Garry Black Photography

Photographing Fireworks
There is nothing like experience to gain a better feel of what your pictures will look like when photographing fireworks. Some of them just don't photograph well, either because of the pattern they create or because of their brightness - they end up being over exposed. I have photographed many fireworks displays, here are some helpful recommendations which I have come up with, that should increase your odds of capturing that perfect shot. Remember that every shooting situation is unique and contains its own set of variables. The best advice that I can give you is to go out to a location that has regular displays of fireworks and shoot lots of film. That way the next time you go back to that location you will have learned from your mistakes and successes.



Don't leave home without it! Typical exposure times will run anywhere from 2 to 30 seconds or even longer. If you find yourself at an event that ends off with an unexpected fireworks display and you don't have your tripod, forget about hand-holding, bracing the camera against something solid or using a monopod. I've tried it a couple of times, it just doesn't work! Instead just watch and enjoy the fireworks. But if you are really compelled to try, I would suggest that you shouldn't try to keep the camera still. Instead, since you are going to have camera movement anyways, then you should make the camera really move. Try zooming during the exposure, or moving the camera in a circular motion, or moving the camera up and down, or even panning the falling light trails.

Camera and Cable release
I normally use 2 or 3 camera bodies with motor drives when shooting fireworks. With the motor drives advancing the film it allows you to keep you eyes on the fireworks rather than being diverted for several seconds as you otherwise would be manually advancing the film. It might not sound all that crucial, but as you gain more experience in shooting fireworks, you will realize that it is. Each one of the cameras that I use has a different focal length lens on it, that way I can get a variety of shots. Locking cable releases are essential. Even with your camera on top of a tripod, if you only use your finger to keep the shutter open, you run the risk of camera movement.

My recommendation is to use zoom lenses. The focal length of the lens that you use, depends on where you are in relation to the fireworks and the composition you're looking for. When setting up your camera, aim it in the general direction of the sky where you figure the burst will occur. Focus your lens at infinity and then back it off a little. When the first burst goes up, focus on that burst and use that focus throughout.

1. If you're relatively close and what you're looking for are full framed shots of the bursts, then a telephoto in the 80mm to 200mm range is what you should be using. A word of warning here, this is probably the most difficult of all shots. You must have the head of the tripod loose enough so that you can follow the tracer through your viewfinder, but not so loose that the camera has no support from the tripod head. As it explodes, release the shutter and wait until all of the twinkling has disappeared before finishing your shot.

2. If you want to include most of the fireworks or an overall view of the scene, then a 28mm to 80mm lens will do the trick. Another word of warning here, take a good look to make sure that there are no buildings or any lights that may be behind the fireworks distracting from them.

3. If you want to include something in the foreground, such as people being silhouetted, then you'll want to use a wide angle zoom or even a prime wide angle, such as a 20mm to 35mm. You'll achieve a sense of perspective by including a landmark, it doesn't have to be famous, just something to give scale or depth to the image. Capturing the reflection of the fireworks over water is also another interesting approach.

One last word of warning, make sure that you haven't left a filter on your lens, such as a polarizer, it has happened before - make sure it doesn't happen to you. Skylights or UV filters are OK.



It never fails, every time that I have shot fireworks, someone always asks me "You must be using very fast film". That is probably the greatest misconception about photographing fireworks. I use Fuji Velvia (50 ISO) or Provia (100 ISO). I prefer Velvia due to it's contrast, which eliminates most if not all of the smoke that is created. Always load a new roll of film in your camera before you start photographing, I have found that for a "normal" fireworks show I will shoot between 25 and 36 exposures per camera body. You don't want to take a couple of minutes changing your film, the fireworks will be over before you know it!
  Exposure settings
Set your shutter speed to BULB.
Set your f/stop to the following:
ISO 50 film . . . . . f/5.6 or f/8
ISO 100 film . . . . . f/8 or f/11


Exposure Times
This is where experience really comes into play. A very rough guideline is: the wider the lens is that you are using, the longer the shutter should stay open. Basically if you have a full framed burst the exposure time will be 2 to 6 seconds, capturing several bursts 10 to 30 seconds. This might sound a little ambiguous but there are so many variables that there is no definitive answer. Some displays fire up bursts in rapid succession while others launch one at a time. What is the effect that you are looking for? You can easily overexpose your film by including too many bursts on one frame, as the fireworks overlap one another. If you only have a few bursts and they are small and lost in the frame, then your image will have little impact. With experience you will fine tune your technique and be capturing the effects that you are looking for!