Thursday, July 2, 2009

how to photograph fireworks

(photo by Stuck in Customs)

The 4th of July weekend is almost upon us, and I'm assuming many readers will be watching fireworks at some point this weekend. I have to admit, the last fireworks show I saw live was a few years ago from the Berkeley hills, attempting to photograph the fireworks across the bay in San Francisco. For those of you that don't know, July in the SF Bay Area can be dreary and foggy, so it was a minor miracle I even saw fireworks that night (although because it was sort of hazy, the photos didn't come out so great). As Mark Twain said: "the coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."

For those of you with clear skies, here are some tips on how to photograph fireworks:

  • use a tripod - keeping your camera very still is crucial to getting clear and crisp photos. I'm sure many of you won't be lugging around a tripod this weekend, so consider other ways of stabilizing your camera. I've leaned against walls, used a friend's shoulder, held my camera while squeezing my elbows together. Point being you need to keep the camera VERY still.
  • use remote release - if your camera is attached to a tripod, using a remote release to take the photos further ensures you won't jostle the camera during the shots. Again, I realize you may not: (1) have a remote (I don't) or (2) want to carry all this equipment to your friend's BBQ. Another option would be to use your self-timer for the photos.
I realize these first 2 points are more for those of you that are seeking out fireworks displays to photograph. So if you are just out and about with your camera and you want to take photos of the fireworks, do the best that you can with the first two points - here are some more general tips:

  • use a higher aperture setting - because the sky is pitch black, many of us think we need to use a low aperture setting (f/2.8 or f/4) to get the shot. Generally speaking, the fireworks are so bright you don't need that low of a setting - try bumping the aperture up to somewhere between f/8 and f/16
  • use a longer shutter speed - Most people want a photograph that shows the bursting fireworks display - in order to achieve that you need to have a longer shutter speed - potentially a few seconds (another reason you need to hold VERY still while taking these photos).
  • shoot in manual mode - in order to achieve the proper balance between aperture and shutter speed, you will probably need to shoot in manual so you can adjust each one.
  • consider a lower ISO setting - generally speaking, the lower the ISO the crisper the photograph (i.e. less noise or grain in the photo).
  • rethink your composition - I think most of us want to focus our camera on the sky and fill the frame with fireworks, but a more interesting shot might be a more wide angle that includes the area around you. Like the photo above - just a gorgeous shot that is much more interesting than if he had focused just on the fireworks. Another option - consider framing your shot vertically instead of horizontally.
Happy 4th of July everyone! Be safe and sane, as they say...