Mastering Firework Photography | Digital Photography Tutorial
Here in the UK its coming upto bonfire night (5th November) which means plenty of opportunity to take some photographs of the spectacular firework displays that go hand in hand with these events.
The problem is, photographing fireworks isn’t as straight forward and easy as you’d hope. There are a number of issue to contend with – its dark, the speed the fireworks go off, and the inability to focus on a dark sky all mean that without careful preparation and planning, you may end up with no photographs at all.
This article about mastering firework photography will hopefully help and guide you through some of the best tips to making bonfire night a photographic night to remember.
This takes some time and effort on your part, and isn’t always the easiest part to get right. If you know the area the firework display is taking place in, you have a slight advantage. If its a new location and you don’t have opportunity to do a reccy first, you’ll have to think quickly when you arrive. The biggest problem with new or unknown locations is that you turn up in the dark and its difficult to spot where you can get to.
Ideally you want to shoot a fireworks display some distance away from the crowds. Most events require that spectators stay a set distance back (wisely), but even this distance might mean that you are shooting straight up in the air – not an easy thing to do if your camera is mounted on a tripod (see point 2.)
If you can move back behind the crowd and get some clear air between you and the back of the crowd, it goves you opportunity to shoot across their heads and get some spectaular firework photograhs without having to lie on the floor to see through your viewfinder. It also means that you can get the crowd into your shots as silhouettes as the fireworks go off, adding some lower foreground iterest.
Sometimes its even worth moving much further away from a display, taking photographs from high up (top of buildings if in a city, top of hills if rural) where you can get the whole display and the surrounding areas as it gets lit up from the fireworks.
Time for a little guesswork. If you know where the fireworks are to be set off from, and have a rough idea of which way the wind is blowing, you should be able to get a reasonable idea of where abouts in the sky the main action is going to take place. You can also position yourself so that the smoke that the fireworks give off when lit blows away from you and not towards you. If you position yourself so that the wind is coming directly at you, you may end up with some very hazy photographs.
Of course, not all fireworks go off at the same height, so you need to be reasonably flexible in where you are pointing the camera to a degree, although the further away from the display you are, the less of an issue this becomes.
Make sure if you are shooting close to the display that there are no powerlines cutting across your scene. This may sound obvious, but when those fireworks light up the sky, anything cutting across the scene will be brightly backlit and will spoil your shot.
Also try and ensure you keep the camera relatively level in relation to the horizon, especially if it is included and lit in the background. Make sure you review and adjust as neccessary when you start shooting. You don’t want to take a series of photographs only to find in post-processing that you’ve got to compensate for a wonky horizon line.
Firework Photography Requires a Tripod
This is essential. Taking photographs of fireworks means that you are shooting bright objects in a dark sky, and you don’t want to introduce camera shake into the equation. The longer shutter speeds that you will need to use means that any camera movement will result in a blurred shot.
If you can’t use a tripod, you are going to have to ensure the camera is as rock steady as you can get it. Look for alternatives such as wells, fences or tree branches that can be used as a makeshift perch.
Use a Remote Shutter Release
As well as mounting your camera on a tripod, using a remote shutter release will help reduce camera shake even further. The less you need to touch the camera during the moment it takes the photograph, the better.
Remote releases tend to come in two varieties, wired and wireless. It doesn’t matter which you use, and if you haven’t got one I suggest you look on somewhere like eBay, as there are plenty of third party manufactured shutter releases that do the same job as the offical ones but at less cost.
As well as reducing camera shake, the remote shutter release has another great advantage – you can actually watch the firework display without looking through the viewfinder, and can then make better decisions on when to press the shutter button. If you are looking through the viewfinder all the time, you sometimes are unaware of when the fireworks are coming into view or at what point to set a longer shutter release going.
Camera setup for shooting a fireworks display is of course important, and you need to ensure you know how you want to set the camera up before positioning it on your tripod (or wall, fence, tree.) It might even be worth getting the camera basics setup before you leave the house, assuming you are going to do nothing other than take firework photographs with it.
To get the control required for photographing fireworks, you need to put your DSLR (or point and shoot) into manual mode and take control of both shutter speed and aperture.
The bright nature of fireworks and the contrast with the dark sky means that you need to use a fairly small aperture of around f/8, going down to f/22 if required, to help reduce over exposure as you select a longer shutter speed. You need a longer shutter speed to get that nice rainfall effect that you see in photographs of fireworks. AGain, the longer the shutter speed, the more light that hits the sensor and therefore greater risk of over exposure.
Make sure you check the histogram for blown highlights. If you are finding you have over exposed the photo, reduce the aperture and increase the shutter speed, but remember that you will lose that rainfall effect.
You can try using just shutter-priority or aperture-priortity modes on your camera, but be aware that with a dark sky the camera may struggle to work out its exposure correctly.
Try and keep your ISO value to the minimum available on your camera (ISO80 or ISO100) to reduce risk of noise. With a black sky and brightly lit fireworks, noise can be a real issue if shooting at higher ISO values.
Best advice I can give is to get your camera into the correct mode and setup some default values, and then test and re-test as you start shooting, checking both the histogram and the photo via the camera lcd to ensure you are getting reasonable results. One you are getting good results, concentrate on the fireworks themselves.
Remeber to disable the flash on your camera as well, as this will not help you at all. Remember the light is coming back at you from the fireworks, so firing your flash off at them is not going to achieve anything.
Focusing the Camera Manually for Firework Photography
The hard part of firework photography comes from not having anything to focus on. If you have a quick lens, it may be able to pick up and focus on the fireworks as they burst into life, but for many this will be too late and the moment will have passed while the camera hunts for something to focus on.
To get around this issue, try putting the camera into its manual focus mode and use the first couple of fireworks going off to get the camera focused in the right part of the sky. The wider you are shooting the easier this will be. If you are attempting to shoot a close up of the fireworks, focusing may become a case of luck rather than judgement.
Cater for Multiple Exposure Blending
With post-processing its possbile to digially blend multiple photographs together, especially when taken from the same position. Bear in mind that shots that appear underexposed may be useful in post production to counter overexposed areas of a shot. I will write more on digital blending in a later article.
Enjoy the Firework Display
Lastly, remember to enjoy the show. Sometimes its easy to get caught up in capturing the perfect shot with your camera, forgetting that the event is an experience in itself. Try not to spend the whole time only thinking about getting the perfect shot.
If you’ve got any further tips on mastering firework photography, feel free to add them via the comments form.