How to photograph Fireworks

July 03, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Fireworks at KirklandView from heritage park July 4th is just  two days away and it is time to enjoy some fireworks. I have seen that almost every city in and around Seattle has fireworks show on the night of July 4th. When I started learning Photography, fireworks was one of my favorite subjects. I have photographed fireworks in Kirkland Marina for about 4 times in the past. It is one interesting place on the East side of Seattle. I will talk about directions and where to park etc. at the end of this page. Are you ready to photograph the fireworks ?  When we think about photographing a show like this, I like to do it in two different approaches (1) Use a fast shutter speed to get the bursts sharp and crisp (2) Another approach is to use a long exposure to get the light trails of the fire going up and exploding in the air. Let us look at both of these in detail.  What kind of camera and lens you will need ? You can use almost any camera and lens for this, it is a display of lights and that is what any camera can capture for you. I had good results with a 50mm lens in the past. You can use a telephoto lens of a prime lens, it does not matter. The thing that matters is, how close to the fireworks are  you standing. If you are standing close to it, you will need a wide angle lens, if not a prime. You will need a tripod and a remote shutter release. Just in case if you do not have any of these, use self-timer.
Use a fast shutter speed if you want to get just the bursts sharp. Use a high ISO like 800 or higher and set your aperture to F5.6 or wider, if possible.  Turn your camera in aperture priority mode and use auto focus to aim at a burst and just shoot. Voila, you will most likely get a shutter speed of 1/100 or faster, and that is good enough to get a sharp image hand holding the camera. It is display of lights, so sharpness does not really matter much. The image below is an example of such an image. I actually added bursts from  4 different images to create this composite image, to make it more interesting and also to have a symmetric balance.
Fireworks at Kirkland View from heritage park

Photographs taken with faster shutter speeds is loved by many people. I have seen such images in most newspapers I read. I love to use long shutter speed to get the light trails from the time the tartar leaves the ground until it finish a burst in the sky.  Setup your camera on tripod, and use manual exposure, and set the camera to bulb mode.  Set the ISO to 200 and F-stop to F11. Use a cable release or wireless shutter to release  the shutter. Watch the ground or barge from where the rockets go up. Click the shutter when you see a rocket leaving the ground. Watch it till it get to the sky and finish a burst. This may take a few seconds. Click remote again to close the shutter when a burst is finished. If bursts are happening one after another, keep the shutter open for up to 30 seconds or more, so you will have bunch of bursts in the same image. Look at the preview of an image on LCD and see how bright is the foreground. Increase or decrease the ISO accordingly to adjust the brightness of the foreground elements in the image.  Make sure to turn OFF the 'long exposure noise reduction' feature in your camera, if not the camera will spend same time as your exposure to remove the noise generated by the long exposure. The camera is doing a dark frame subtraction, and we lose time to shoot the next burst. The following image was shot at 30 sec, F11, ISO 200.
Fireworks at Kirkland View from heritage park

Focusing at night can be a problem. There are a few options to think about.

(1) If you are standing relatively close to the fireworks, say 100 meters or so, then auto focus is good enough. One of the auto focus points will lock focus on the brightest location in the frame. Some lenses can make this troublesome if it keeps hunting for focus while the bursts create moving light trails fast, and you can lose frames.

(2) Manual focus is the best friend in this situation.  Use the first few seconds after the show starts to find the focus. Set the camera and lens to auto focus mode and  try to focus at a burst. Once focus is locked, when you see the green dot staying still in the view finder, change lens to manual focus. You can shoot in manual focus mode for the rest of the show.

(3) We could try manual focus and setup the lens before the show starts. Find a bright object where the fireworks is setup, like  a street light or a boat. You can find police boats patrolling in the waters if you are  in Kirkland. Use live view and do manual focus on the bright object. Take a picture and test sharpness using the LCD. Once you have found the focus, then you need to lock the focus ring of the lens do that you do not change it accidentally. I use a tape to secure the manual focus ring so that it does not move until you remove the take. If your lens has a distance scale on it, then you can mostly remember the location on the lens, so no need to tape it. Focusing at infinity can help if the bursts are far away from you, not a good idea if you are standing close to the fireworks.

 

Where to photograph fireworks in Kirkland, on July 4th ?  The Heritage park in Kirkland is one good place to see the fireworks in Kirkland.  You may have to reach there around 6 pm to find a good spot to  setup your tripod. I generally park on the road side near Waverly park, and walk for 1/4 of a mile to the marina or Heritage park. It is easier to walk back to the car and drive away without getting stuck on traffic on the main streets in the city. Fireworks displays are generally short, it happens for only about 15-20 minutes. Shoot fast, apply what ever method you use effectively and fast enough so that you get some keeper images at the end. If you have any questions on the topics discussed in this blog, send me a message, and I will be more than happy to answer them.  Hope you will find time to photograph fireworks on July 4th this time, happy shooting.
Fireworks at Kirkland View from heritage park


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