Saturday is Independence Day in the United States, and a large percentage of people will be out celebrating. One very traditional part of July 4th is watching large fireworks displays, and many of you will be out with your camera tomorrow evening. Here are a few tips to help you get some great fireworks photographs:

1. Use a tripod

You need to make sure that your camera is as still and stable as possible to get the best shots, and a sturdy tripod is the best way to do that. If you’re unsure of your tripod’s stability, or if you know it can be a little shaky, then here’s a tip: look underneath the middle-portion of the tripod to see if there is some sort of hook. Then, take your camera bag (or anything heavy with a little handle) and hang it from that hook. The weight of your bag will keep the tripod from shaking. (Just be sure that you don’t also bump whatever is hanging from that hook while making your photos!)

2. Use a cable release to reduce camera-shake

If you have a cable release, be sure to bring it! If you don’t have a cable release, you can also try playing with the self-timer feature but your shots and opportunities will be limited. Some camera models have off-brand cable-releases for under $20 if you are interested in doing any type of night or experimental photography then I highly recommend getting one.

3. Shoot in “bulb” mode

Use a low ISO, set your aperture somewhere in the middle (usually between f/8 and f/16) and set your shutter speed to bulb. Then, as the fireworks go off, hold the shutter open for 5-10 seconds. Try a few different settings within the first minute of the show to get a good feel for the light and speed of the fireworks. (The overall exposure values are going to vary depending on the amount of ambient light/fireworks/etc; theres really no steadfast formula.)

4. Plan ahead

Get to your location early and try to find out where the fireworks will be coming from. You want to set up your gear well before the start of the show many of the displays go very quickly, and if you know the general direction to aim your camera then you are already one step ahead.

5. Don’t only photograph the fireworks!

Look at your surroundings and see what else you can include in the photo, particularly to the foreground. People? Bridges? A significant landmark? Additional elements and identifiable scenery in the frame will add a lot of depth to your image.

6. Watch out for smoke

If you can figure out which direction the wind will be blowing then try to position yourself upwind so the smoke will blow away from you. Smoke will really light up with the bursts, and if its between you and the fireworks then your photos will suffer.

7. Minimize chimping your shots

Fireworks displays go very quickly and if you are always checking your LCD after each shot then you will miss out on tons of great images. Its a good idea to check your exposure every once in a while (especially right at the beginning), but once you think you have the right settings then try to curb the temptation to look at each image until after the show.

8. Use a black card to control bursts and trails

Want to see more bursts and fewer trails? No problem! Find a sturdy piece of black (or dark) cardboard and, when the shutter is open, cover up the lens as the fireworks are making their way to the sky. Then, right before they explode, remove the cardboard. Boom!

9. Try shooting with film!

My best fireworks photos were from my film days (one good example is one of the images in this post, the center frame). You don’t have instant feedback like you do with digital SLRs, but you can still follow these tips and get some really good images.

10. Get creative!

Getting good firework photographs consists of some planning, a lot of experimentation and a little bit of luck theres no way to predict what you are going to get! Just have fun with it and don’t take it too seriously; you’ll most likely end up having a really good time and will probably go home with some great photos, too. Also, don’t forget to enjoy the show and watch the fireworks with your eyes! It’s easy to get caught up in the moment with your camera, so try to sit back and watch the scene (and not your camera) during the show.