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Happy New Year and Some Fireworks Photography Tips

I know it's a bit early but I wanted to say this now and give you a few quick tips so you can get out and take some fireworks and photos of the festivities in your area.

Fireworks photography quick tips

ISO 100, f/8, 8 seconds
ISO 100, f/8.0, for 8 seconds

Fireworks photography is about doing three main things well, they are:

  1. Capturing the bursts at the right moment
  2. Getting the exposure right to make them look spectacular
  3. Composition for impact

So here are a few tips for for each of those things so you can bring home some awesome fireworks images from New Years.

Capturing the bursts

  • Expose for between 4 and 12 seconds, that will allow you to capture a few bursts of light and their trails (nice umbrella shape).
  • Take lots of images early to avoid having too much smoke in your shots later on in the show.
  • During the finale use a shorter exposure, as the bursts will be more frequent and may overexpose your shots.
  • Use a tripod and a remote trigger so you aren't touching the camera and it's good and steady for the long exposures.
  • Listen as they release the fireworks for that distinctive whistle. Press the release as they are going up, just before they hit their peak and open. Time it so you can get more than just one burst in your shots, but not too many as it will get too bright.
  • Set your focus on the city lights before the show starts. That will be far enough away to get the fireworks in focus as well, just about at infinity but not quite on the focus scale. Then turn off autofocus so it stays there (or use back button focus to lock it if you know that technique). You do not want your camera attempting to refocus for every shot!
17mm lens (on full frame camera), ISO 100, f/8.0, 8 second exposure.

Getting the exposure right

  • Use a low ISO like 100 or 200. It will make the colors more saturated and you'll have less noise in your images.
  • Set your shutter speed so the camera times the shots for you, start with out five seconds.
  • Set your aperture to get a good exposure, so you aren't overexposing the city lights, and let the dark areas go black. Use f/8 to get good exposure on firework trails. A wider aperture will make the trails wider and brighter, but less colorful, and using a smaller aperture will make them fainter (thinner).
  • Turn OFF long exposure noise reduction!!! This one is very important because what it does it your camera takes a second exposure of the same length that's all black, and merges it with your shot. But you can't shoot or see a preview of your image while it's doing that. When shooting fireworks, you want to be able to shoot a couple, see what you're getting, and adjust exposure and composition if necessary. So unless you want to be frustrated and get half as many shots as you'd like – turn this setting to off.
  • Take a test shot before they start the show to check your exposure (use the histogram). Then retest every few minutes if the sky if getting darker. If it's already fully dark out, your test shot should give you all you need to fire away.
Test shot: ISO 100, f/10, for 5 seconds
Test shot: ISO 100, f/10, for 5 seconds (see images above for exposures during the show – I had to adjust a bit as the sky was darker then but this got me close).

Compose your shot for impact

  • Get there early to get a good spot and know where they are being set off from. I've been travelling to foreign cities and have missed getting the shot I wanted because I was in the wrong place. Find out for sure and stake our your spot early. Dress warmly if it's chilly and take a hot beverage in a thermos.
  • Plan ahead and leave enough space up high for the bursts to move into.
  • Shoot both horizontal and vertical images for variety (see images above for examples)
  • Get the crowd in a few shots too. To add some depth to your image set up so you can see some of the people watching the show, it's adds a human element as well (see image below)
  • Try some tighter close-up shots too. See below for examples. Remember you may have to adjust your focus if you do this.
Get the crowd in the shot for added depth and human element. ISO 200, f/8.0, 5 seconds.
Shoot some tighter shots to make some abstract images. ISO 200, f/22, 2.5 seconds.
ISO 200, f/22, 2.5 seconds.

If you get handed lemons – make lemonade.

So remember above when I said that I ended in the wrong place a couple times? Did I grumble about it? No, I just readjusted the kind of shot I wanted to get and took it as an opportunity to get something different than the standard fireworks shots you usually see.

I set up here thinking the fireworks would be high enough to show up just over the bridge.
I set up here thinking the fireworks would be high enough to show up just over the bridge.
Ooops, wrong!
Ooops, wrong! (This one was shot at 17mm)

Clearly that wasn't going to work. On top of that I was on a floating dock that was moving – also NOT the best choice! Why did I end up here? Well it was not my own home city (this is Portland, OR), we got there late, there was no parking for miles, and we scrambled just to get there on time to see anything. So what I failed to do was get there early enough!

So, I tried coming in a bit tighter on the composition and got this:

Better, but still not great.
Better, but still not great. This one was shot at 40mm.

So I figured what did I have to lose and cranked my zoom lens (Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens) way in and got these:

ISO 200, f/9, 3.2 seconds - shot at 75mm.
ISO 200, f/9, 3.2 seconds – shot at 75mm.
ISO 200, f/8, 2.5 seconds - shot at 90mm.
ISO 200, f/8, 2.5 seconds – shot at 90mm.

Okay now we have lemonade!! That is much better and way more interesting than the first couple shots, and it's not the kind of fireworks image you see every day. I was happy with that.

Here's another example.

Show up here thinking the fireworks would be on the side of the bridge closer to me, and higher. NOT!
Show up here thinking the fireworks would be on the side of the bridge closer to me, and higher up. NOT! Shot with a 70mm lens.
So I cranked it in to 160mm for this shot to make it more interesting.
So I cranked my zoom way in again for this shot, to make it more interesting. Shot with a 160mm lens.
Remember the include the crowd tip? ISO 100, f/5.6, for 13 seconds. Needed a longer exposure to get more of the people's fireworks in the image.

Then something magical happened, these people all poured in and started setting off their own fireworks on the beach. So I quickly backed up and recomposed to include them (and for our own safety, they were a bit crazy, firing them every which way) to get this shot which I think also really works. To me it shows the fun of the event and the participation of the people attending, not just the main show, which you can also see in behind the bridge still.

Happy New Year

So get out there and shoot some fireworks, and have the very happiest new year possible!


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