How to photograph Fireworks!

how to photograph fireworks philadelphia fireworks
I absolutely love Philadelphia… love living here, love all there is to do, love the history. There’s something truly special about celebrating America’s birthday in America’s birthplace. The big firework celebration around here is at the Art Museum with the largest free concert ! I’ve spent many a 4th of July here with The Beach Boys, Garth Brooks, Elton John…you name it.

Yesterday was an extra special 4th for two reasons. It was the first time I was able to do this with my family…which was pretty fantastic. It was also the first time I photographed fireworks! Well, at least on something other than an iPhone.

That brings me to the real reason for this post. I wanted to share what I learned about photographing fireworks.

1. Bring all the right gear – The first thing you’ll need is a camera that has a manual setting. I love my Nikon d700. Bring a few different lenses. You might not know what you need until you get there. My 50mm f/1.4 RARELY leaves my camera. I love how sharp it is. But last night, I needed a wider lens. In hind sight, I wish I had brought my 70-300mm as well. When we first got there, we had lots of time and Boathouse Row looked AH-mazing decked out in red, white and blue lights. My 50mm was just to far away and silly me had packed light for the trip, so the 70-300mm was at home on the coffee table. I don’t use that lens often (outside of Africa), but when I need it, I’m always glad to have that reach.
Okay, back to gear. You MUST take a tripod. Trust me. Tripod. Now, I think I have the world’s crappiest tripod. Nope, mine is worse. It is the kit tripod that came with my first camera…Nikon d5000. It was so pretty and I was so excited to get the freebie. But I have now accepted that it is a piece of crap. Why does this matter? Whenever I do night photography (which I love doing), I’m always super panicked that it’s going to fall over. I stand on one side and I make hubby stand on the other “just in case”. Hopefully he’ll pick up on my hints soon that I need a sturdier one.
The last thing I think you must have is a remote release. You don’t want ANY camera shake, so it’s super helpful. You can find them cheap on Amazon. That being said,  wish I had paid the extra $10 for the wireless version. Maybe then I could be in some family photos!

2. Get there early to scout –  The main viewing area at a fireworks show is way too crowded for the shots I’m interested in. We went earlier in the day to scout out a good location that would be enough out of the way so there weren’t huge crowds. Make sure you ask exactly where they are shooting fireworks off from. You may have to ask the people working the event. Here’s why:
Soooooo… Fireworks over the Art Museum. GORGEOUS! So excited! Got there early. Got a great spot. Set up my frame with the Art Museum, plenty of room above for fireworks, a little bit of the river down below for a nice touch. And then the fireworks went off about a quarter mile to the left of that. Whoops! While it looked to the people in the main area like fireworks were over the Art Museum, those of us on the side of the Art Museum figured out the illusion. So there was some quick camera and tripod adjustments. Now…had I asked someone where EXACTLY the fireworks were going to be set off, I would have known that my location wasn’t going to work for the image I wanted.
After you find out where exactly the fireworks will be, start scouting your spot. Get your camera out, look at the framing. Once you found your spot, KEEP LOOKING! If you can, leave a husband, wife, friend, small child (kidding) to save that first spot. Don’t let yourself find a spot, say good, and stop looking. Sometimes there’s an even better spot 200ft further.
Now it’s time to set up your gear!
Here is a SUPER GRAINY-non-flash-iPhone picture of my setup.

how to photograph fireworks

3. Settings – Okay, so there really is no right or wrong here. There are however some general guidelines that will help. First of all, shoot in manual. That’s true for always, but especially for fireworks. I set my shutter speed to bulb mode so I can hold the shutter open as long as necessary (using my remote release of course). I started my aperture at around f8. As the show progressed, I got smaller and smaller. I played between f8 and f22, but I found that f16 was my sweet spot. I took mine off AutoFocus and manual focused the first few. With that aperture, it should be fine.
In terms of how long to leave the lens open for…it really depends on the fireworks and your style. Do you like sharp bursts seeing each individual flame, or do you like more of a “star trail” look? Are the fireworks super bright or not so much? Are your fireworks close or far away? Once the show starts, it’s really about playing to see what works. Our fireworks were SO close so I didn’t really need to leave the shutter open that long. For the dimmer fireworks, I left it open about 3-4 seconds, and got a bit of a firework trail look. For the brighter fireworks, I didn’t even hold it down, just a quick click. The most important thing is to just play and have fun with it! I was sure when the show was done, I had nothing. But I wound up with a couple images I’m happy with. Happy photographing peeps!

Here’s a couple more shots from last night!

how to photograph fireworks

how to photograph fireworks

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