to be careful. The explosion of a firework is a very bright flash. You may be tempted to hold that bad boy shutter down for several explosions. This will cause the exposure to become over exposed. Experimentation will help you to determine what works best. Remember digital film is free
6. Focal Length
Don’t rely on setting your lens to infinity to shoot fireworks. When the first burst goes off, focus on that burst and use that focus point for the remainder of the event. If you are one of those that are always second guessing you settings then periodically refocus on a new burst.
Over the years I have found that an aperture of somewhere between f/8 and f/16 works best at ISO 100. I usually start at f11 I try to keep it as close to f/8 as I can.
I keep mine set to 100 or lower. Higher ISO’s can introduce noise in there long exposures. Although the newer cameras especially high end ones can be pushed higher due to the new technologies.
9. Exposure Times
With your camera set to bulb this is really more like the question “how long do I hold down the shutter release?” This depends on many factors. If there is a great deal of time between bursts then I suggest that you grab multiple frames and combine them in a program such as Adobe Photoshop. If there are in fairly rapid succession then you could hold open the shutter for a couple of bursts. Be careful here if you leave the shutter open too long you run the risk of washing/blowing out the frame.
10. No Flash
Let me repeat this No Flash. The flash will do nothing to help the image. In fact it will most likely cause your camera to underexposing the image to a point the it will be all black.
11. Where do I point my camera?
Good question. Unless you have been to the display the prior year this can be difficult at first. If you have not been to a particular event in prior years ask those around for some assistance. Odds are you will find someone right away that will give you all the information you need to setup and get the shot. Mix it up, shoot verticals and horizontals – A lot is going on in the sky during a fireworks event. My preference is to shoot vertically unless I want to include the ground or other such items such as landmarks. Don’t limit yourself. Take some shots vertically and others horizontally, you can event take them skewed for some fun effects.
12. What lens should I use?
I have found that a good zoom lens works best. This allows me to get in close and personal for detail shot that fills my frame. It also allows me to zoom out and get some environmental shots as well. Which lens to use also depends on how close you are the launch site. If you are at ground zero then a 24mm lens will help to involve those around you as well as the action of the fireworks.