If you haven’t already noticed from the number of fireworks stands that have been sprouting out of grocery store parking lots (or simply because you know what day it is), July the Fourth is nearly upon us. And if you’re like millions of other Americans around the nation, you are planning on attending a fireworks display, or hosting one of your own. Pictures of the display are a spectacular way of remembering the holiday, or just taking notes on what you need to one-up the neighbors next year. Taking really good pictures of fireworks is a tricky task filled with its own landmines, but I’ll be happy to help with some free advice.
Equipment: Tripod & Shutter Release
One of the first things photographers learn to use in order to get absolutely crisp tack-sharp photos is a tripod. Keeping the camera stable and vibration-free is an absolute must here, and that’s what a tripod does. The good thing is that you don’t need the expensive tripods that most pro photographers gravitate towards, and you don’t even need a big one for what you’re going to be doing. For small cameras and cellphones, most any mini-tripod will do just fine. For DSLR’s, you have to start worrying about the weight capacity and balance of the tripod.
My favorite mini-tripod is the Pedco UltraPod II. This guy goes for cheaper than $30 and is the most simple tripod you could ever use. In addition to the three fold-out legs, it features a Velcro strap you can use to secure it to a tree, light pole, or even piggyback off of somebody else’s tripod—so long as you have their permission.
Once you’ve given your camera some legs, there’s still one more source of movement you really need to eliminate: you. When you hit that shutter, you’re going to move the camera. The only way to avoid that is to have some sort of remote shutter release. The kicker here is that not all point-and-shoot cameras will support a shutter remote (check your manual), but most Android and Apple smartphones are very happy to accommodate you. You can either pick up a Bluetooth remote for right around $10, or you can pick up a cheap headset with an inline volume control and it will do the job; all you have to do is set your camera app to take a picture when you hit the volume up button.
DSLR users will have a choice between wireless remotes that will sync with their camera or a wired remote, and my advice is to go wired. Keep reading to find out why.
Know-how: Setting up the Camera
Captain Obvious statement of the day: fireworks are bright. Like, really really bright. But when you’re sitting there waiting for the last light of day to disappear over the horizon, your camera doesn’t know that fireworks are bright. For cellphones, you’ll want to find a way to set your brightness setting quite a bit lower than what it wants to use. For point and shoot cameras, look for an ISO mode where you can take your ISO down to its lowest setting. To keep your autofocus from going too crazy, find the furthest object you can see and focus on that beforehand. If you have a way to turn your autofocus off, then do that.
If you have full manual control over your camera and are familiar with how to use it, then great! I recommend using ISO 100 and setting the aperture anywhere between ƒ/8 and ƒ/11. You’ll also want to be using a normal to wide zoom lens (18-55 lenses do just fine for crop sensor cameras, or 24-70 for full-frame). You won’t be able to easily predict where the fireworks will go off, so you’ll want to be covering a decent portion of the sky when it happens and crop later if you have to.
Problem: Shutter Lag
One of the issues that plagues many cellphones and point-and-shoot cameras is that there’s a delay between when you hit the shutter and when it actually takes a picture. This annoyance that renders all hyper four-year-olds as a blurry mess is known as shutter lag. The good news here is that there’s a way around it, but it takes a little luck, a little patience, and a whole lot of pictures. The trick is hitting the shutter at the right time to make it open when the firework goes off. That means you either have to be close enough to hear the actual firework launch, or you have to watch carefully for the burning fuse of a firework as it launches into the air, so you have a warning that a firework is about to go off. Then it’s just a matter of dialing in the timing. If you absolutely have to use this method, then you are going to wind up with a lot of missed shots, but don’t give up.
However, if your camera has a bulb mode, or even a 30-second long exposure mode, there’s another way to accomplish this…
Techniques: Bulb Mode & Flagging the Lens
Normally, hitting your camera’s shutter actually does two things. It both opens and closes your shutter. But if your camera is a little more advanced and supports manual controls, it may have what’s called a bulb mode. This mode means that you, the photographer, are telling the camera when to open or close the shutter. Check your manual to see how to find and use this mode.
All of you with more advanced cameras: remember that shutter release I talked about earlier? I said to get the cable version. The reason is that the cable remotes can be locked into the open position, and closing the shutter is as simple as simply releasing the lock. Plus, it doesn’t depend on having batteries and it isn’t prone to wireless interference. They’re cheap and they just work.
The idea here is that while you have your camera pointed at bit of empty black sky, you can go ahead and open your shutter and wait for the fireworks to happen. You can even capture multiple bursts of fireworks that happen close together by letting the shutter stay open to see them all, and the camera will dutifully record all of that delicious light. But don’t let the shutter stay open for too long, or you might have multiple fireworks “draw” over the same spot multiple times, and you’ll wind up with spots of lost color detail. Keep your exposures under 30 seconds or three bursts at a time, and you’ll be fine.
But there is a way to get even more bursts in the image without relying on our old friend Photoshop: flagging the lens. What you need is a black hat, or you can use a piece of black foam core. Make sure that the hat doesn’t let any light through, and try with four or five bursts at a time at first. This works out great if you can’t use a bulb mode but you can set your camera to take long exposures at 30 seconds a pop. Cover the lens with your “flag” (hat or whatever else is light-tight) and hit the shutter. Remove the “flag” whenever there’s a burst you want to record. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
Tip: Framing for the Crowd
A picture of fireworks can be really cool. But they’re also really repetitive. Just ask me; I probably have a hundred different shots of just fireworks. But I discovered a little problem with them. If I get prints of them, shuffle them up, and then look at just one, I couldn’t tell you when it was, where it was, or what I was doing. It’s just a picture of a firework, and there’s no context to lend any other information to that picture. Just look at the pictures I’ve included above. Are they from Spartanburg or Greenville? Independence Day or New Year’s Day? Without digging into the picture’s data, there’s just no way of telling.
Unless you zoom out.
Just back it up a little bit. Include some of those people in lawn chairs in front of you, or that intersection, or the silhouette of that church steeple. Those little context clues might initially feel like distractions, and they’ll often wind up being blurry, but that’s all okay. They’re not the focus of the image. They’re subtle hints that will lend your photos a sense of place that makes them much more memorable.
Technique: Maximum Enjoyment
A great fireworks picture presents a fun little challenge, and if what you’re after this coming Monday is to rise to that challenge, then by all means, go for it. Haul out that camera, the tripod, the cable release, and your stadium chair an hour or two early so you can set it up while it’s still light, and then watch over it (or bribe somebody else to) until the show finally starts. It’s a rewarding experience that I’d encourage any budding photographer to try at least once. However, it’s not what I’m going to be doing.
I’ll have my stadium chair, sure enough, but I’ll be leaving the camera bag at home. I shot two displays last year, and I had fun doing it, but this year I want to be present with my friends and family and simply enjoy the time with them instead of fussing around with my camera. I know, I know, saying that after dumping a bunch of tips is like watching a movie that ends with “it was all a dream and none of this really happened.” But it’s what I’m going to do, and I believe that fellow shutterbugs should consider what they’re going to enjoy more. Sometimes it’s better to put the camera away, enjoy the event, and respect the moment.
Whatever your plans are this coming July 4th weekend, make it a fun and safe one.