Fireworks…. Why don’t my photos turn out well.

You've seen fireworks photos like the ones posted here; you ask "Why Can't I get photos like that?"

Fireworks have to be one of the hardest subjects to shoot for many reasons.

  1. You can never anticipate where the shell is going to end up
  2. It's dark and you must know how to adjust your camera blindly.
  3. You are not using the right gear.
  4. You must use manual mode.

Here is how I get my shots.

Having the right gear:  

  1. You need a DSLR Camera or any camera that you can do long exposure or bulb mode.

  2. Tripod is a must! - You cannot hand hold your camera and get the results needed.  I used my Promaster XC525, but really any simple tripod will work.

  3. Cable release, trigger trap, camranger, etc.... anything that will release the shutter without you touching the camera.
    For Canon which is what I shoot, you can get the Genuine Canon RS60-E3 for $21.00.  
    I also have a cheap programmable timer remote too you can find it here for $20.50 - Pros: less cost, longer cable, programmable, has a red/green light to indicate a half and a full press.
    For our Nikon shooters - the connector is different, check your manual.
    If you have a smartphone check out TriggerTrap, it is an application that when coupled with a special cable in your headphone jack will replicate all the functions of the cable release and more.... including movement of the phone, sound and light.
  4. Working knowledge of your camera and the Manual Mode settings.

Camera Settings:
- Camera Mode: Manual
- Aperture: f7.1 to f11 - You will have to play with this depending on the look you want. Most of mine were at f7.1 or f8
- ISO: 100 - Keep the ISO as low as possible as the higher it is the more noise you get; plus the fireworks are very bright and the higher the ISO the more sensitive to light the your image will be.
- Exposure: Bulb.  Bulb mode allows the shutter to be held open as long as the shutter release is pressed; in this instance we will be using a remote shutter release.

Setting up the environment:

Arrive early and setup camp.... Get a place staked out so that nobody crowds in front of you.  Make sure that your shots will not have that one annoying power pole, power line or tree in it. In my photos I want to show the water tower as when it is lit up enough you can read the name on it.

Get your tripod setup and level, this not only makes your photos look nice, but centers the weight of the camera on the tripod lessening the chance for tip over.

I shoot fireworks in portrait mode, as it is easier to get the entire trail of the shell going up and then the varying detonation of the shell in the sky.  Anticipate where the shells will reach up to.  This is done when they fire off test shots and from prior experience of the show.

Focus to infinity and then come back a bit.  The key for me is I focus on the water tower lettering. Here is where knowing your camera comes in.  I use back button focus, which means that instead of my camera focusing on the half-press of the shutter I have to hold in a button on the back.  Having this enabled allows me to leave the lens in auto focus mode to lock the focus in place.  Next I turn off the image stabilization, you don't want this on when using a tripod.

The actual shooting:

The easiest way I have found to get the shots I like is to have my finger on the release button on the remote.  When I either see the shell lit or hear the "woomp" sound, I open the shutter up.  I hold the button down for as long as it takes for the shell to go up, boom, and bloom and then fade; then I release the shutter.

Downside to bulb mode: The camera may not be ready to take another shot immediately.  This means you miss the next shell going up.  Take this moment early in the show to chimp and make sure you are zoomed in/out enough and getting the shot you want with the exposure.  Remember, you can brighten it up to bring out the highlights, but you can't get back those lost highlights.

Simply repeat the process of opening the shutter up and then releasing. You will not be able to get every shell and there will be dud shots.

The actual exposure can range from 2 to 14 seconds at the longest. Keep in mind while the grand finale is awesome, you cannot leave that shutter open for 14 seconds without blowing out some highlights.

Wait till the end to see what you got.  If they are not good, then visit another show the next night if you can..

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