There are many blog posts on the subject of how to best set up your camera to shoot fireworks but I was so surprised at just how well it worked out for me that I thought I’d add mine to the pile. Also I wanted to make sure I remembered what I did right and wrong here for next time I try. You’re going to need three things really:
- A camera that is up to the job. Perhaps surprisingly you don’t need a full SLR for this, but you do need something that will let you manually adjust the aperture, ISO and exposure times. Shooting in RAW is vastly preferably. I was using a Canon Powershot S90.
- A basic tripod. Exposure times will need to be long so you won’t be able to manually hold it steady and you’re shooting upwards so not much other than a tripod will do the job.
- Lots of luck. How much really depends on the fireworks display. The longer it is the more time you’ll have to refine your timing and aim. In my case our display was at home one with just 4 fireworks going off, ridiculously I managed to get the setup pretty much right first time.
The basic setup is straightforward. You want a small aperture, apparently somewhere in the range of f/8 to f/16 is golden, my camera limits at f/8 though so that is what I used. You want a fairly low ISO value too, I shot at 100. In an ideal world you’ll want a camera where you can manually hold the shutter open for however long it takes the firework to fire off. I didn’t have that though so instead I just manually set an exposure of 10 seconds which I figured was a long enough to capture a full rocket. Then set up on the tripod, point in the direction you think the firework will go and hope. Remember that fireworks go quite far and your camera will probably capture a decent area of the sky so chances are you’ll get it in frame, whether it is way off to one side is pretty much luck the first time though.
I was astounded though that the first shot I got was pretty much perfectly framed. I started the exposure on a 3 second timer triggered just after the fuse was lit. This meant the exposure started shortly before the rocket went off. In retrospect it might have been easier to just do a longer exposure, the timer adds an additional variable into the guesswork that is really unnecessary. Still I managed to capture the launch of the rocket and the initial explosion. A longer shot might have captured more of the explosion but then I’m pretty satisfied with what I got. This is after some additional processing (this is where shooting in RAW becomes really important):
Although with no processing at all the shot showed off the firework pretty well I found that when I turned up the fill light something surprising happened. I had been shooting through trees and when the firework went off all the trees got illuminated faintly with the red glow which the camera was able to pick up. It wasn’t just the trees though, rockets let off a lot of smoke as they fly and that too had been illuminated giving the final picture something that almost looked like an aurora. Frankly I’m continually surprised at how much light even my non-SLR camera is picking up and how much Lightroom can make use of it.
The next firework we let off was a Roman candle. These shoot for long bursts so maybe it would have been better to turn down the exposure length some but I wasn’t playing with any settings while I was shooting so my shots got multiple launches and explosions in a single exposure but this still got me a fantastic result. Again pushing up the fill light revealed the trees, looking even more ghostly this time:
The second Roman candle that went off I managed to capture twice. As well as triggering off a 3 second timer I had also set to take 3 consecutive shots. In this case that paid off with two different views of the same firework however for the others it mostly got in the way as it would keep shooting long after the firework was spent and we were waiting to set off the next. It didn’t help that with long exposures my camera has a serious delay between the end of one shot and starting the next making it pretty unlikely the second exposure will be worth much.
Slightly disappointingly I only got a glimpse of the second rocket we set off. For some reason its fuse took longer to burn and so my first shot just caught the streak of its launch but ended before it exploded and due to the delay between shots the second exposure saw nothing. Still technically I managed to capture all four fireworks that we launched and I ended up with four pretty good pictures which for a first attempt I am pretty proud of.
I was at a small personal display which both meant that there were very few chances to get things right and that I didn’t really have any time to look at the result of one shot to adjust my technique for the next. However on the up side there was just a single firework going off at a time, I could watch the fuse being lit and time my shot accordingly and the others were happy to wait between fireworks while my camera stopped taking shots. Considering that at the start I didn’t expect to really get anything I’m really happy with the results. Not sure when I’ll get the chance to try this again but even if I don’t hopefully some others will get some ideas from this.