How To Photograph Fireworks

I’ve photographed fireworks many times – July 4th Fireworks, New Year Fireworks or Chinese New Year Fireworks, you name it.   However, this is the first time I photographed fireworks in the heavy fog.  I’d like to share some photos I took during the July 4th fireworks show  a few days ago in San Francisco, and some of my own best practices on how to photograph fireworks.

ISO200, 70mm, f/9, 5.3sec

July 4th fireworks in San Francisco 2014-008

Equipment – Tripod Is Very Useful

All the following photos are taken with the same equipment as below.

  • Camera 5D Mark III
  • Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS  Telephoto Zoom Lens
  • Gitzo Carbon Fiber Traveler 4 Section G-Lock Tripod
  • Really Right Stuff BH-40 mid-sized ballhead
  • Phottix Aion Wireless Timer and Shutter Release
  • Bulb mode

Although it’s completely possible to take fireworks photos without a tripod, you will be either confined with very short exposure time or a blurry image.  A tripod gives you much more flexibility to create short or long exposure photos for different types of fireworks.  In another words, your probability of getting more great images during a firework show would be much higher. Alas, we don’t get fireworks every day and don’t have the luxury of practicing on this theme often.  So get the right equipment to begin with.

The good news is that you don’t need an expensive full frame camera.  A telescope lens on the other hand could be extremely helpful.

ISO200, 130mm, f/9, 2.1sec

July 4th fireworks in San Francisco 2014-005

Composition Is Always the Key

Out of the 100 photos I took for the same evening, the following is my personal favorite.

It was quite an unique evening with heavy fog hanging low, but not low enough to block the entire view.  I could still see the beautiful mountain backdrop and some faint colors in the sky.  The fireworks were completely visible on the Sausalito side, but are mostly covered by heavy fog in San Francisco (as shown in all the remaining photos below).

Although the San Francisco fireworks were just above my head and looked really interesting in the fog, I decided to point my camera to Sausalito.  It was more of an interesting landscape composition for me, that gave the fireworks more location context.  I have produced quite a few videos before detailing how to improve composition, the number one important factor to set you apart from other photographers!  Photographing fireworks is no different.

In addition, the fireworks started at 9:30pm, and the civil twilight on July 4th ended at 9:44pm.  This means landscape skyline was still visible and could be a nice background, if composed and exposed correctly.  To find out the precise time for sunset and twilight, check out How To Arrange Your Photo Activities In The Evening.

ISO200, 200mm, f/9, 18sec

Camera Settings

Now you wonder how I came up with the aperture and shutter speed settings.  My best practice was to first lock the focus, aperture, and then simply use Bulb mode to manually decide the exposure time as the fireworks show went on.

ISO200, 70mm, f/9, 2.5sec

July 4th fireworks in San Francisco 2014-009

Lock the Focus

Different from other night scenes, it is not that difficult to focus on fireworks because of their brightness.  I started with auto focus to focus on the fireworks at my test shots in the beginning.  I then immediately switched to manual focus on the lens to lock the focus.  Because the fireworks took place in the same location, the distance between the fireworks and your camera was unlikely to change much during the show.  If you use an aperture of f8 or smaller (which I would explain later), even the fireworks distance change slightly, your fireworks will still appear sharp.

Remember you have to readjust the focus every time you change a composition or zoom.  My suggestion to you is to minimize this change so you won’t miss any important shots.

ISO200, 148mm, f/9, 8sec

July 4th fireworks in San Francisco 2014-011

ISO200, 148mm, f/9, 4.2sec

July 4th fireworks in San Francisco 2014-012

ISO200, 148mm, f/9, 5sec

July 4th fireworks in San Francisco 2014-010

Use the Right Aperture

Similar to typical landscape photography, you can use an aperture of f8 or smaller for a wide depth of field.  The larger the f stop, the more depth of field you can capture in sharpness.

I have tested a few shots with f/11, f/13 and f/16 etc. and the exposure time would have been too long.  This means too many different colors of fireworks would have been mixed together at the same spot, causing a “messy” composition.  Some fireworks that had strong intensity would have been over-exposed in the long exposure.  Therefore I settled with an ideal f/9.  You can see most of my images used the same aperture.

ISO200, 130mm, f/9, 1.8sec

July 4th fireworks in San Francisco 2014-007

ISO200, 130mm, f/9, 6.2sec

All the above had to be tested and adjusted very quickly at the beginning of the show.  You want to avoid adjusting your camera constantly because the fireworks went on so fast.  The last thing you want is to miss the shots because you are too slow on the settings.

