When celebrations push exploding colored lighting into the heavens it’s time to break out a camera. Fireworks photography is a blast!

Grab your tripod

A sturdy tripod on a sturdy surface is important to solid fireworks images. I once set my tripod on a wooden deck with people moving a bit. Needless to say all of my fireworks trails were a mess and pretty much unusable. Quite a disappointment.

tripods
Two tripods along with a Gorilla pod wrapped on one leg. The tripod on the right is a Fotopro USA support. I highly recommend Fotopro Eagle Series for landscape and nature photographers due to light weight a super build.

I push my tripod use and here is a set up I used last year to support three cameras. Each camera is triggered by either an iPad or iPhone so I don’t touch the cameras and avoid all shake.

A good base will allow the fireworks trails to read nicely with no “jitters.”

Look at your exposure

Aperture, shutter speed and ISO equals your exposure triangle.

pro lighting series fireworks photo
This is a cover shot I caught of fireworks over the harbor of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, USVI. Made with a 4-by-5 camera and Fuji 50 film; 3.5 sec at f/8.

ISO

I recommend using the native ISO of your camera. For micro four-thirds, which I use, that is ISO 200. If you are shooting a full frame camera ISO 100 is your best bet for quality captures. If you have a choice you’ll want to have a lower ISO vs. higher for capturing longer trails.

fireworks image
An image from many years ago with about a one second exposure. Nice but stronger images come with slightly longer exposures.

Aperture

Your aperture can vary dependent upon the look you would like. Try f/8 to f/14. The smaller your aperture the longer you can have your shutter open.

The aperture will also control any light in the scene. After it gets dark and before the fireworks start, take a few test exposures to see how any lights in your scene will render.

fireworks photo
Fireworks with shorter exposure times combined in post-production. Note several very short light trails because there was not time for the streaks to develop.

Time exposure

We are literally writing with light. The light needs time to move through the frame to be recorded. Light trails falling back to earth give you the sense of movement in a still frame. In going through my older images to find samples I found shorter exposures of one second that led to unexciting captures.

palm firework
“Palm tree” fireworks burst. . 3.2 sec, f/14, ISO 200 with the Leica 12-60mm Lumix lens at 12mm.

My more successful exposures range from three to five seconds which consistently give me interesting trails.

In-camera processing

Olympus pioneered some computational captures that work great for fireworks. Live Composite mode allows you to watch as the fireworks build on your screen. You can then end the exposure when you feel you have enough bursts captured in a single frame.

olympus Mark III fireworks photo
Live Composite mode makes it possible to capture multiple bursts on a single frame while monitoring the results in the viewfinder. A 16-second total exposure, with only the new light being recorded after the first exposure. Four images at f/14 and ISO 100.

On the Olympus E-M1X and the E-M1 Mark III, you set the exposure for your initial exposure making sure to not overexpose your background. When you trigger the exposure the camera will repeat that exposure until you stop. BUT, it only records additional light … not shadows.

The Live Composite mode also works great for lightning, star trail and car light trail images, too.

Post-production

Once you have made your images they can fall a little flat upon review. There are some good bursts, some blown out a little or in the wrong place in the frame. Time for a little Photoshop magic. Pick your favorite images and work them together.

There is a little Blend Mode magic. To start, load your individual captures as Layers. Then change the Blend Mode of the Layer to Screen. This will make everything that is dark disappear — all that remains is the fireworks.

At that point, you can maneuver the fireworks to fill out the frame. If there are pieces you wish to remove for the good of the composition you can add a mask to the Layer and remove them.

Cliff Castle building exposure — 1/100s, f/5.8, ISO 3200. Fireworks added in post production using Screen Mode in Adobe Photoshop.

Photography association membership and experimentation

Being a member of photo groups and associations can help in many ways to improve your photography. Sharing ideas makes all photographers become stronger. I’m a member of Arizona Professional Photographers Association. Even though I present programs to photography organizations I constantly learn from fellow members.

‘Floral Fireworks’ by my friend Heidi Mixon. We’ll detail her technique for this advanced fireworks capture in another. I haven’t tried this yet. Can’t wait. Image © Heidi Mixon.

Case in point. AZPPA member Heidi Mixon shared this creative concept for getting a totally different result while photographing fireworks. She suggests changing focus during the capture of the fireworks burst. The resulting images look as if there are flowers floating in the sky.

Since Heidi was good enough to share her whole process with us, I’m devoting another post to her technique. I think you’ll enjoy it!

Yours in Creative Photography, Bob