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Photographing Fireworks

35mm | 2 seconds | F11 | ISO-200

I haven’t photographed fireworks in years. Every year I say I’m going to do it and every year we are running late and scrambling to get there so I end up not taking my camera. This year, I made it a point to grab it before we left, but in our usual rush (you’d think we’d figure it out by now, it’s the same time every year) I didn’t realize I had the wrong lens attached. I wanted to bring my wide angle 17mm - 40mm F4 and instead brought my 35mm F1.8. Not a huge deal, but it illustrates two things that people sometimes overlook when shooting fireworks. 

The common approach to shooting fireworks is to use long exposures. If you’ve ever taken a cityscape shot at night, it’s the same concept. A long exposure at a small aperture will create sharp image trails the same way these settings produce sharp starbursts and light trails on lights in a night shot. Setting the ISO low around 200 will keep the noise in check and produce a clear image. Keep in mind, smoke from the fireworks can create a noise effect. This will be worse on humid nights with no breeze.

Essentially, you are light painting and using the fireworks as your light source.  Depending on the environment you’re in, the settings will be different, so there is a little bit of trial and error to dial them in. The most important thing to get started is a sturdy tripod and a cable release. I’m not a big fan of lugging things I don’t really need, so I do one of two things to get around the cable release. Either set your camera’s timer (my 5D has a 2 second delay) or push down on the tripod / camera when you fire the shutter. This is similar to hanging a weight (camera bag) on the tripod for stabilization. Keeping a camera still is hard, but if you force it down (push on it) you can brace it against mirror flap. this also works in a pinch if you have no tripod and need to shoot at slow shutter speeds.

Typically the exposure settings can be anywhere from a couple seconds to over 30 settings in which case depending on your camera, you might need to use the Bulb setting. Remember to turn off any image stabilization and autofocus. Setting the focus to infinity is fine as in most cases you’ll be far away.

The settings for the shot at the beginning of this post were: 2 seconds @ F11 | ISO-200. Below are some more shot with similar settings.

8 seconds @ F16 | ISO 200

8 seconds @ F16 | ISO 200

20 seconds @ F11 | ISO 200

15 seconds @ F11 | ISO 200

10 seconds @ F11 | ISO 200

Since I didn’t have the lens I wanted with me, I decided to experiment a bit. 

What I did have was a Tamron SP 35mm F/1.8 Di VC USD. The reason I would have rather my other lens is that as stated above, I was going to be shooting long exposures so the F1.8 didn’t matter. The image stabilization, Tamron calls it vibration compensation, also wasn’t needed because I had a tripod. The focal length was a bit tight at 35mm, more on that later. 

Taking advantage of the fast lens, I shot the following two shots at 1/125 @ F1.8 - ISO 1600

1/125 @ F1.8 - ISO 1600

1/125 @ F1.8 - ISO 1600

I’m not showing these because they are the best shots ever recorded, rather just to show what the other side of the coin looks like. I like the shots, they are better than I thought they would be, but nothing I would put in a portfolio. 

The smoke competes with the light produced from the fireworks. In the long exposures, the smokes blurs and the light overpowers it, in some cases allowing a stark contrast of color against a solid black background. It’s not possible to get that contrast with the faster shutter speed. But these shots have a more instant feel to them, they more closely represent what it actually looked liked at the time.  So if you find yourself in a similar situation, but with no tripod, this might be a way to at least get something useable.

The other problem with the 35mm is that it is a bit tight for this situation. There is no context in the shots. A wider angle would have allowed better framing incorporating more of the people watching or the environment instead of a tight crop right on the fireworks. one aspect that most people don’t realize about photos of fireworks is that the look better shot from above. Using either a drone or a helicopter. This is because these shots have context. The ground and the environment provide a scale and backdrop that works with the fireworks. My shots don’t have this because I wasn’t wide enough. 

Fireworks over a river or shot near a large structure such as a bridge or museum will always look better than ones shot without context. Keep in mind that shooting them in an environment with more light will require you to take that into account when adjusting your settings. Exposing for a structure or skyline may mean the shutter needs to speed up so the fireworks don’t overpower the structure.

Good luck and don’t forget to have fun!

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