You may think that taking pictures of fireworks is as easy as pressing the shutter button—and sometimes it really is that easy—but if you’re really keen on taking some great shots, there are a couple things to note in terms of settings and equipment.
Nikon D800, 1.2 sec., f/9.0, ISO 200, 14mm
Go early to claim your spot
There’s nothing worse in going to see and photograph fireworks only to have your view blocked by a few heads in front of you. You have to go early, scout the area for the best vantage point, and stay in that spot until the fireworks start. There’s really no other way around this unless you have some sort of special access that the general public does not have.
Setting up your equipment
Once you claim your location, be sure to set up your gear well in advance of the start of the event. This will ensure that you’re not fidgeting with your camera settings when the fireworks are going off in front of you.
Ideally, you should have a tripod, cable release, and if you’re trying for an extended exposure, a black card to block light from your lens while the shutter is open—I’ll explain more about this below.
The cable release comes in handy because it prevents you from shaking your camera by having to press down on the shutter button.
There are a couple ways of shooting fireworks. But whichever way you choose to go, be sure to keep taking those photos because fireworks go fast, and they don’t wait for you to ready your camera!
A simple long exposure of about 1-2 seconds will give you a decent display of fireworks that will work for the most part. The photo above was an exposure of 1.2 seconds on my tripod using a cable release.
Given the long exposure nature of fireworks at night, you may instinctively think to set your ISO to a high amount because of the amount of ambient light available. The higher your ISO, however, the more noise you bring into the photo.
My settings above brought in just amount of light without yielding too much noise. My ISO of 200 yielded in a fairly dark image at first, but I was able to open up the shadow areas within Lightroom without producing too much noise. I much prefer to do it this way than increase my ISO from the beginning as it almost always tends to produce cleaner images.
I mentioned a black card earlier in this post. This technique can come in handy if you want to stack multiple fireworks over each other by leaving your shutter open in Bulb mode, and covering the lens with this black card when you don’t want any exposure. You only take the black card away from the lens when you want to capture the fireworks. The photo below is a 4.6 second exposure where I used the black card method. This is why you see the coloured explosion on the top, and the white fireworks from the bottom.
Nikon D800, 4.6 sec., f/9.0, ISO 200, 14mm
You really have to be careful with this though, since you can easily over-expose certain areas of your photo, like you see in the photo below. You will have to figure out in advance how many seconds will give you a properly exposed photo.
Nikon D800, 12 sec., f/13, ISO 100, 14mm
A little post-processing helps
When you’re done shooting your photos, no doubt a little post-processing will help give your photos that extra oomph. This particular photo was editing completely within Lightroom CC 2015. I opened up the shadow areas while reducing the highlights. I boosted the saturation slightly, and added some overall clarity. And finally, the new dehaze feature of Lightroom really worked well in this case to remove some of the haze produced from the smoke of the fireworks.
The level of post-processing is always different for each photographer, so you do as little or as much as you want to make the final image what you envisioned.
Nikon D800, 0.6 sec., f/5.6, ISO 1250, 14mm
One final note
Remember to enjoy the fireworks while you are there! They happen very quickly so try not to be totally consumed with getting that perfect shot. You can easily be distracted by fiddling with your cameras while the beautiful colours explode above you, preventing you from actually enjoying the evening. But with a little bit of preparation, you should be able to fully enjoy the event and take decent shots that you are happy with.