Independence Day is just around the corner, which means it's time for fireworks. And if you've ever tried to snap a pic during the big show, you already know capturing bright pyrotechnics lit up against the dark sky can pose quite a challenge. But if you have a DSLR, or any camera that gives you access to manual settings, then taking the quintessential July 4th pic is within your reach.
Find The Right Spot
Arguably, this is the most important step. Scope out a spot where you can see everything and can set up a tripod in a location where people are not walking directly past your tripod. If it's windy where you are, you'll also want to find a spot upwind of the show fireworks so smoke won't cloud your pics. A tripod is critical for stable photos while shooting fireworks. The exposures will be several seconds so any camera movement will blur or distort the light trails.
I would recommend a tripod with so you can quickly recompose your shots once the actual fireworks start and you have a better idea where they are happening. If you don’t have room to carry a tripod or want something lighter weight, the that is matched to your camera's weight is a good alternative. Remember, stability is key.
Adjust Your Settings
Start by setting your camera to full manual mode and turning off the flash. The right settings for your specific fireworks show will vary depending on where you are. However, a good baseline is to set your ISO at 100, aperture to f/8, and switch your shutter speed to 4 seconds—or better yet, .
With bulb mode, the shutter will stay open as long as you're depressing the button. If you've got a , now's the time to break it out. If not, you can (carefully) hold down the button on your camera while it's on your tripod. A more advanced technique is to use Bulb mode with the remote shutter release and a small 5x5 inch black or dark piece of cardstock. I’ve also used my hand with great results!
Start by covering the lens with cardstock then open the shutter with the remote. You are now in control of when the image gets exposed by moving the card away for a few seconds then back over the lens. I found I can expose and cover several times during a 30-60 second exposure to capture the best parts of the fireworks all in one shot. Don’t leave the shutter open for too long or your image will start to get grain/noise from the sensor heating up.
You'll also want to set your lens' focus to manual, and . Autofocus is a no-no when it comes to low-light shots and will likely result in some blurry results. If you are having trouble focusing on the fireworks you can also try live view mode on your cameras display to zoom in all the way in on a distant streetlight or some other illuminated subject that is a good distance away.
Once the big event starts, take a few test shots to see how your settings are working. If you're in Bulb mode, depress the shutter right when you hear a firework shoot into the air, and let go when the bursts reach full size (typically 1 to 4 seconds). If you are using the black card or your hand to cover the lens you can do the same thing a few times to create an image filled with fireworks.
If at First You Don't Succeed
A huge part of firework photography is trial and error. If your first few shots don't turn out how you'd like them, tweak the settings and try again. If your photos are too dark, try opening the aperture to f4 or f5 or change the ISO to 200 (you're ideally going to stay in the range of half a second and 4 seconds for each firework burst).
Try an Abstract Shot
Once you have nailed the perfectly focused and exposed shots and you have a few moments left, try some out-of-focus exposures. Leave all the camera settings the same for this shot but dial the manual focus several feet closer than infinity. Start by dialing the focus about half way then try some exposures with the lens focused as close as possible. If you have a fast lens set it to the largest aperture like f/2 or f/1.4. You will want to experiment with focal distance and the amount of time you expose each shot.
After a few adjustments and some experimentation, you should find the perfect combination to get that ultimate freedom-loving photo.