The Great American 4th of July Fireworks

"A World Class Event"

Wednesday, July 4, 2001  -  State College, Pa

Flawless Fireworks Photography from

The Fourth of July is fireworks time in the United States. If you're overseas, fireworks may be part of some other celebration such as Guy Fawkes Day or Chinese New Year. So, while this tip is timely in the States, if you're in another part of the world you may have to squirrel it away for some other time of year.

© Andrzey Walter

Whatever the season, whatever the reason fireworks have always been used to mark big events. For example, both these photos won prizes in our recent Millennium Madness Photo contest. Andrezy Walter of Poland won First Prize for his lovely photograph of Paris' Eiffel Tower lit up with New Year's fireworks. Gary MacKey of Louisiana won Third Place for his photograph of Japan's New Year's celebrations over Mount Fuji.
© Gary Mackey

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 requirements:
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 even longer.

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 camera shake.

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 want printed.

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!

©Robert Spratt - NYI Student
Now, 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 similar interest?

Consider including 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. 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, will not.

Another 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 signal.

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 foreground objects.

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 results!

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 July.