Don’t get me wrong, you can totally use a large aperture, f/2.8 for example, to photograph fireworks, especially if you don’t have a tripod.  This oftentimes is combined with higher ISO.  I have done this before (see the following image).  Due to the lack of a tripod, I had no choice but to get a fast enough shutter so my image wouldn’t look blurry in this scenario.  You won’t get a nice light trail, nor combining several fireworks together.  In another words, this limits what you can photograph and create, thus going back to the importance of a tripod.

ISO2000, 90mm, f/2.8, 1/250 (photographed a few years ago without a tripod and using a non full-frame Canon 7D)

Decide On the ISO

To speed up my readiness, I didn’t change my default ISO for the beginning test shots – my default ISO is usually ISO100 for my landscape photos.  I found the exposure time averaged 4 to 40 seconds – a bit too long.  That’s why I dialed up to ISO200 so most images would average 2 to 20 seconds – the ideal shutter speed I liked for my fireworks photos.

There is a simple math between ISO and shutter speed.  Whenever you double the ISO, your shutter speed will shorten by half.  For example with the same aperture, using ISO100, 200, 400, 800 means you’ll get a shutter speed of 20 sec, 10 sec, 5 sec, 2.5 sec etc.

If you have enough knowledge about the relationship between aperture, ISO, shutter speed, you can totally achieve the same shutter speed with a smaller aperture such as f/13, f/16 and a higher ISO such as ISO400, ISO800.

As a long advocate of working smarter and more efficient, I opted to do less changes so I could get ready faster and take more images.  Why bother to maneuver the combination of aperture and ISO knowing you can settle with a simple setting with the same ideal result?   If you really have time, work on the compositions instead to perfect your images.

ISO200, 130mm, f/9, 3.5sec

Manually Control the Shutter Speed

Both the aperture or ISO settings are used to achieve the ideal shutter speed.  So what is the right shutter speed for fireworks?  It depends.  I have taken about 100 photos for this evening and none of the two pictures I took next to each other had the same exposure time, but mostly they were between 2 and 20 seconds – it all depends on the brightness, intensity and density of the fireworks.

If the exposure is too long, the photos will look “messy”.  If it’s too short, there won’t be enough light trails.  On a foggy day in San Francisco like this, too short an exposure could produce an image with nothing but darkness or fog.

The importance of this step is to use a remote shutter combining with Bulb mode, so I could manually decide when to stop the shutter.  Instead of watching my camera, I was looking at the sky the whole time.  I started pressing the shutter button on my remote when the sky was still dark or just at the beginning of a new fireworks shoot, and clicked the same button again when I saw the fireworks migrate to something different.  If the fireworks looked intense, I would get a shorter shutter time.  On the opposite, if the fireworks looked sparse, I would give a longer shutter time.  By using a remote control, I did not have to worry about clicking on my camera’s shutter and causing camera shake.  What about using the 2 second shutter delay to avoid camera shake?  Well, we all know how fast the fireworks show progressed, missing 2 second could mean missing a great shot.  Last, by holding a remote shutter in hand, I could walk around and talk to others while taking the photos at the same time.

Of course the whole process still involved lots of trials and errors.  I couldn’t predict exactly what the next firework would look like, how long it might last before another color showed up, how high or low, left or right, it would appear in the sky.  I used a telescope lens that was pretty zoomed in, so it could be both an interesting and challenging experience.

With an efficient workflow above, however, even you only have 30 – 60 minutes of a whole year to practice on photographing fireworks, you could significantly increase the chances of getting nice photos during a show.

ISO100, 85mm, f/11, 15sec

Post Processing

Minimum post processing is needed for all my landscape photos, particularly fireworks photos.  Most of my images were post processed with an entire time of 5 seconds using my Lightroom Presets – Magic Light Landscape Workflow & Creative Presets.  I used only one click of “Light” preset on most of my photos this time.

Different from my typical landscape photos, I did crop my fireworks images.  I seldom moved my composition during the fireworks show but fireworks did shift left and right, or go high or low.

As a long advocate of my 3P Creation Process, photo creation is supposed to be simple and efficient.   If you do each previous Ps correctly, post processing should be a super simple task and cost you little time.

ISO200, 85mm, f/9, 6sec

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