Tips for shooting fireworks

July 3 2012

Following last Saturday’s first real attempt at shooting fireworks, I decided to do some research on tips for achieving the best results. While I was reasonably happy with my first attempt, there is certainly room for much improvement. Here in Montreal we are certainly blessed to have the world’s largest pyrotechnic competition currently taking place and I will make an effort to attend many (if not all) of the displays.

Anyway, here are some tips I found (some pretty obvious, but others I thought were helpful).

Location

This will likely be dictated by the venue. The fireworks in Montreal are launched from La Ronde amusement park on Ile Sainte Hélène. You can pay 60$ for a grandstand seat or find a free spot outside La Ronde to watch the pyrotechnic display. With 8 more shows between now and the 3rd August, I hope to try a few different spots.

For large displays it’s worth checking the wind direction when selecting your vantage point. Preferably you want to be upwind from where the fireworks will be exploding so that the smoke drifts away from you – unless you’re going for the fireworks in fog look ;-)

If possible choose a solid surface. Bridges/walkways etc may seem like an ideal vantage point, but check there is no vibration or movement when people walk past. If there is, best to find another spot. I’ve had this happen when taking long exposures (not fireworks) and there is nothing more infuriating than getting close to the end of a long exposure shot and someone pretending they are a kangaroo comes jumping along the bridge :-(grrr

Camera set up

  1. Camera stability – Goes without saying that since shooting fireworks requires long exposures, you need to support your camera using a tripod or other means. Using a remote release and mirror up will help prevent camera shake when taking the exposure.
  2. Manual mode – For fireworks you really need to control the exposure time, so best to go with manual.
  3. Bulb – Use the bulb exposure setting to allow you to manually control the length of exposure.
  4. Aperture – Will depend on the depth of field you are looking for. If for instance you want a city skyline or a silhouette of audience members in focus as well as the fireworks then go for a higher setting. F8 to F16 seems to be a recommended setting. Too shallow DOF and you risk the fireworks being out of focus.
  5. Manual focus – A good tip is to arrive before the event and lock down your focus to where you think the fireworks will be exploding. If you’re shooting with a deep DOF, then setting to infinity should suffice. On Saturday I actually set focus to infinity and shot between f11 and f14. I think next time I will shoot at f16 and try to manually focus on the first fireworks and see if that produces improved quality.
  6. ISO – Use a low setting like 100 unless you need to freeze the subject, in which case raise the ISO. I’ve seen some very good images taken at ISO 200 and this may be preferably if you want to include foreground detail without having to rely on longer exposures and over exposing the fireworks.

Other tips

  1. After a few shots check your images to ensure the images are looking as you hope (focus, framing, exposure etc). Once you’re happy with the set up, enjoy the display and shoot away – don’t be tempted to keep checking each image.
  2. Multiple exposures – During a long exposure, cover the lens (with black card, cloth, lens cap) between firework bursts.
  3. Zoom – Try zooming your focal length for added effects.
  4. Preshots – Take a few shots before the show begins. This will provide some “clean” exposures that you can then layer and mask with later shots where smoke may become an issue. This could be very useful for images including a city skyline.
  5. Take some time to shoot other subjects. Unless you have 2 cameras this will mean changing your camera settings, so be sure to remember your settings so as not to waist too much time getting back to the right settings.
  6. Include landmarks within the frame to help give scale to the fireworks and provide additional interest. I really found this to be true when looking at my shots from Saturday. Images showing only fireworks were much less interesting, even if the fireworks were amazing:
Image showing only the firework

Image showing only the firework

Fireworks with foreground details

Fireworks with foreground details

Given that it is July 4th tomorrow, any of you in the US who get to shoot some fireworks, please do come share your experience – feel free to add links in the comments to your own blog or images wherever they be. If you have additional tips or found this little summary of tips helpful I would love to hear from you :-)

For anyone living or planning to visit Montreal here is the schedule of L’International des Feux Loto Quebec event:

June 30 – Japan

Switzerland – July 7

Canada – July 14

Greece – July 17

France – July 21

Portugal – July 24

Italy – July 27

United States – July 31

Tribute to Queen – August 3

Have a great and safe July 4th my United States friends !!!

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