How to photograph fireworks

Whenever there's a major celebration our skies become explosive with fireworks. Learn how to capture these moments with your camera

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Words Peter Bargh of ePHOTOzine, Photos Peter Bargh and Herema

You can rest assured that whenever there's something big to celebrate, the sky will be full of big fireworks.

November the 5th is guaranteed to bring color to the sky, along with New Years Day, but there are plenty of other events such as classical music nights in parks or major celebrations and these are nights when you can encounter one of the most hit and miss subjects that you'll ever have chance to photograph. Fireworks are fairly unpredictable. You know they're going to explode but you can never quite tell exactly where... or when.

Your camera also has no idea where the fireworks are to focus or what the brightness is going to be like to ensure the correct exposure. So the trick is to follow our few guidelines.
Whatever camera you are using you need to have it set to infinity because the fireworks will be further than the maximum focus setting of the camera. With manual focus cameras this is easy. With cameras that have an infinity setting (mountain symbol on the menu) it's also easy, and even with fully autofocus models you may be able to get round the problem. You could try to focus on a distant subject first and lock the focus by half pressing down on the shutter button. Then reposition ready to take the photo.

Set the camera's white balance to daylight if you shoot JPEGs. With RAW you can tweak colours later.

How to photograph fireworks How to photograph fireworks How to photograph fireworks

Next is the exposure. Fireworks are bright and metering from the dark sky would cause vast overexposure. They are also not around long enough for the camera to get a correct reading when the burst occurs, so the best thing to do is select your exposure beforehand. Again cameras with manual mode help here. With an auto only camera you will struggle to get a good photo. Make sure for starters that the flash is turned off (lightning symbol inside no entry sign).

Then if you have a camera with exposure control select f/8 or f/11 (it's worth experimenting at both apertures) The shutter speed needs to be long enough to capture the whole explosion and light trails. Somewhere between one and four seconds is often enough but some fireworks need a little longer, some slightly less.

It pays to watch the first few bursts to gauge what sort of display is being given, where the fireworks are being launched in the sky and how long they stay open. With all this knowledge it's easier to frame, focus and expose.

A shutter speed of around a second means you cannot hold the camera steady so the first thing to do is rest the camera on a solid surface to prevent camera shake during the exposure. A tripod is the best platform, but you could use the trunk of a tree, a fence or a wall. If you use a tripod attach a cable-release to the camera to avoid any movement caused by pressure on the shutter release.

Now the framing. You've already worked out where the burst are going to be. You now have to open the shutter at the right moment and which lens? If you use a telephoto you will struggle to pick the point where the firework bursts open, so a wider angle of around 35mm will be better. In most cases it's best to turn the camera on its side too so the photo is in portrait format. Then you can record the single bright ignited firework as it flies up into the sky and then as it breaks out.

Also try the multi-burst technique. Cover the lens after one burst and then uncover it for a several more bursts as they happen so you fill you photo with multiple explosions. This is tricky but the pictures can be brilliant if you get it right. Use a sheet of black card that you can place in front of the lens without touching it to prevent camera shake.

You don't have to go to to an organised event. Fireworks at home can also be fun, although maybe not quite as spectacular!

These fountains were taken to show the effect of different shutter speeds. The shot on the left is at 1/45sec and the sparks are quite frozen, while the shot on the right is at 1sec and shows the trials more effectively.

How to photograph fireworks How to photograph fireworks How to photograph fireworks

Even sparklers can be recorded creatively. Ask your friend to hold the sparkler and make patterns. Keep the shutter open long enough to record a trail. You can get the person to write their name in the air, but it has to be done backwards, unless you flip the negative when printing.

Much of firework photography is trail and error but practice and your pictures will be an explosion of colour.

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