Well here we are, temperatures are going up. With the days getting longer and kids out of school we know summer is here. Along with summer we have vacations to our favorite theme parks, evening baseball games and of course the 4th of July. What do all these things have in common? Fireworks!
That’s what I would like to talk about this month, photographing fireworks. We can get great pictures of fireworks with almost any camera, simple pocket cameras all the way up the scale to the most expensive SLR (single lens reflex).
The first thing to realize is that fireworks are pretty bright compared to the night sky. Therefore we don’t have to use high ISO’s or the widest apertures. In reality we want to slightly under-expose the images so we won’t record the white smoke that is created by the black powder explosives that are used to launch them into the air and used in the fireworks themselves.
The best settings to use will depend on the camera that you are using. If your camera has M or manual settings you will have greater control when it comes to capturing the right image.
So lets start with your typical SLR camera. My example camera is a Nikon, other cameras may vary slightly. We will be using the camera in manual mode for exposure and focus. So set the exposure mode on the wheel at the top to “M”. This will allow us to set a manual exposure. On the barrel of the lens, slide the focus switch to “M or MF”, this will give us manual focus abilities.
With the camera in manual exposure we should be able to set the exposure to “Bulb”. In this mode the length of the exposure will be as long as you hold your finger on the shutter button, or better yet, the length of time you hold the button on the remote. To set the shutter to bulb, make sure the camera is in manual exposure mode, rotate your main dial to make your exposure times get slower and slower. Once you get to 30 seconds (30”) the next setting should be bulb.
The reason we use this setting is for creative control. The starting point and the stopping point of each exposure is under your control. You will be able to hold the shutter open for one, two or as many bursts of fireworks as you would like. If you don’t have a remote release, set your exposure to about 6 seconds and you will record whatever happens in the sky during that time. If nothing happens during that exposure, just press the shutter button and try again. Try and keep your exposures less than 12 seconds, the longer the exposure the more ambient light will be recorded and wash out your sky.
Use the self-timer on the camera when making the exposure. This will allow the camera to stop shaking after you have pressed the shutter release. The standard time delay is 10 seconds but if you have the option to set a shorter delay you will get more images during the show. My camera has a 2 second delay and that is plenty of time for the camera to settle down and be still for the picture.
I find that an ISO setting of 200 works well for most situations. Higher than that tends to be too sensitive and the white smoke from the black powder used in fireworks will show up and wash out the color and contrast.
The lens should be set to manual focus as well. This is done by setting the switch on the lens to “M” or “MF”. Rotate the lens so it is focused at the farthest point, infinity. We do this so that the lens will not try to focus on a dark sky and find nothing there.
If you own and all in one camera look for a scene mode that will allow a longer exposure, such as night exposure mode or better yet a fireworks mode. These will allow the camera to make a longer exposure, usually about 2 seconds, so the fireworks will be recorded. Do look for the manual focus ability as well “MF”. Not all automatic cameras have manual focus but it is well worth using if available.
So let’s recap:
- Manual exposure, 6 seconds or so, try to use a remote release in “Bulb” mode. If no remote release set your exposure to 6 seconds and you will get what happens during that time.
- ISO of 200, not too sensitive so the white smoke won’t record and taint the image.
- Set a middle f/stop, 8 or 11. This combined with an ISO of 200 and a 5 to 10 second exposure should give you good results.
- Set the lens to manual focus and focus it at the furthest point, infinity, so the camera will not try and focus on an empty black sky and miss the opportunity.
- And of course use a tripod if one is available to get the sharpest image. If you don’t have a tripod you can still take pictures, they will just look a little more “crazy”.
And last but not least, enjoy the show, no need to constantly be looking through the lens if you have the camera on a tripod. Just focus on the section of sky where the show is and use your release to capture the images.