It’s that time of year when we anticipate the joy of seeing magnificent displays of aerial pyrotechnic art. Fireworks are among the most visually arresting spectacles of light we can experience. Like most things visually fascinating, photographers want to capture and revisit the spectacle. But what’s the best way to start?

Exposure

Before worrying about exposure, it’s helpful to consider what we’re really trying to capture. Fireworks are basically burning embers of metal, propelled into the sky by an explosive force, and scattered by other timed explosive charges. To keep the metal burning, there are special oxidizers (like potassium chlorate) to accelerate this process. The result has extreme illumination power; think welding sparks, which are bright enough to require darkening eye protection. The color of this burning is produced by combining specific metals with oxidizers to make deeply saturated colors that penetrate the dark sky. Iron produces gold, barium makes green, copper makes blue, strontium or lithium make red, etc.

This description gives you some idea of why you can’t really use the averaging metering in your camera that would typically work wonderfully for most other scenes. You are essentially photographing a light source, and trying to record the saturated color of that light, the brightness of which exceeds most other man-made light sources.

The black of the night sky would likely occupy the vast majority of your image. Hoping to average that into a good exposure of burning metal fireworks will overexpose the intense streaks. All you’ll end up with is overexposed, blown out highlights.

Considering this with the way the streaks travel, it requires a lower ISO, smaller ƒ stop, yet longer exposure times to capture the effect that fireworks have on our psyche.

Because the light source is so bright, ISO settings should actually be quite low. I use 160 as my starting point. The aperture setting might vary between ƒ11-ƒ16!! It’s important to note that there is a HUGE variation in intensity between one burst and another, so you will likely be guessing and estimating based on each successive mortar launch. Back in the film days, especially with transparency film, we would have to hope we were in the ballpark. Now we can check on the LCD to see how close we’re getting.

Here are some typical metadata info readouts for some of my exposures:

Shooting Mode Bulb
Tv(Shutter Speed) 1.9
Av(Aperture Value) 16
ISO Speed 160
Auto ISO Speed OFF
Lens EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
Focal Length 24.0mm

Shooting Mode Bulb
Tv(Shutter Speed) 8.3
Av(Aperture Value) 14
ISO Speed 160
Auto ISO Speed OFF
Lens EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
Focal Length 99.0mm

It’s Time for Bulb

The best way to set exposure time is Bulb or time exposure. You need to manually keep the shutter open. One part of the timing art of this is when to open and when to close the shutter! After you’ve established the likely location of the bursts and streaks, you’ll have to aim and wait. When you see/hear the mortar fire, it’s safe to open the shutter. You then have to wait until the burst has completed to close the shutter.

Here’s another part of the art: You can keep the shutter open for more than one burst! You have to envision how much of your field of view sky has been occupied by light, and thus how much of the frame has the streaks of light across it. You can choose to fill the frame or just image one shape.

Shapes of Fireworks

Add to this that there are at least 15 different types of shape patterns you’ll likely encounter (Chrysanthemum, Horsetail, Spider, etc.). So, there’s a fair amount of trial and error between the shapes.

Where to Aim and Focal Length

One other twist in trying to capture fireworks concerns aim and field of view. We cannot know until the first few bursts how large or where in the sky the display will appear. So the first few photos have to taken with our mind’s eye. We need to scope out where each burst will be, how large the bursts will be, and how far they’re traveling. That will offer some idea of how long a lens you’ll likely need. Typically a zoom is best, so as to quickly make these adjustments. I find that for typical displays (plus where I manage to position myself) the result seems to average with a telephoto around double the normal focal length. That’s around 100mm for a full frame 35mm form factor camera. But, and this is important, each display will vary greatly, and many of my images utilize wide angles all the way to 24mm. The decision is made while the display is happening.

Locked down on a Tripod

It’s best to categorize imaging fireworks into two different genres. The first is representational, where you lock the camera down on a tripod and allow all of the motion of the light to be generated by the travel of the fireworks alone. This is the most typical way it’s done.

Fireworks on July 4th, 2004- another exposure with a static camera. ©Steven Inglima
From the ground up! Camera in one position. ©Steven Inglima

Freedom from Restraint!

Over time, I’ve learned to free myself from this method. Because the night sky is a blank canvas, it occurred to me that moving the camera would cause the streaks to squiggle, but might make even more interesting shapes and streak patterns. This led to my completely abandoning any interest in locking the camera down whatsoever! Freedom!

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2015 – motion is both firework and camera. ©Steven Inglima

Ultimately, this progressed to intentionally moving the camera in all manner of directions during the bursts, so as to paint with the light of the fireworks on the canvas of black sky. Now it was completely up to me how I could fill the frame with color, and what shape the light and streaks would take.

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta – A good example of a non-representational, handheld exposure! ©Steven Inglima
Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2015-radical camera motion! ©Steven Inglima
Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta 2015 – three separate mortars in one exposure, with camera movement. ©Steven Inglima
Make your own shapes in-camera! ©Steven Inglima

The basic method of timing and location anticipation would be the same, but now I would be adding my own movement to that of the streaks.

Either way, the end result of capturing the vibrant display allows you to re-live the amazing experience and share it! It’s worth all of the effort when you see the results later!!