I have had a few people ask me to spill some of my secrets about shooting fireworks after seeing my Bastille Day images, so I thought I would divulge my expertise to help you get the best from your fireworks shots wherever in the world you may be celebrating. It is not an exact science, as every display is different, and even within the same show things will change, but I will set down the foundations from where you can start to play.
I do not like being overly gear crazy as you can often shoot much more with a camera than you think, but you will need to have at least a camera with manual settings and a tripod. A cable release is not strictly necessary but comes in very handy as it helps you capture exactly what you want, for how long you want, when you want. You will not need one with bells and whistles; the simplest one will suffice. You are going to be there for an extended period of time, so a bottle of water, a torch, and a flask of whisky will aid you; the latter two particularly after nightfall.
Get there early
This is easily the simplest, and best piece of advice I can give. You want to get a clear, unobstructed view from the best position possible. Getting as much information about the location and height of the fireworks, identifying any problems that might block your shot (especially other people and their cameras or phones) will serve you well. I usually try to arrive four or five hours early to secure a location. Tripods and picnic blankets are useful devices to help you guard your spot on the night.
Settings setting setting
We need to think about ISO, shutter and aperture a little differently than during regular shooting. In a nutshell, aperture regulates the intensity of the explosions, shutter controls the number of fireworks in one shot, and ISO monitors the background elements.
Imagine a black sky, with no foreground or background, just one single explosion. If we shoot it at one second, or 10 seconds, with the aperture the same, we would get the same image. For when there are no fireworks in the sky, and with no other sources of light, we could hold our shot open for an hour, and it will still look the same. Where as aperture will control the intensity, making the light more or less intense. A good starting point is ƒ/8. If the fireworks are massive bright booms, you might want to close down to ƒ/11 or ƒ/16. For lower intensity fireworks, such as the fizzlers, open up to the aperture to ƒ/5.6 or even ƒ/4.
With your aperture set, we can start playing around with the duration of the shot. The longer the shutter is open, the more fireworks you will collect in one single image. To isolate one explosion, we want something shorter. I find 4 seconds to be a good base and I will go down to 2 or 1 second for a quick shot, or up to 8 or 12 seconds for an extensive collection of fireworks. As described above it will not affect the intensity of the fireworks, only the duration, but if you have a background, it will make this lighter and darker, which brings me to...
Fireworks are bright, so an ISO of 100 or 200 is a good base. If you have a background, aperture and shutter will affect it, but to make things simple, we will look at ISO as the regulator of background exposure. If your background is too dark and you are shooting with a short shutter, increase the ISO. Too bright on longer collections? Then drop it back down.
As you can see, I usually give myself a two stop leeway from my base. If we are a little under or over exposed, you can usually salvage that in post, but we still want to get everything in camera as close as possible to the final shot. When you start changing settings, I recommend only changing either aperture, shutter or ISO individually from each other before taking the next shot. This way you do not over complicate things.
Do not capture too much, but do not cut a sequence half way through, this is where the cable release is king. There are some sequences where fireworks are launched from the side of the Eiffel Tower from top to bottom in quarter second intervals. They will not look that interesting if we only catch half of them, so we wanted to start the shot just before the sequence if we can predict it, and most importantly hold the shot open until it completes its series. By shooting in bulb mode with a cable release, we can press the trigger at the start, and hold it down as long as we need to get the shot, ending it just after it completes and before a new sequence busies up our sky.
When the fireworks are triggered, they produce smoke which can linger and muddle the scene, notably if there is not any wind. So I do not mean to unnerve you, but your best opportunities are going to be at the start of the show.
When you have stood around for hours, it can be difficult to justify to unsuspecting opportunists, who came at the last minute, that the breathing space around you was not specially reserved for their foot. Be firm, within reason; you do not want to be the grumpy pants in the middle of a celebration. Make sure your tripod legs remain child free otherwise you will be pulling your hair out when you come to review the wobbles in your images. If you are by a ledge, consider compacting one or two of your legs and putting them up on the ledge, so only the remaining leg is left perilously in danger of children's oblivion.
Play around, and don't just shoot the same shot 100 times over the evening. Get some tight shots, get some wide shots, get shots of people watching fireworks, their joyous faces illuminated by a thousand sparkling lights in the sky. Moreover, do not forget to enjoy the spectacle yourself. It is easy to get panicked and consumed by numbers and clicks, but the more relaxed you are, the better you will feel, and your images should reflect this. I hope you enjoyed my tips, and I wish you the very best for the next occasion you get to shoot some fireworks.
Alexander J.E. Bradley and Aperture Tours will host a Bastille Day Fireworks Workshop special in 2019, come join us for a picnic and some of the best fireworks display Europe has to offer. Small group, one night only. Booking at our Bastille Day Special page.
Author : Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.