Fun on the Fourth and fabulous fireworks photos

While preparing for part II of my ‘Picture This’ digital photography series I discover the calendar has turned to Independence Day here in the States.
Many of you will be heading out to catch your local fireworks displays this evening, and some may have already been treated to early celebrations that lit up the night skies.
This is not intended to be the definitive authority on fireworks photography, but I hope to assist you in getting better images with some advice I have learned over the past digital decade.

First, and perhaps foremost especially given my new series covers photography in the iPhone era, is that smartphones and camera phones will not yield the best results. Cameras on our communications devices will cover about 75 percent of our image-taking needs. Fireworks photography is in that last 25 percent. You will need a good camera with some manual controls to achieve the best images.

Next, as it was in the film world, is the need for a good tripod. Your camera needs a sturdy support under it. The best images you see from firework displays are taken as long exposures, sometimes several seconds to capture multiple shots along with the streaming trailers. Other cameras are left open on a bulb setting with the photographer covering the lens with a dark object in between aerial releases. Either way, the tripod or camera support is the trick.

Hand in hand with the tripod or solid support is the need for detached shutter release of the camera. Most folks, even seasoned photo veterans, apply some motion or shake when hitting the shutter release button on a camera. Removing this contact removes the shake factor. Use a cable release or IR remote shutter release control. If these are not available, a self-timer will work in a pinch but your timing is more critical in capturing that perfect moment. Expect some failures, it’s OK.

Shutter speeds (how long the shutter is open to allow light in) and apertures (how big an opening that light passes through). I already mentioned most fireworks images are made with longer shutter speeds. The right choice of aperture will define how well the fireworks themselves record in the image. For the very sharp, defined streaks that still display individual colors, a medium range aperture is usually selected. Aperture is usually defined as the “f-stop” and translates to the letter “f” followed by a number. I find I usually choose f11 to f16 for most of my fireworks images.

Find something of interest to put into the frame of your fireworks pictures. These objects should be stationary as the longer shutter speeds used in fireworks photography will show blur if there is any movement from the object(s). Your object may be dark or lit by artificial lighting of some sort. Artificial lighting will usually cast some sort of off-color on your subject so test images may be required to achieve the correct balance of colors. You may also choose to light the object yourself either with a camera flash on or off camera or some sort of floodlamp source such as a flashlight or spotlight.

Scout your shooting locations. Find out where the fireworks will be shot from, at what angle they will be fired into the air and take into account any slight winds that will cause the aerial rounds to veer course. The smoke created by the shell bursts will also show in your images as it is lit by the next explosion so plan for that as well. The smaller aperture (higher f-stop number) will help to eliminate this issue. Your scouting trip is also the time to pick a possible object to accompany your fireworks frames. Some holiday celebrations feature carnivals and the rides, if they are active during the fireworks display, make great picture partners.

If there are multiple displays on separate nights in your area, visit more than one. Learn from any mistakes made on the first night for more successful images on sequential outings.

One final word of advice: Finales. This is what the evening has been leading up to. This moment celebrates our victory over the brits and our forefathers putting their “John Hancocks” on that parchment paper so many years ago. Fireworks finales are many, many rounds fired off in rapid succession, some even simultaneously. As such, exposures have to be adjusted accordingly. I have never used a finale shot when I was shooting for the newspaper. I found my best shots were timed exposures of two, three or four bursts during the show. I suggest forget attempting to capture the finale on camera and sit back and enjoy the show.

Most of all: Have fun, be safe and have a wonderful Fourth everybody!

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About the Author

David Goodspeed
David was editor of AutoworldToday at Today Newspapers in the Dallas suburbs until its closing in 2009. He was also webmaster and photographer/videographer. He got started doing photography for the newspaper while working as a firefighter/paramedic in one of his towns, and began working for the newspaper group full-time in 1992. David entered automotive journalism in 1998 and became AutoworldToday editor in 2002. On the average, he drives some 100 new vehicles each year. He enjoys the great outdoors and as an avid fly fisherman, as is his spouse Tish. He especially enjoys nature photography and is inspired by the works of Ansel Adams.