Why do we offer this tip on photographing
fireworks in June rather than in July to coincide with the Fourth?
Very simply, Independence Day is so early in the month (the
fourth) that if we put this
tip in our July issue, it would only give you a few days to prepare
for the big show! This way, we give you lots of time to prepare for
this once-a-year American celebration.
Actually, getting good pictures of fireworks
is pretty easy. At bottom, there are only two fundamental
1) a time exposure, and
2) a solid platform for the camera.
Fundamental 1 - A Time Exposure. A
skyrocket takes time from the moment it's launched until the
last burst of its color fades. As the rocket sails skyward,
the crowd has time to exclaim "Ooh!" Then as it explodes in a
burst of trails of color, the crowd has time to exclaim,
"Ahh!" From launch to fadeout takes a few seconds. Your
exposure, therefore, should be long enough to capture part, or
all, of this time consuming progression.
How long should your
exposures be? At least one second long, some two seconds, and some
There's another reason
for a time exposure. As bright as fireworks look to us against a
dark sky, they are not so bright that most films can record them in
a blink of an eye. If you were to set your exposure for, say,
1/500th, not only will the lens be open for only a moment of the
rocket's progression, but the exposure may also be too brief to
record any image at all! How long is long enough? With ISO 100 or
faster film, a one-second exposure should be sufficient.
What if your camera
can't be set to take time-exposures? What if you are using an
auto-everything point-and-shoot that gives you no control of
exposure? Our advice: Try it. Your camera's electronics may
automatically keep the shutter open long enough for a good
time-exposure. Or it may not! We suggest you try this test in a
similar situation requiring a time-exposure, long before the Fourth,
so that you'll know the answer in time for that fateful date.
What if you will be
using a single-use "cardboard" supermarket camera? You probably
won't be able to capture the fireworks with it. The shutter on most
of these cameras just won't stay open long enough. (The possible
exception, according to Kodak, is a single-use camera loaded with
ISO 800 film. Kodak claims that this film will be sensitive enough
to pick up the firework colors even though the exposure is
relatively short.) With any slower film in a single-use camera, be
prepared to shoot lots of "crowd" pictures and other "ground-based"
pictures. You'll find lots of action all around you, and fireworks
are only part of the celebration. Who knows, you may get the best
photos of all!
Fundamental 2 - A Solid Platform.
Regardless of your camera, the second requirement is a solid
platform to hold the camera motionless during the time-exposure.
This is pretty much a requirement for all time-exposures. Obviously,
the best platform of all is a tripod. It provides a solid,
easy-to-carry base on which to hold the camera motionless during the
exposure. All SLR's and some point-and-shoots have a thread opening
on the bottom that permits you to attach the camera to a tripod.
Single-use "cardboard" cameras do not. (In a moment we'll give you
some ideas on how you can still take the necessary time exposures.)
A tripod is just the
beginning. You also want the camera to be as vibrationless as
possible during the time-exposure. Since pressing the shutter button
can cause the camera to vibrate, avoid this by also using a cable
release. The cable release enables you to press the shutter button
without touching the camera directly. Result: It helps minimize
Advanced Hint for the SLR purist! For the
ultimate in steadiness, on some SLR's you can lock the mirror in an
up position. Why do this? Because when you take a normal picture
with an SLR, the mirror snaps up during the moment of exposure, then
snaps back so you can set up the next shot in the viewfinder. When
the mirror snaps up, it causes the camera to vibrate for a moment.
While this vibration is usually tiny, if you're a purist and want
the steadiest possible time-exposure, you can eliminate this
vibration totally by locking the mirror in its "up" position. Of
course, you can't frame the next shot in the viewfinder if the
mirror is locked up. But this may not be so big a problem as it
seems. After all, typically, fireworks appear in only one specific
segment of the sky, so once you've aimed your camera-on-tripod in
that direction and framed the shooting area, you can lock the mirror
up since you don't have to reframe for every shot.
Back to basics: If you don't have a tripod
handy (or you're using a camera that doesn't have a tripod thread),
don't give up. Try placing your camera on a makeshift solid
platform, such as a fence post, a railing, or a wall. None of them
is as steady or convenient as a tripod, but they're infinitely
better than hand-holding.
A word of warning: If you are on a
rocking boat, your tripod or the ship's rail or whatever you use as
a "platform" will rock along with the boat. Result: In your
time-exposure the firework color-streaks will come out rocking and
wavy instead of straight. This may be interesting modern art -
though we doubt it! - but it's definitely not good firework
photography. It won't look right! Our advice: If you are on a
rocking boat, don't bother to photograph the fireworks. It's a waste
of time. Find crowd shots and other subjects for your lens.
Now to a few specifics:
Which way should you
hold the camera? Typically, you'll be better off with a vertical
format rather than horizontal. After all, the trail of a skyrocket
is usually upward and not very wide.
What focal-length should you use? If you have a
choice, go for a "normal" or slightly wide-angle lens. Since your
position relative to the rocket bursts will determine the exact
focal length, use this as your guide: You want the frame of your
image to extend so that it includes a good bit of the foreground in
the bottom (more on this in a moment) and a "head-room" above the
topmost firework trails. Chances are you'll need at least your
normal and possibly a wide-angle setting for this.
What aperture should you use? You
might think that because the sky is so dark you need a wide
aperture. Just the opposite is true. Remember, your objective is not
to record the dark sky except as background. You want to record the
intensely bright streaks of color. Were you to use a wide open
aperture during your time-exposure, you would probably overexpose
the colors. Result: They would "burn out" and lose coloration. To
intensify the color, therefore, use a smaller aperture like
f/8, or f/11, or even f/16. Which you should use depends upon
the speed of your film and the intensity of the color bursts. We
suggest you bracket your shots, using different apertures.
