From Finale to Fine Art: Tips for firework photography

Freedom Season is here for those of us in the USA, and as we all know, that means that tomorrow, July 4th—that’s right!—Mike’s Camera stores will be closed! Oh, and there will be fireworks aplenty, too. Here are ways to improve your ability to capture shots of those elusive, exciting explosives.

Level 1: Novice

If you want great fireworks photos right away, but aren’t confident in your understanding of the manual functions on your camera, fear not! Here’s an easy list of settings that will, at the very least, improve your results until you can improve your understanding. (If your camera has a “fireworks” mode, of course, that would be the very easiest option. It may be buried under “scene”!)

Note that you must have a tripod or some sort of stable area to place your camera while shooting. You will not be able to get a crisp photo hand-holding.

  • Set your focus mode to manual, set your focus all the way to infinity (often represented by ), then back just slightly. (If you don’t have that degree of control, infinity proper should work just fine.) Then, don’t touch it.
  • Turn on your self timer. Most cameras have a short-wait option (usually two seconds). This will allow the camera time to settle between the disturbance of the shutter-press and the actual exposure. (Optional alternative: use a shutter release or remote app.)
  • Set your EV compensation to -1.0 (the preview on your screen should look darker as you go down). Since the scene at large is so dark, the camera will try to brighten the photo, leaving you something with lame, grayish blacks and completely blown-out highlights.

If your camera has little manual control, this is about as much as you can do. Get out there and take pictures!

Level 2: Intermediate

If your camera does have manual control over exposure but you want to set it and forget it, here are some handy suggestions.

  • Set your ISO low—100 or so would be ideal.
  • Set your shutter speed to 3 seconds.
  • Set your aperture to f/11. Note that setting aperture size, shutter speed, and ISO manually will make the EV compensation adjustment unnecessary, as there will be nothing left to set automatically.
  • Turn off any stabilization built into the lens and/or camera—since you’ve got your camera supported already, it can only worsen your photos (or at least put unnecessary strain on the motor).
  • Disable or reduce built-in noise reduction, especially the kind designed for long exposures. Stray bits of color could be interpreted as “noise” and get reduced right out of your photo!
  • Auto white balance should probably be fine, but if you’re having problems with your color, try setting it to 5500K.

Level 3: Advanced

Those are the fundamentals: take long exposures with a large depth of field at a At the advanced level, the keyword is experiment.

  • Increase or decrease your shutter speed to increase or decrease the size of your captured firework.
  • Both the ISO value and aperture size should have some play—feel free to tweak either to hone in the correct exposure in conjunction with the shutter speed you like. Note that if you open your aperture too wide, you run the risk of missing your focus. With most modern cameras, you’ll probably have more leeway with your ISO value.
  • Try different color modes. “Vivid” is a common one which, obviously, lends itself well to capturing fireworks. If your camera supports greater fine tuning, try increasing saturation and contrast and limiting sharpening, as that would be better-done in post-processing. Speaking of which…
  • Shoot in RAW! I’m by no means a raw purist, but when shooting scenes with extremely contrasty lighting, it can allow you to recover details you probably didn’t even see with your eyes. Raw processing takes a lot of extra time on the back-end, but the shots you end up with are stunning.
  • Try stacking your photos. Sometimes one image doesn’t convey properly the feeling of an event. Since your camera is stable on your tripod, the background of your photos won’t change. This makes it very easy to layer multiple photos together (in this case meaning multiple fireworks) to create one incredible result!

What about equipment?

While capturing really stunning fireworks photos requires deft manipulation of settings, it’s a fairly forgiving subject as far as equipment goes. There’s not a “fireworks lens,” per se; although traditionally a wider lens would be used in order to capture the entire display, close up shots can be even more breathtaking (though nigh-impossible to frame—zoomer beware). Pack a blanket, a quality tripod (the ProMaster XC525 is a great all-arounder), and a shutter release, and you’ll be in very good shape.

Now, fast-forward to a week from now, after you’ve shot and—perhaps—processed the photos.

What should I do with all the photos?

It’s great fun to capture images for their own sake, but don’t forget that there are so many more ways to use your photos than collect them on your hard drive! A sleek aluminum print of a lone burst in the sky would add class to any minimalist apartment. A moment from the finale, paired with any celebratory greeting in text and printed on a comfy throw pillow, would make for an excellent seasonal decoration. Fireworks look wonderful on customizable greeting cards, whether you need a run of one or a run of a thousand. The list goes on! Stop into any Mike’s Camera today to see samples or chat with an expert about how best to bring your photos back to life.

Photo by jeff_golden via Creative Commons.

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