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In fact, ever since Taoist monks created fireworks, cultures around the globe have used them to ward off evil spirits, pray for happiness, celebrate birth, death, weddings, the new year… just about anything.
Consider it a basic truth of the human condition: we like things that go boom.
And for almost as long as fireworks have been around, photographers have been taking dark and blurry photos of them.
But listen up: Firecracker photography may seem difficult, but follow some simple rules and you’re virtually guaranteed good results.
Fireworks are a tricky subject to photograph–you’re shooting in the dark, your subject keeps moving and disappearing, and it’s hard to get a good location. Here’s how to get great photos despite it all.
1. Bring a tripod, bring a tripod, bring a tripod.
Good fireworks photos require long exposures, and the best way to get them is to use a sturdy tripod. If you absolutely can’t bring a tripod to the scene, do your best to brace your camera against railings, walls, or cars to keep it steady. (Or try a mini tripod!)
2. Bring a flashlight, charged batteries, and plenty of empty memory cards
You’re gonna need to change your camera settings while you’re out there, and it’s gonna be dark. Bring a small flashlight. And since you’ll likely be taking lots of pictures as you experiment, don’t forget to empty out your memory cards and bring a fully charged battery, too.
3. Find a great location early
4. Turn your flash off
Whether it’s an on-camera flash or an add-on, it’s not nearly powerful enough to reach the fireworks. Even if it was, you wouldn’t want to light them that way. Go flash-less.
5. Drop your ISO to 50 or 100
Your digital camera has several user-selectable light-sensitivity settings. The higher your ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to light. Normally this means you want to use a higher ISO in dark settings, but when you’re shooting longer exposures (long shutter speeds) high ISO can introduce a lot of digital noise to your photograph. An ISO setting of 100 is a good bet.
6. Turn on noise reduction
If your camera has it, this setting will help get rid of any digital noise created by your long exposures, even with a low ISO. Note: some cameras will take several seconds to eliminate noise after a shot is taken, preventing you from taking another photograph immediately.
7. Use the self-timer to reduce vibration
Even with your camera on a tripod, you cause small vibrations just by clicking the shutter, resulting in a less-than-perfectly sharp capture. Set your self-timer to the shortest duration possible and use it to give the your camera a chance to settle before the shot’s actually taken. Sharper shots, guaranteed.
8. Use your camera’s fireworks setting
Many recent cameras have a scene mode specifically for fireworks. Try some photos with and without it and see what you prefer.
9. Focus on infinity
We strongly recommend shooting in full manual mode if you have the ability. Set your focus to just less than infinity (or choose a landscape setting if you can’t manually adjust focus) and use an aperture of f/8 to f/16.
10. Use long shutter speeds: 2-3 seconds or longer
This is the most important camera setting you’ll need to worry about. At any given moment, fireworks are just a bunch of bright points of light. What makes them interesting is how their quick motion across the night sky illuminates a path and creates beautiful streaks and patterns. Your eye sees it, but with a fast shutter speed, your camera doesn’t.
So to give your camera a chance to record those streaks and patterns, you need to make sure your shutter is open long enough to get them in. That means at minimum a full second, and possibly up to 15 seconds or more. You’ll want to experiment with different durations to see what works best.
How to do it: If your camera allows full manual control, it’s easy. Just set your shutter speed to whatever you want. If your camera doesn’t give you full control, put it in the mode that gives you the most control and turn off the flash. If you click the shutter to snap the photo while a rocket’s still rising and before it’s exploded, your camera should automatically meter for a long exposure and set the shutter speed appropriately.
11. Take lots of pictures, be creative, and have fun!
Have fun, experiment, and take tons of photos. Remember, you can always delete the duds later.
Here are a few more ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
Tips from Smithsonian photographers on getting great fireworks shots.
The New York Institute of Photography has some great tips for shooting fireworks in your backyard.
The history of fireworks at Wikipedia.
Phenomenal fireworks photos on Flickr.
What happens when a fireworks factory explodes?
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Published on June 30, 2006 — See more Guides
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