How to Photograph Fireworks

I love fireworks. Maybe it's because they're explosions, and I'm a man. Maybe it's because I get to channel my inner kid for one night.  Maybe it's because I overcame my childhood fear of them. Doesn't matter why, I love them. So when I started getting into photography I wanted to capture their beauty on film...ahem...in 1's and 0's.

This year my family had the privilege of attending two different fireworks shows on two different nights. The first night I thought we were going to the park for a concert. A certain member of the family forgot to mention the fireworks show. Luckily I had my camera but didn't pack a tripod. Obstacle one, hold a camera steady for 2-3 sec without a tripod. My solution was to plant the camera firmly on the ground and move as little as possible. It worked fairly well, although there is noticeable camera shake in all the images. But that's okay because it adds some flavor. Obstacle two, location. I didn't pick it and I wasn't going to leave my friends for an hour to stake out the perfect location. As a result I decided to only have the fireworks in frame. They were too high to include anything else of interest. Also, adding foreground elements wouldn't have worked with the technique I was attempting. What technique you ask? I'll tell you. When the firework was on it's way up, I set my lens to it's shortest focusing distance. I would start my exposure right before the firework exploded. When it did explode, I would rack my focus to infinity. This way the firework would start way out of focus and about the time it was done it would come into sharp focus. Here's what I ended up with:

I think I could sell the first picture as an exotic underwater creature I discovered in the depths of the Pacific. Then I might make some money from it.

The next night was my chance to control everything. Ever since I moved back to St. Louis, four Independence Days ago, I've wanted to take the de facto STL fireworks shot. The old courthouse and arch in the foreground and the fireworks bursting in the background. This was the year it finally happened. I knew where I wanted to set up, I knew what gear to bring with me, and I knew how to bring it all together. Luckily, I got the shot.

It does add interest to an image when foreground elements are present. It gives context and draws the audience into the picture. It makes the fireworks seem more real. Try it sometime. You have 364 days to plan for it. . If you didn't get out and shoot this year then grab a beer, go sit in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, and join the chant of those around you, "there's always next year."

Here's my quick guide to shooting fireworks (pun intended):

1) Use a tripod. Keep that camera steady. 

2) Shoot manual, and start with an exposure in the 2-3 sec range. Your ISO can be low. I shot the above at ISO 200. The aperture was f/9. Use bulb mode if you have it.  You want to expose the sensor the entire length of the firework.

3) Compose your shot before the sun goes down. Hopefully you know where the fireworks will be. 

4) Get there early and find the best angle. Try to find some foreground interest. 

5) Shoot early in the show, before the smoke takes over. 

6) Play with your exposure and timing.  Try shooting for longer times to get more fireworks in one frame.

7) Make sure you get some good shots before you experiment. Otherwise you might come away with nothing AND you'll have to wait a year for another opportunity.