Experiencing even a small fireworks show is a purely sensual delight.
For the eyes there is the synchronized bursts of color and lights arcing across the sky, compounded by the light reflecting off the smoke, nearby buildings, and low clouds, but there is more to it than visual spectacle. If you are close enough you can even feel the concussive whump of the shells exploding overhead, smell and taste the acridness of fire and burnt chemicals. For the ears there are the irregularly syncopated booms and bangs of launch and explosion accompanied by the sliding whistle and sizzle of individual stars, and at the end the sheer fusillade of sound followed by silence at the show’s end. It is this sort of whole body experience that makes the show exciting- that and the primal psychological yin-yang attraction to and fear of controlled danger. As a photographer, I see it as my job as trying to transmute that full range of experiences into a visual document which communicates the excitement I felt, across time to someone who was not there. That for me the great challenge.
Achieving this means it is important prepare ahead of time. This starts with figuring out where to photograph from and that starts with finding out where and when the rockets will launch. Then I decide what else I want in the photo. Sometimes I want nothing in the frame except isolated star burst effects; and while those are pretty in their own right; but usually I look for elements that specify the location. Including skyline, individual buildings, or famous landmarks, to set the show in a specific place and time. And if there is going to be more in the photograph, is the photograph I want to make going to be about just the fireworks or will it be about the place? If there is a large crowd of spectators, will making them part of my composition make the photograph visually interesting?
Photography is a lot like cooking: Start with good ingredients, and if you are doing something unfamiliar start with a recipe you like and follow it. Here is my recipe for reliably getting reliable results when photographing pyrotechnic displays.
- Research the location
- Use a tripod or other solid support
- Shoot using your camera’s raw format.
- Do not use any auto exposure mode. By any I mean all: auto ISO, Aperture priority, Shutter-speed priority, and all Program modes.
- My experience is that shutter speeds in the four to thirty second range are ideal. For single shell bursts a 4 second exposure gives you a pretty good trail but a 6 to 8 second exposure starting when you see the shell’s launch is safer. Longer exposures work well with multiple shell bursts.
- If you can turn off the camera’s long-exposure noise reduction modes, do so. This is not a situation when you can wait for the camera to make a dark exposure (to map noise and hot pixels) after the real exposure finishes.
- Shoot at base ISO for your camera or ISO 100 and stop down to around f/9 (+/- one stop) depending on the fireworks used and your distance from them.
- The background is supposed to be dark. Do not let your TTL meter fool you.
- Zooms are going to be more versatile than fixed focal length zooms. Start by framing a little loosely and adjust according to the size of the bursts. Keep in mind that some bursts are very large.
- Do not rely on the infinity mark on a lens. Prior to the start of the show use magnified live view to focus on a building or another distant object which is as far away as the fireworks will be from you, and then turn off autofocus.
- A wired or wireless trigger is a good thing to have.
The Theatrical Show: What are You Shooting?
The more experience I have the more I can improvise around that recipe to make the results unique. Using a digital camera to photograph a fireworks show is one of the easiest things in the world. All you must do is show up, make sure you do not make stupid mistakes like exposing for the dark background instead of the pyrotechnics, misfocusing, not being prepared and technically you are pretty much guaranteed to get at least one decent photo. In some ways, photographing fireworks with a digital camera is just hard to screw up. But making an interesting photo of a fireworks show takes work. One thing I try not to do is make an image that is visually chaotic.
Like any theatrical production, the show’s designer means for the audience to see it from specific vantage points and for an overall view those locations are where the most dramatic overall views are found, but a show set near or against a skyline offers more compositional possibilities. When you scout your location with a map do not limit yourself to thinking about only shooting from the main viewing area. No matter where you shoot from, remember to use the background and foreground to set the stage for the show. If you have the time it never hurts to go visit the location and look for the possibilities. If there is a body of water, even a small pond, reflections always add visual interest, but be prepared to get down in the rocks and dirt. If there is no water, and you want to put some real effort into it, consider bringing along your own plexiglass mirror or other reflective surface as a foreground.
The Process of Shooting (In RAW)
What makes a high end digital camera a (mostly) ideal tool for photographing fireworks? If you shoot raw, the large dynamic range and high signal-to-noise ratio at base ISO will hold both delicate highlight details (if not grossly over-exposed) and subtle color gradations while also recording noise-free deep shadow detail. What makes digital cameras not completely ideal is the build-up of heat related spurious electronic noise which builds up during very long exposures. High megapixel cameras like the Sony A7R III, Canon EOS 5DS/SR, or Nikon D850 are great choices as you can crop and still have plenty of resolution. If the camera has a tilting or pivoting screen that feature is a definite bonus with the camera high overhead or near the ground.
You also want a good solid tripod and head. My general-purpose tripod and head combination is a Pro Media gear TR-344L topped by an Arca-Swiss B1 Monoball / Really Right Stuff PC-LR panning clamp combination but photographing fireworks and architecture are one situation where the separation of pitch (fore/aft) and roll (left/right) tilts makes life easier if you want to tilt upward while keeping the horizon level. To keep your hands off the camera, trigger the camera with either a wireless or wired remote. Systems like the Tethertools Case Air, CamRanger, or similar remote systems that let you drive (change exposure settings, etc.) the camera from a smart phone or other mobile computer are useful as well.
Before the show, because you will be making long exposures, turn off any noise cancelling algorithms and routines, especially the one relating to long exposure.
If you are using a DSLR do not use a DSLR’s live view function during the show. Use magnified Live view before the show starts to check your focus and compose the image – but then turn it off. Also, once you have focused turn autofocus (if using autofocus lenses) off as well. I do not do a lot of “chimping” while shooting action. A fireworks performance is choreography and unless you work for the show’s producer you do not know what is coming so it is more important to keep your eyes on the skies. The two exceptions to this rule are to check your framing after the first big, high altitude shell, and to use the histogram to check the general exposure.
With a 36MP or greater resolution camera you have the luxury of cropping, so you may want to start by framing a little wider that you might think necessary to make sure you do not cut off the flaming tendrils of a large showy star burst.
Keep in mind that during a long-exposure overlapping explosions and streamers will make a cumulative exposure. This is especially true during climatic moments during the show and during the final barrage.
The best still photographs of a fireworks show are abstract impressions of a unique experience. Merely recording the evanescent sky dazzle is just one part of the photograph. Long exposures show us the world in ways human brains – because we can only perceive a stream of now – cannot. Aesthetically and intellectually A good photograph of pyrotechnics has as much in common with Claude Monet’s paintings of water lilies in his garden as it does with a street photo. All good photographs acknowledge time but a great photo warps it. And of course, one more thing: do not forget to enjoy the show.
Getting People in the Shot
If you want to make the crowd part of the photo there are a couple of different things to try like lighting the crowd with a small radio triggered small battery powered flash and mounted on a telescoping pole to mount it on. you can hand hold to light the crowd in front of you. If you are going to try that, bring some gels for the flash as well. You want to light the crowd just enough, so their presence complements but does not compete with the show. An idea I might try this year is to bring some cheap sunglasses with mirror finish lenses for a friend to wear and then will photograph closeups of my friend’s reactions as they watch the show and do my best to catch the reflection of the fireworks in the lenses. Will it work? Maybe or not; but I am willing to give it a shot to get a photo that is neither a simple record of the show or a total cliché.