Much like lightning, taking pictures of fireworks is actually not that hard. Since fireworks are on display at night, you can leave the shutter open for as long as you like. The explosion and light show acts as a giant flash bulb, exposing the shot. All one has to do is set the camera for a longer than normal exposure time, point it at the firework show, and within a couple seconds they should have a pretty nice photograph.
Of course, there is a little more to it. For example, the camera settings.
Let’s start with the focal length. The goal of any photographer is to have the subject fill the frame as much as possible. That way one doesn’t have to crop their image to isolate the subject. This will take some trial and error when it comes to fireworks photography because unless you know exactly where they are going to be launched from, you won’t know how far away they are. Bottom line is, fill the frame, so use whatever lens you have at your disposal to achieve this result. If I happen to be really close or within a 1/4 mile, I will use a 16mm to 35mm lens so I can capture as much of the explosion as possible. If I’m a mile away, I will use a 35mm to 75mm focal length.
The second thing to take into consideration is the ISO setting and aperture. You want to let in a lot of light, but not too much. I use my 2.8f lens, but stepped it down a few settings to 6.3f as this prevents the shot from getting too washed out. I left my ISO setting at 100. These are just general guidelines, and not rules. The lens and your distance will determine how much light makes it onto the photo-sensor of your camera and a small amount of tweaking may be needed.
The third thing to take into consideration are exposure times. They will vary depending on the visual outcome you are looking for. With the photos on this page, I wanted to capture isolated fireworks, so my exposure times were right around 5 seconds. Shorter exposure times may not show the enormity of the explosion. Longer exposure times of around 15 seconds might get too washed out when a bunch of different fireworks are all exposed on the same shot. Although the colors look good to you when looking with your own eyes, the camera will mash them all together and it will look like one giant light blob. You can also get really crazy looking shots if you capture a firework that is halfway through its lifespan and let the next one explode over the top.
Lastly, set your camera to manual focus, otherwise your shots will come out blurry. The technique I use is to focus on a distant object, maybe a street light way off in the distance or perhaps even the moon or a bright star. One you focus out that far, everything to infinity will be in focus. However, the objects closer to you will not be because you’ll be at a very low F-stop.
During this particular fireworks display, I started exposing the shot as soon as I heard the deep low “boom” of the firework launching into the air.
Once the firework exploded I would wait a few more seconds, then release the cable lock. This produced the desired shot I was looking for; an isolated and distinct display of colors juxtaposed on the dark night sky.
Any time you are taking long exposures, you must have a sturdy tripod and a cable release. This will ensure the photograph is not blurred by the slightest motion. Your shots will be very sharp and crisp. I also use mirror lockup, however this adds about a second more to when the shot will start getting exposed, due to the delay in triggering the shutter release button twice.
Once you get back home, the post-processing begins. Especially if you shoot in RAW. I highly recommend you always shoot in RAW if you are going to do any post-processing. The amount of extra “hidden” detail in your shots can be brought out creating much better results. You can also edit out some of the smoke that might be visible from the other fireworks that have been exploded in the sky.
I use Adobe Lightroom, but there are a few other good programs out there as well. The first thing I’ll do is change the color profile to Landscape. This tends to make the picture a little more saturated.Then I’ll tweak the Highlights, Shadows, Blacks and Whites. The goal is to make the firework “pop” in color without washing it out. I’ll also sharpen the shot, probably a little more than normal just because I really want the lines to be distinct. I like the shot to be extra saturated so I bump up the vibrance and saturation levels as well.
Don’t be afraid to tweak all the settings within your photo-editing software. A big part of photography is the post-processing. Some people just let the camera do all the work for them (as is the case when someone shoots in JPEG format). But, all the great photographers throughout time and the world spent days working in a darkroom tweaking their negatives on to photographic paper. Fortunately for us, we can do so on a computer which makes things much easier and quicker. There is no right or wrong to many of the arts, including photography.