Capturing the 4th of July

Around this time every year, I start thinking about fireworks displays.  I love seeing the lights and hearing the booms, followed by the oohs and aahs of the crowds.  As a photographer getting good photos of fireworks can be a challenge.  It takes a little planning, a little technique, and some equipment. First, let’s start with the equipment.  Fireworks require a long exposure, which means to get a crisp shot; you have to have a good tripod.  There is no getting around it, good tripods are expensive.  You might as well pay for a quality one upfront; because if you buy a cheap one, you will be unhappy and eventually have to spend the money anyway.   It is also very helpful to have a remote shutter release.  Either a cable or remote will work as long as it allows you to do long exposures.

It also helps to have a small flashlight with you so you can see the settings on your camera in the dark.   You will want a decent zoom as well, one which allows manual focusing.  I like my 70-200 or my 18-200.  The fireworks can cover a good bit of the sky and for the finale shots you will want to cover a pretty wide field of view.

Second is the planning.  You need to know where the fireworks are going to go.  Sounds pretty basic, but getting set up early in a good spot with a clear line of sight will help make your pictures crisper.  You don’t want people walking in front of your lens or bashing into it.  Take lots of water because, unfortunately, drinking a lot of other traditional 4th of July adult beverages isn’t good for steady image composition.

Finally the techniques - you will have to shoot in Manual mode.  Yep, the auto features will really not help you out here.  The good news is that you only have to set the aperture once.  Setting it to f/11 will allow you to have the entire image in focus.   I push my ISO up to around 640 as well. With my Nikon D300, above 640 you start seeing visible digital noise.  With newer models, you can push it up to well above ISO 1600.  

You have to adjust your shutter speed to “bulb.” The shutter will remain open as long as you have the shutter release pressed.  Use of a cable is critical here, because your fingers will make the camera shake.  Aim the camera in the general vicinity of where the main explosions are going to occur.  Begin shooting when you hear the projectiles go off and keep the shutter open until the shell fully develops.  Sometimes that is 30 seconds, sometimes it is 10 seconds.  The only way to tell if you got what you wanted is to look at your image in the viewfinder.   For the finale, you can shorten the time to 1-2 seconds, because of all the light.    Initially you might miss the tops of the shell bursts.  Don’t worry; just keep adjusting your tripod.  Generally they will settle into roughly the same location in the sky.   The longer you keep the shutter open, the more trails you will get, which can lead to some interesting effects.

Have fun, be safe, and have a great July 4th.