Photographing Fireworks-Dare to be Different

When I first fell in love with photography all over again a few years ago…like most people, I was eager to take pictures of anything and everything.  So when the 4th of July rolled around that first summer after purchasing my DSLR camera, I was anxious to see what I could capture at the fireworks show.

One learns early on there are some basic ‘text book’ settings to use when attempting to successfully take pictures of the vibrant bursts that explode overhead, whether you are in your backyard, a  city park, or even at a major national fireworks show like in NYC or the nation’s capital.

Those prescribed settings would involve shooting at a low ISO 100-200,  You would want your camera mounted on a sturdy tripod since your shutter speed settings will range from 10-15 seconds.  And the range of aperture can be anywhere from maybe 5.6- f-11 or higher, depending on the distance from which you are shooting and if you are capturing single rocket bursts or the ‘grand finale’.  It also is advised to set your focus to manual and just dial it in to infinity.  Some might even suggest the Bulb setting to control the length of your open shutter but you need a wireless remote for that. And for sure you will want to use a wide angle lens.

My first attempt was not bad at all.  In fact, it really isn’t as hard as you might imagine.  So when the second year rolled around…it was somewhat anti-climatic.  Same fireworks…same settings…same results.

So over time, I’ve learned that whether it was fireworks or lightning shots from storms, once you figure out how to capture such events, you feel a need to try something different.  It’s nice when you can set the shots up where you have something in your foreground to give depth or context to the pictures…be it a familiar landmark…a tree or church steeple…maybe kids or people admiring the display.  Living here in Paris, TX, I was thrilled one year when the location of the show was changed up and they launched the rockets from behind our  beloved and familiar ‘Eiffel’ tower with the big red cowboy had on top.  I knew the potential for some classic photos were imminent.  And I was not disappointed.  In fact after the show was complete, even before I edited the images I knew down inside it would be hard to ever get better results at any future show….at least here in town. To this day, they are some of my favorite firework pics.

Since acquiring a drone capable of both still shots and video, I have dabbled some with flying above the show with less than favorable results.  Video is just another whole beast that I’m still trying to figure out.  But last year, I did attempt to fly my drone and take some still pictures when the display returned to his traditional location where nothing of interest could be captured in the foreground.  The pics were ok…but to me, just ‘fireworks’ from afar.

This year I was debating whether to even set my camera up when it occurred to me that shooting the show from directly underneath where they were launched might prove to be an interesting perspective.  Thankfully I was given access and set up just 30 yards from ‘mission control.’  My plan was to set up my camera on a tripod with a wide angle lens, use my wireless remote with the ‘text book’ settings.  But I also thought I might get some interesting shots of the ground crew firing off the shells at ground level.  I used my 70-200 lens so as to keep a safe distance and figuring it would not be as bright on the ground, I cranked my ISO up to 5000.

Once the show began, I was triggering my mounted camera off with shutter speed at 10-13 seconds…adjusting the f-stop occasionally form 8.0-16.0  For the most part, there was little light available on the ground so with my other camera, I just found myself pointing upward and shooting off frames of the burst above me. I also had the auto-focus set on AI-servo. (For Nikon users, that would be AF-C) I could tell I was capturing images I was not familiar with seeing before. Ironically, every setting I was using was opposite of the ones I listed above.  Telephoto lens vs wide angle – High ISO vs low.  Aperture was at 4.0 and I was handholding the camera and firing off multiple frames.  As you can see from many of these shots from this past show (7/3/17) the results were unlike any firework pictures I have ever taken.  Even if you can’t get that close-up, you might try a longer telephoto lens with settings similar to what I shot last night.

Have fun with it…don’t stop experimenting and ‘keep on clicking.