It’s bonfire night and I want to photograph the fireworks. I tried to take some shots last year but they were all dark and blurry - what should I do?
Photographing fireworks can seem a bit tricky to begin with but really all it takes is a bit of planning and a few basic techniques. Here are a few tips for firework photography.
Broadstairs' Summer Festival 2017. Settings are as follows - f9, 3 seconds, ISO 200, 20mm equivalent focal length.
(1) Plan ahead and get there early.
It’s tempting to just show up and snap away but a bit of planning will help you get some decent shots. Before you go, take look at other people’s photos from previous years and generally scout the venue online to see if there’s an interesting landmark to include and what would be the best position to take the shots from (and a couple of back up alternatives) – firework photos with just a dark sky or a few trees on the horizon could be taken anywhere but if you include a local building or statue it gives some context to the photo and possibly some foreground interest. Also, make sure you check the details to see the exact time the event opens and when the display starts as getting there early means you can check out your chosen pitch and setup at your leisure – typical displays last around 10 to 15 minutes so you won’t have much time to change settings or move around once it starts!
Broadstairs Harbour 2016. With coastal displays, the tides can make all the difference. In 2016 the tide was out meaning the boats were beached and perfectly still. Settings are as follows - f9, 3 seconds, ISO 200, 20mm equivalent focal length.
(2) Check the weather forecast and avoid lens ‘fogging’.
It’s a good idea to see what the weather forecast is – wind speed / direction, temperature and humidity can have a big impact on a display in terms of the trajectory of the direction / fireworks and how the smoke will disperse. Bright days, clear nights, high humidity and no wind can lead to smog quickly forming after the first few fireworks and rapid temperature drops can cause condensation to form on (or inside) the front element of your lens! One way to prevent this is to keep the lens barrel warm by using a chemical hand warmer (found in most camping shops). I prefer to use the plastic reusable ones and just wrap it in cloth (or pop it in sock) and strap it around the barrel of the lens with an elastic band or a Velcro strap. Do be careful that the hand warmer is intact and not leaking before use as you don’t want to damage your camera.
Smog forms over the lake at Leeds Castle. Settings are as follows - f8, 2 seconds, ISO 100, 24mm equivalent focal length.
(3) Get in position and set up your tripod.
I prefer to take slightly longer exposure shots of fireworks (anything from 1 to 5 seconds) which means using a tripod and a remote control are essential to avoid blurry photos. I get there early and find my chosen location (see 1), have a rough idea of where the fireworks are launched from, which way the wind is blowing (if possibly, avoid setting up downwind to avoid the smoke) and (because I got there in plenty of time) I set up at the front of the crowd with my foreground interest in shot.
(4) Choose your settings and take some test shots
For a shot like this, I always set my camera to manual mode. To start with set your settings to a low ISO setting (100-400) and an aperture of f8 to f16. It’s best to switch to manual focus mode too and aim at the launch site. Be sure to take a couple of test shots to check the focus (using a long exposure of say 15 to 30 seconds to get a clear, bright exposure so you can zoom in and check it looks sharp). It’s important to remember that unless the venue is well lit (e.g. its taking place at twilight, under floodlights or near a large bonfire), the venue will be much darker than the actual display – when the fireworks are in the sky, they add a lot of illumination to the scene. So if the exposure looks ok at 15 to 30 seconds you will probably taking the actual photos at around 1-4 seconds in length. Using the test shots as a guide, adjust the ISO and aperture until you think you’ve got a reasonable exposure. Also, think about your composition and choice of lens – I prefer a wide angle zoom as the fireworks can easily reach over 100 metres (328 feet) in height and I want to get the launch site and the peak of the shell burst in shot. Try some different focal lengths in your test shots to get a feel of what the photos will look like in terms of composition.
An accidental loooong exposure test shot whilst I was chatting to another photographer. Settings are as follows - f9, 68 seconds, ISO 400, 16mm equivalent focal length.
(5) Take control by using bulb mode
In terms of actually photographing the display you have 2 options; use the remote to take single shots of a fixed shutter duration or my preferred method, setting the camera to bulb mode (check your manual BEFORE the event to see how to access bulb on your camera) and taking carefully timed shots of 1-5 seconds. Using a fixed shutter speed is a good choice to begin with as you simply press the button and take the shot but you have little control over the path and shape of the firework trails captured. Using bulb mode and holding the button for a few seconds gives you some control over when you start AND stop the image capture – with practice this allows you to capture the start and finish of a single set of fireworks without accidentally missing the burst or capturing the start of the next firework explosion, but has the downside of meaning your exposures will vary between shots. Modern DSLR cameras and photo editing software allows you to adjust the exposure by a couple of stops if you are shooting in RAW so you can compensate for the different exposures to some extent but if you are shooting in JPEG this can be a problem. If you aren’t confident using raw or adjusting your exposures in software, you may be better off sticking to the fixed exposure method. I find the 1-5 second range also me to capture some interesting patterns and shapes but it’s important to check the shots during that first minute or so to make sure you are at least getting SOME details in the shadows / the shots aren’t completely overexposed. If you do need to adjust your settings, I prefer to adjust ISO first as this won’t affect your focusing.
Leeds Castle Display 2013. Settings are as follows - f8, 2 seconds, ISO 100, 24mm equivalent focal length.
(6) Ignore all of the above and experiment!
If you are happy you have a few ‘keepers’ on your SD card, don’t be afraid to experiment! Taking fireworks photos handheld is one alternative but remember, you’ll be shooting in low light and will need to keep the shutter speeds up to avoid hand shake so you might need to bump up your ISO setting to compensate. Fast shutter speed / high ISO shots do have the advantage of allowing you to freeze the action on the ground / in the foreground i.e. keep people sharp and blur free whilst the bright fireworks / dark skies lend themselves to using aggressive noise reduction during editing to keep the high ISO noise down to acceptable levels. Another thing to try is to deliberately bring the focus point towards you so that the fireworks are out of focus which can lead to some interesting out of focus ‘bokeh’ effects with glowing orbs in the sky. Finally, why not try and capture a little bit of the atmosphere of the event with some candid crowd reaction shots or long exposures of the fairground rides.
Handheld shot of a display. Settings are as follows - f4, 1/125th second, ISO 12800, 24mm equivalent focal length.
For more ideas and examples, here’s a video by one of our members from the Broadstairs' Summer Festival 2017 – a 12 minute display shrunk down to a couple of minutes.
The opinions in this blog are solely those of the Photo Doctor and do not necessarily reflect those of Medway DSLR camera club or any member of the committee. In fact the Photo Doctor constantly argues about technical stuff with them. They normally give in and admit he's right in the end...