Where should you set focus? Set your lens for infinity. If your
camera is an autofocus model, trust the camera to automatically
focus on infinity.
What film should you use? Probably
any film you ordinarily use will do the trick. Typically, grain is
not a problem in this type of image. We recommend that you use ISO
100, 200, or 400. The important point is that you don't need a very
fast film; in fact super-fast films may overexpose the
firework display. And very slow
films - for example, ISO 64 - may not be sensitive enough to capture
the display. (Remember, while your shutter will be open for a second
or two or more, the actual appearance of the "rockets red glare"
will last only a fraction of a second in any one place.)
Should you use flash? No. Not ordinarily. (In a moment,
we'll discuss when you might want to use flash.) Ordinarily, turn
off your flash. The fireworks themselves provide all the light you
want. If your camera cannot be controlled and the flash goes off
whether you like it or not, try covering the flash with your hand or
a piece of tape so that the camera doesn't "see" it.
How many frames should you shoot?
Expect to shoot lots! Every burst is beautiful - and you can't
predict which one will be the "most beautiful." So your tendency if
you're like the rest of us, will be to shoot lots of film. This
means that you should be prepared to change rolls of film quickly
and in the dark. Our advice is to burn lots of
film - a few rolls, at least - and if you want to save money, do so
during processing, as follows:
Ask your photofinisher
to make contact sheets or index prints, but not print each image.
Then, from the thumbnail images select the few best shots that you
Another way to save
money: While shooting, be aware that most firework displays have a
rhythm that usually ends in a multiple burst of glory. If you want
to limit the film you shoot, hold back for this Grand Finale. But be
wary. It may happen before you realize it...and then it's too late!
So be sure you're ready for it. If the fireworks have a musical
accompaniment - like Tschaikovsky's 1812 Overture - you can hear it
coming. But often, you can't anticipate the Finale, so we can only
admonish you to follow the Boy Scout motto - Be Prepared!
Spratt - NYI Student
there's an additional step to consider that can take your pictures
out of the ordinary and make them extra-special. The burst
of a skyrocket, by itself, is pretty. But it's not particularly
interesting. What can you do to add interest? Try this: Don't just
shoot the burst by itself, but shoot it in conjunction with
something else. For example, look how much more interesting this
picture is because the paths of fireworks are incidental to this
picture of the Capitol Building. Since you may not have the Capitol
in your area - or even its equivalent - what can you use to add
a statue in the foreground, with the fireworks framing it. Or
silhouettes of the onlookers to give a sense of location to
your picture. Or a tree. Or a building. Or a bridge. Or a
skyline. Or...you fill in the blanks. The important thing is
that your image include some interesting foreground objects -
perhaps, framed within the fireworks display.
One trick you may
want to try is to use flash to light the foreground object.
Now, we realize we just told you NOT to use flash, but here's
the special case we warned you was coming.
Let's say you want to capture the
statue of George Washington or some other interesting object that's
in the foreground, and that object is in the dark. How can you add
light to the statue during your exposure? Your strobe may do the
trick. Put your camera on Manual control if possible. Set up on the
tripod as already explained. But in this case, focus on the statue
instead of infinity. With a wideangle lens, if the statue is 15 or
20 feet away, you will get infinity within your depth of field. If
the statue is closer, the fireworks may not be sharply in focus, but
this lack of sharpness is probably acceptable because the fireworks
are streaks of light and color, rather than detailed objects.
Set your strobe to
go off during the exposure. The flash will light up the statue
for an instant, but will not affect your time exposure of the
sky. That's the theory, at least. But there may be some
problems depending upon your specific equipment.
Will the statue be
overexposed because the strobe is too powerful, and the
shutter is manually set for two seconds? Or will the strobe
turn itself off when the statue is properly exposed regardless
of how long the shutter is open? Some strobes will - some,
possibility: Will the strobe "force" the shutter to close
prematurely, sooner than you intended? Again, the answer
depends upon the particular equipment you use.
If you are not sure (for
which you are not to blame - most camera and strobe instruction
manuals don't tell you), we offer these suggestions. First, bracket
your shots. Try different exposures, and select the best shots when
you get them back. Second, consider removing the strobe from the
camera (if you can) and handhold it facing toward the statue. Press
the shutter button to start your time exposure, and immediately
press the Test button on the strobe to get it to flash. In this
configuration, the strobe is not connected to your camera so it
cannot "force" the shutter to close prematurely. If you have an
assistant, you may even have that person walk up toward the statue
holding the strobe, and setting off the flash when you give the
In any event,
don't forget that your flash has a limited range. It's not
going to light up those mountains on the horizon! Know its
limitations, and use it - if at all - to add a bit of light to
Of course, if your subject, like the Capitol
Building, is lit by artificial light, you can let that light do the
work for you. Let's say that statue of George Washington is
floodlit. You probably are better off not using your flash. Let the
floodlights light up old George during the time exposure. How do you
know if you will get enough light or too much? Typically, you won't.
So our advice is to stand back far enough from the lighted statue to
avoid gross overexposure - and then bracket your shots.
Back to basics: Whether you're advanced or not, there's one more
"trick" for you to consider. Why limit yourself to just one rocket's
glare? What about keeping your shutter open long enough to capture
the glare of a few rockets exploding in air one after the other. To
accomplish this, experiment with longer time exposures - ten
seconds, 20 seconds, and even longer. You can get some dazzling
To sum up, don't let any of the complications
examined in this article discourage you. At bottom, firework
pictures are easy to take and make great photographs. Just remember
the two Fundamentals: 1) Take a time exposure, and
2) Use a tripod. If you're an average photographer and do just this,
you'll get some outstanding photographs on the Fourth of