When we see fireworks displays with our eyes, we register their movement and motion as large, colorful, flowerlike blooms of light. But getting what our brains see to translate into great fireworks photography requires some specialized know-how.
When capturing fireworks with the camera, for instance, the blooming light requires a long exposure to register the pinpoint light blurs as they move throughout the frame. It also necessitates a tripod to lock down the camera to ensure the rest of the scene is tack-sharp. That also means a cable release (or remote control to trigger the shutter) is essential, or else everything in the frame is likely to suffer from unwanted blur. This is the kind of thing most photographers can probably figure out on their own, so I won’t spend time on them here. Instead, I’ll take the opportunity to turn it up a notch and offer insights for those who understand the exposure controls and want to instead think about exerting more creative control over their fireworks photography to take it to the next level.
Context Is Key With Fireworks Photography
If there’s one thing for certain when it comes to this kind of photography it’s that fireworks alone don’t make for an interesting image. Don’t believe me? Try it. Head out to a display in your area and shoot a peony or a chrysanthemum—two of the most common traditional firework patterns—against a dark sky with no buildings or landscape in the shot. It might be mildly amusing, but chances are it’s going to miss the “wow” factor we’re looking for with fireworks shots. That’s because context is key. It’s not just about those bursting flames in the sky, it’s about what surrounds them. In big cities around the world, fireworks light up dramatic skylines, reflecting off iconic buildings and creating a unique, otherworldly view of a cityscape that we may otherwise know well. Think of it like this: if the image would still be mildly interesting without the fireworks, you’re off to a good start. So compose with the bigger landscape in mind, and include buildings, mountains, trees or any other context your area provides.
How Close Is Too Close?
Likewise, how wide is too wide? It’s tricky to figure out the perfect vantage point before you shoot, so research can be very helpful. If you know the New York City fireworks display is done in the same place every summer, for instance, look at photos that have been done in the past. This isn’t so much about creative inspiration as it is helpful for determining the scale of the show so you can better determine where you’ll most likely be able to get a sky full of fireworks as opposed to a tighter framed shot of a single burst.
When the show starts, of course, everything changes. You might think you’ve got the perfect shot framed up only to find out once the show begins that all those big booms are taking place outside your viewfinder. So when research isn’t practical or if you’ve simply misjudged the ideal vantage point, try to find a spot that provides options—and bring equipment that allows you to take full advantage of them.
For instance, if you’ve got a location scouted that provides an opportunity to get higher (on to the rooftop terrace of a hotel, for instance) or lower (down to street level where you can aim your camera up toward the show) you’ve got a few options. Add to that an ultrawide prime lens or a telephoto zoom, and suddenly, you can bring the scene closer or widen out as needed. Though when it comes to fireworks, be careful of choosing too wide a lens and reducing all of those big buildings, mountains and even the fireworks themselves to tiny elements in the distance.
Being able to get far away, with an elevated view, and use a more telephoto lens is ideal for many scenes like this, but it definitely takes more practice and experience to get the compositions just right. If you’re planning to return next year, make notes or document your position with pictures so you can improve upon it next time by choosing a more ideal location.
Look For Water
A quick Google search for amazing fireworks photography reveals one image element is all but constant: water. Not only is this likely because water provides a safer environment for hurling flaming shells of gunpowder into the sky, but also because the gathering places in the great cities of the world tend to be organized around harbors, rivers and lakes. This is a huge blessing for photographers because now we’ve got a visually attractive and highly reflective surface to occupy the foreground of our frames.
So with a river or lake occupying the lower third of the viewfinder, for instance, any fireworks above will be reflected on the surface of the water—doubling the light, the color and the interest in the scene. And remember, just because water is present in the scene doesn’t mean you’re automatically making the best use of it. Try to position yourself so that the water is between the fireworks and the camera in order to maximize reflections.
Seek Out Color
Speaking of color, the best fireworks photography tends to have colorful reds, blues and golds bursting out of the frame. The worst shots—which anyone who has attempted fireworks photography will no doubt have made—don’t have much color. Instead, they have dark black skies and in the worst cases are obscured by residual smoke from all those bursting fireworks that have come before. The latter can be addressed by shooting early and often and positioning yourself upwind so the smoke from the progressing display doesn’t drift into your frame.
But for the former—ensuring the rest of the scene isn’t a colorless dark void—is best accomplished with proper exposure control. Do a bit of experimentation pre-show to determine what exposure makes the deep blue color of the evening sky come through, then use this as the base exposure to ensure the scene is already attractive and colorful with the bursts of fireworks adding to the wonder.
Let this also serve as a reminder to shoot in manual mode for total control, and choose a sharp aperture such as ƒ/5.6 to ƒ/11 that will also enable a long enough shutter speed—anywhere from 2 to 10 seconds, or potentially even longer—and the lowest ISO to facilitate those settings in order to minimize noise. And remember to pre-focus in manual mode so your camera’s autofocus isn’t missing shots while searching for focus in the dark.