How to Shoot Fireworks (With Your Camera)

7 years ago

Ah, Independence Day, the day that the United States celebrates its freedom with cookouts and parades and, of course, fireworks. The Fourth of July is a big day for photography in general, and shots of these modern day "bombs bursting in air" are among the most popular.

But they're also a little tricky, so what's a photographer to do? Here are some ideas, in a handy dandy holiday list.

1. Sure, you can follow the technical directions on sites like DPhoto, which are certainly solid, although I think they forgot to tell you to turn off your flash. Please, turn off your flash, most of the time, but especially at night. Use the lowest ISO, usually 100, that your camera can go, the highest quality settings (aka "the biggest," in my terminology, or the "L" setting, on even the most basic point and shoot or DSLR) and a long exposure.

If you'd like to try out a tripod, you may want to pick up a small one like the Joby Gorillapod, which is flexible and easily portable in most tote bags. But instructions usually lose me at "bring a tripod," because as much as I'd love to set my camera up at its most stable, that's just not going to happen on a holiday.

2. Find a good spot where you won't be frustrated. I live near the National Mall, which is one of the largest Fourth of July celebrations and fireworks displays in the country. It's also a mob scene, and I'm not that interested in scoping out a seat with an awesome view at 8 a.m. I did watch near the Washington Monument one year, but my placement was a fluke and my photos were just okay (mostly because I was more interested in hanging out with my friends at the time).

Photo: Laurie White

If you really care, go early and try to get yourself set up where there aren't any trees, tents, bandstands -- basically anything that will obviously get in your way. But do remember, you'll be shooting skyward, so what's sitting in front of you may not matter so much. Just watch out for those trees (she says from unfortunate experience).

3. Embrace blur. I know people say that a lot lately and I'm not so much for the trends, but the fact is, it's night time, and part of the beauty of a fireworks display is that you have no idea what's coming next. I mess around with my focus and settings all of the time, so it would be a pipe dream to assume that I'd get crystal clear shots even half the time. But I love my unexpected results most of all. Check out this shot of fireworks at a wedding from Sesame Ellis, who will be a speaker at BlogHer this year. I love it. The focus and the slight blur set the scene perfectly, and that is exactly what you want to do -- or at least what I want to do, I don't know about you.

4. Don't forget the details. Sparklers. Kids' faces reacting to the display -- as long as they're not screaming. Anything around you that's illuminated.

Image: Laurie White

5. Do not forget your battery, your memory card or your lenses, if you're working with a DSLR. Hey, it's a holiday. There's a lot going on. Also, make sure your camera is protected. You don't want to get stuck out in a field or on a beach without the right coverage in case of rain or wind or whatever else nature seems to serve up at exactly the wrong time.

6. Speaking of lenses, try different options. I am addicted to my fixed 50 lens, which, while it is my go-to for portraits, does awesome things in other settings as well. I'm going to try it out this year for fireworks. I have no idea how it'll work out, but that's part of the joy of photography for me.

7. Go even more mobile. If you don't feel like lugging your big camera or just want an alternative to your point and shoot, see what your cell phone -- especially if it's a Droid or an iPhone or whatever else you've got that can take an increasingly better quality picture -- will do. In spite of reports that I'm a Fauxlaroid poser, I am still addicted to the ShakeItPhoto app on my iPhone. I'm sure there will be a fireworks shot or two on there this year.

8. If you are working with a point and shoot that has a fireworks setting, use it. Yes, I have saved the best advice for last. I'm not a manual snob at all, and especially when it comes to events that happen for 30 minutes, once a year. Fireworks mode basically sets your camera so the shutter stays open longer and you can get multiple burst of fireworks.

First of all, find your fireworks setting. If you cannot find your manual (welcome to my life) Google your camera manufacturer. Most of them have manuals online. Do not fear your manual. Then, switch the dial to whatever the manual says. It's that easy, I promise.

An open shutter does mean more potential for blur, so if you're not using a tripod, hold very still for as long as you can. I repeat -- I have not used a tripod besides a desktop since photography school.

There you have it -- my absolutely inexact science of fireworks photography. And above all else, have fun -- and by that I mean turn off your flash.

More on Fireworks Photography

Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. She remains very fond of her Fourth of July photos from last year.

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